It’s the Business Model. Not the Readership.

As Gourmet Magazine’s closing sinks in, I’m again struck by the challenges facing print publishers as they work to transform their business to a more digital future.  There are some key pivot points that need to be addressed and the successful cross platform publishers navigate these pivot points much better than the typical print or broadcast publisher working to put digital at the center of its business.  They are:

Reader to page views: Print monetizes readers (subscribers plus newsstand.)  Digital typically sells page views.  While a site with more unique visitors matching a particular target will fare better than a smaller site, the true way to deliver on your obligations to an advertiser is through page views.

Engagement: A digital business needs to earn page views on an hourly basis.  A loyal reader must return when you need them. A healthy print operation gets paid for engagement in advance.  That engagement is a subscription or purchase of an issue at a newsstand.  What does this mean?  Online publishers need to earn their paycheck on a continual basis rather than on a sporadic basis.  That leads me to the next fundamental difference – how you get paid.

Content is not directly related to sales: The first thing a print publisher does when sales are weak is cut the folio.  If sales are stronger than expected you add a folio.  There are other levers available (ad to edit ratio being the primary one) but the layout and editorial planning for a print publication is directly correlated to the ad space sold for that issue.  In other words, content costs are connected to sales.  Content is expensive.  In digital, there is no direct connection between content and sales.  Most publishers will see increased page views when they increase content production but the content production is divorced from sales.  A successful digital publisher finds a way to monetize what they produce (or some profitable %) rather than make what they sell.

And vs. Or: Digital is a frictionless medium.  I can go from site to site with very little effort.  In print, most readers made choices and content consumption is limited based on those choices.  I choose Gourmet OR Bon Appétit.  I choose Time or Newsweek.  In digital there is no choice necessary.  Publishers need to grab more time rather than a reader over another reader.

I don’t mean to suggest that print publishing is easy or that print publishers don’t “get” digital.  I simply suggest that the dynamics of the two platforms aren’t readily discussed.  What’s more, the surprise over Gourmet’s closing and the many misinformed tirades that appeared following the announcement miss the fundamental business model challenge for successful print (and broadcast) media organizations.

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