By: Sarah Green
I’m waiting for all the headlines about what a great time it is to be in the media business. After all, in a single minute, viewers on YouTube watch 100 hours of video— a 233 percent increase since last year. The number of devices people use to “consume content” — the anodyne catchall term we use to describe reading, watching, and listening—is also surging: a report by Cisco suggested that by the end of this year, the world would contain more mobile devices than people, devices that are increasingly used to find and share information and less used to make actual phone calls to loved ones. Speaking of which, we love content so much that we now spend more time looking at our phones than at our partners. Overall, our time spent taking in information is on the rise. In 2010, the average American spent 10 hours and 46 minutes a day consuming content; by 2013, that number had risen to 12 hours and 5 minutes.
And yet most coverage of the media industry is elegiac—a lament for the days of print. So even when the news is good, the headlines are bad.
Take the recent column by David Carr in the New York Times on New York magazine, a perfect example of a needlessly dismayed reaction to an industry in transition. In it, you learn:
- That New York is changing from 42 issues a year to 29 issues a year.
- That no layoffs are planned.
- That 15 new people will be hired on the digital side.
- That nymag.com grew its traffic 19 percent in the last 8 months.
- That The Cut, nymag.com’s successful fashion vertical, will be integrated into the revamped magazine.
- That digital revenues have been growing 15 percent year over year, and will surpass print ad revenue in 2014.
- That print revenues have declined, with the magazine 9.2 percent down in ad pages since last year.
- That the website gets 9 million unique visitors per month while the print magazine has a circulation of 400,000.
- That it was named “Magazine of the Year” in 2013 by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
Faced with this information, a commentary I’d have written might have started thus:
New York magazine is continuing its successful ride. Online ad sales are growing at a double-digit pace, the digital side is hiring 15 new people, and its online spinoff, The Cut, has become so popular it will be integrated into a revamped print magazine launching in March. The retooled print offering will have 13 fewer issues a year, but despite this decrease in frequency, no layoffs are planned. The magazine won the prestigious ASME “Magazine of the Year” award in 2013—sometimes called the “Best Picture” award for magazines, in a nod to the Oscars.
In comparison, here is how Carr started his piece:
“Since its founding in 1968, New York magazine has served as a prototype of literate, high-tempo publishing, using its weekly cadence and location in one of the world’s cultural capitals to usher in a new, more intimate and frank approach to what a publication could be.”
Now, this magazine that has been at the vanguard of Manhattan publishing for almost five decades is acknowledging that the cutting edge is not necessarily a lucrative or sustainable proposition, at least on the same schedule.
I would venture to suggest that perhaps the cutting edge is now online, where New York’s website rules more than just the eponymous city.
But instead, Carr treats the story as if print’s primacy over digital is a mathematical truth, such that when print<digital, the result=bad. Using words like “dreary” and “lost,” Carr laments New York’s “retreat” as “the end of an era,” confessing to “misty” eyes before recapping the struggles of Newsweek, a magazine that resembles New York only in the way that the Hindenburg looks kind of like the Goodyear blimp. Same shape, very different stuff inside.
I was reminded of how last year, Encyclopaedia Britannica received similarly negative press for announcing the end of their print encyclopedias. But those faux-leather volumes were just 1 percent of their business by the time they killed the product. As Jorge Cauz, Britannica’s president, wrote in Harvard Business Review, “Commentators intimated that we had ‘yielded’ to the internet. In fact, the internet enabled us to reinvent ourselves and open new channels of business.” Similarly, it sounds like New York is now in a position to divest from a declining business and invest in a new growth engine. All businesses should be so lucky.
There is a problem, of course, in the media landscape, but it’s not with reader habits—where so much of the sturm und drang of industry commentary often focuses. It’s with advertiser habits. In the past, publishers charged dollars for print—today they have so far only charged dimes for digital. This does not make sense to me: It’s the same brand. It’s the same content. It’s more convenient delivery and more customizable, too. And now advertisers can also track how effective their creative is! With all of these improvements, a digital ad should actually be worth more to an advertiser than a print ad. After all, ad men in Don Draper’s day never knew how many people skipped over their zingy slogans and catchy fonts; today, technology makes it obvious. But rather than blaming their bad ads, they blame the technology and ask for a discount. That is a challenge for publishers, but let’s be clear: the challenge is not fickle consumers, the latest mobile game, or that “kids today don’t read.” (They do.) The challenge is finding new business strategies that make money off of our ever-less satiable appetite for content.
Publishing today is a thriving, dynamic industry—one that is changing rapidly. As in many rapidly changing industries, the right business moves are not obvious. But the move to digital should not automatically be greeted as bad news. In fact, it’s often good news—it means the business is adapting.
So media critics should leave their sad trombones at home. Consumers are not spending less time on media. If anything, we’re in danger of becoming giant brains with only eyeballs and thumbs and tiny vestigial legs no longer strong enough to hoist our forgotten bodies off the couch. That is bad news for our waistlines, but very good news for publishers.
This article was originally published by Harvard Business Review on HBR.org (http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/12/publishers-stop-crying-over-spilled-ink/). Sarah Green is Senior Associate Editor at Harvard Business Review. She can be reached at [email protected].