Magazine Publishing: The End is Near?Have you heard? According to the powers that be in the media industry and the harbingers of all the digital wonder that awaits us in the Apple Store around the corner, print has officially been declared dead. That’s right — you heard me. Print magazines, our tried-and-true, curl-up-on-the-couch companions have gone the way of the dodo.

Or so it would seem.

Reading the headlines lately, from news outlets and bloggers alike, I’ve been simply blown away at how many stories and posts have been written about the current state of the magazine publishing industry. And most seem to point to one supposedly inevitable conclusion: that, yes, print is pushing up daisies. And iPad and friends, the slick, dazzling newcomers on the scene? They’ll be taking over.

Proclamations like that from the technology sector, which usually come from those who stand to make a pretty penny by selling you the next best gadget ever, really make me chuckle. After all, didn’t Bill Gates, among other prognosticators, promise us a “paperless office” way back when? How long ago was that: 20 years? 30? More? (According to this source, the vision for paper-free workflow actually came sometime in the mid-70s. That’s right — pre-disco.)

I think we all know how that has turned out.

I don’t mean to be a naysayer here, but I can’t help but think that all the attention paid to the dismantling of the print magazine industry lately is a tad overblown. I admit that I haven’t completely thought this through yet, but I feel compelled to bring up a few points for our readers to toss around:

1. Industry-wide decline — or consolidation? It’s no secret that the global economy is still struggling to recover from the worst economic crisis since (in the U.S.) the Great Depression. Yes, magazines have been having a tough time of it — but so has just about every industry. Mags are largely a discretionary expense, so why is the industry necessarily headed for doom just because of the downturn? From personal experience, I haven’t been very enthused about plunking down five bucks at a newsstand the last few years — there’s just too much to do these days, budgets are tight, and leisure reading hasn’t been much of a priority.

Perhaps, rather than the worst-case scenario, there have just been too many titles on the market (i.e., too much supply and not enough demand), and this rough patch is just part of the typical consolidation phase that comes with cyclical economic activity. Airlines have had some difficult years lately, but surely that doesn’t mean the end of air transportation — instead, airlines have been merging/consolidating to adapt. Retailers likewise have been grinding it out trying to stay afloat, with consumers reluctant to spend. But that doesn’t mean the end of shopping malls everywhere (heaven forbid); rather, retail chains have closed unprofitable stores and consolidated their operations to adapt to the circumstances. And according to the official press release for the “Magazines: The Power of Print” campaign launched last year, “Magazine readership has risen 4.3% over the past five years (Source: MRI Fall 2009, Fall 2005 data).” With the economy apparently (slowly) on the upswing, perhaps we should wait a bit to see how readership responds before jumping to dire, industry-wide conclusions.

2. Oh, the gadget hype. Every single day, scads of news stories cover the iPad and its many emerging competitors in the tablet wars. Why? Because tablets are new. They’re cool. They’re gadgets (and we know how some people love their gadgets). And where mag apps are all the rage in news stories — the tasty, bleeding edge of data consumption — print magazines are, well, the staples. There’s not much new to get excited about where print is concerned. All the attention is on the new kid.

But for all their hyping, are tablet mags really worth it?

Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch posted a great article recently on just how mediocre the initial efforts at porting print magazine content to the iPad have been to date, in which he makes an excellent point:

Despite the poor reviews and uninspiring number of downloads, media companies sold millions of dollars worth of advertising last year for their iPad apps because advertisers want to be associated with anything shiny and new. Make no mistake: advertising dollars are driving media companies to embrace the iPad, not readers.

Dead on. Reading his post made me stop and think: Does anyone, short of those who stand to profit and those who adore technology for its own sake, really even want magazines to make the jump to digital? And is it even legitimate to call something a “magazine” if it’s taken out of the print medium and crammed (thus far without much finesse) into a disappointingly small screen — for which it was never designed?

As a print magazine enthusiast, I’ve never really understood what all the fuss over the iPad is. When they debuted in 2010, iPads were a novelty and even, I’ll admit it, kind of neat. But let’s be frank: They’re a lousy tool for displaying magazine content — I don’t care how cool or innovative they are in other ways, for other purposes. I’m sure they add value and flair to any number of different tasks, but displaying print mags isn’t one of them. I think there’s a sizable minority of gadget aficionados out there (I know several) who will stand in long lines whenever the new iPhone, iPad or iWhatever comes out — who will, like advertisers may be doing now, chase after the shiniest new gizmo on the shelf. But with regard to magazines, is tablet mania really pointing to the future of publishing, or is this trend toward moving mags online just the ugly, uninspired sister of all the other genuinely cool things tablets can do?

The iPad does a lot of things really well, and it’s a well-crafted new way to interact with information. But that thing I just downloaded isn’t like any magazine I know. It’s klunky. It’s awkward. It takes too long to download. It requires too much zooming in and out. It’s just plain too much work. What, exactly, makes this a better experience than the print version? Anyone? No, this isn’t a magazine — this is technology run amok. This is Frankenzine. What a mess.

3. Look at the numbers. Clearly I’m not alone in being underwhelmed. Magazine sales on the iPad are weak — and sliding. True, the tablet magazine newsstand concept hasn’t really been worked out yet, and Apple is still wrangling with publishers over who controls what. But are those really the core issues? Or is this just a case of a technology looking for another reason to justify its own existence? Ultimately consumers will decide, but I truly can’t imagine that any magazine in a format close to its print edition would be a good fit for tablets. If print mags are struggling and trying to peddle their content in other formats, can’t that already be achieved via a plain old website with a paywall? Publishers trying to recreate the print experience on the tablet have a long, long way to go. And those magazines grasping at the iPad like a life preserver better have a backup plan.

Oh, and P.S.: (via Gizmodo) “According to an 88-page report about the future of tablets by RBC analyst Mike Abramsky, only 0.3% of this planet’s inhabitants had tablets by the end of 2010. The other 99.7% didn’t seem to care about purchasing one of those gadgets.”


So why all the overblown coverage of magazine industry doom? Is print really dying? Or is it just one more industry trying to make it through tough times? I’m very leery of any talk that the arising of one medium causes the death of another. The newcomer may challenge the old guard and force it to adapt, but seldom has a medium truly succumbed to another. When was the last time that actually happened — when the telephone forced the telegraph into obsolescence?

Magazines are under stress, to be sure, but I’d bet the current cycle is, as happens in all industries, just a consolidation phase that will weed out the weaker players and yield a healthier whole. But that’s a long way from any kind of suggestion that print is doomed. If magazines continue to create unique, compelling content, the readers will come back. But until the tablet/app industry can come up with something that faithfully approximates the magazine reading experience, I’m not buying the hype.

More on this topic to come, so stay tuned.