Digital Winds of Change Blowing Publishers Away as Profitable Landfall Remains Uncertain

July 20, 2010 at 8:07 pm 12 comments

By Chris Scott

As magazine publishers race to remain relevant to readers and advertisers alike, the jury is still out as to whether the various forays into digital-only waters will prove to be the salvation these publishers seek.

It’s only been nine months since Conde Nast abruptly shut down Gourmet magazine. And now the magazine publishing giant unveiled a slate of apps that revived that brand, among other titles, in pure digital form. The Gourmet Live app, first announced in June 2010, gives users access to the magazine’s voluminous database of articles, but also offers interactive opportunities to access new content, buy premium app-only content and incorporate social sharing technology. Gourmet Live will debut sometime in the fourth quarter, about one year after Conde Nast launched an app for its GQ men’s magazine to go along with its fee-based WIRED magazine app for the iPad, which launched in June.

Meanwhile, print titles are dipping a toe deeper into the digital pool. New York-based website developer and design specialist The Wonder Factory teamed up with Google and Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated magazine this spring to introduce a prototype digital magazine based on HTML5. (Tech-savvy readers will remember that this is the platform that Steve Jobs claimed makes Adobe Flash obsolete for use in Apple’s line of digital hardware products like the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, sparking a war of words with the software developer.) The demo features video that accompanies specific articles and page navigation that should entertain even the most jaded reader of paper-based magazines.

But the real issue here isn’t the technological advances or the “coolness” of these steps being taken by desperate publishers. With the profit paradigm changing nearly every day, the question is “How can these publishing firms make money as readers (and advertisers) abandon printed products?” And although general magazine readership rose eight percent in the last 10 years, circulation of magazines and newspapers continue to decline as whatever readers are left visit the Web for their access to information that used to come solely from print.

So far, The Wall Street Journal is one of the rare newspapers to make any money from its online version of its flagship product thanks to a subscription model that works for its business-focused audience. It will be interesting to see whether The New York Times, which abandoned its TimesSelect subscription service in 2007, will be able to retain the people who currently read its free content when they’re asked to pay for it sometime next year.

Ironically, a recent Times article pointed out that publishers continue to try and learn how to best present their wares online, especially when it comes to creating the viral buzz through social media. Hearst Publishing, in fact has launched a massive social networking push for its Seventeen magazine that aims to attract girls away from Facebook and other online social networks. Hearst hopes to better compete with other online magazines effort by redesigning to also offer more gossip and celebrity news along with its print features.

So it looks like there’s still a long way to go from the days of “Take a look at this article” by passing the print version it to your spouse or co-worker to “Just Tweet this Time magazine article through its iPad app.” (It can’t currently be done, Time admits.) But the “test-and-learn” approach may be only way for publishers to ultimately figure out how to win the war for reader and advertiser attention in the digital battlefield.

Entry filed under: New/Social Media, Trends. Tags: , , , .

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