So Sorry About Newsweek, But Print Isn’t Dead…Yet

We were greeted today by the sad but inevitable report that Newsweek will cease to be a print publication. Sad because Newsweek was once a terrific magazine (I was a big fan in the 1980s and ’90s). Inevitable not because all print magazines are doomed, but because Newsweek panicked and remade itself into something that wasn’t anything like Newsweek, killing its own brand. Doh!

All print magazines are not doomed. Just certain kinds. Well, and Newsweek would’ve been one of them sooner or later. But still…

There are two a pretty simple lines of demarcation. This is important for brands to consider if they want to get into publishing.

The first is between text magazines and designed magazines.  Text magazines are typically newsy magazines — Time, Newsweek, The Economist, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The New Yorker. As I wrote in the previous post about books, we’re getting used to reading long-form text on electronic devices. Now that that’s happening, there’s almost no good argument for reading on paper — unless you’re someone who just doesn’t want to read on a device, the way some people don’t want to floss their teeth.

Designed magazines are something else entirely. They are, at their best, beautiful packaged experiences. Think of a great issue of Conde Nast Traveler, or Vogue, or even New York Magazine (which seems to be thriving). Yes, you can do all of these very nicely on an iPad. But great designed magazines take advantage of the medium of print in a way that many readers still find more pleasing than the iPad experience. The print publication does something the iPad can’t quite duplicate — it creates a cover-to-cover experience rich in context. And it’s an artifact that you can leave on a coffee table and share or return to again.

For however long print can do this better than devices, print will have a reason for being. And here’s a minor proof point: My old colleague, George Quraishi, co-founded a new print magazine about soccer, called Howler. (I have a story in the first issue.) There was no way a soccer magazine that looked like Sports Illustrated would succeed. Howler had to be a designed magazine — and it is in fact a beautiful, large-format eye-feast. If you’re going to start a print magazine these days, this is how to do it.

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So, what’s the other line of demarcation? An obvious one: age.

Anyone over about 40 grew up reading magazines. And you know what? They still like a good magazine. And you know what else? They are going to be around for another 20, 30, 40 years. Baby Boomers alone number about 80 million. Not a bad audience to play to.

That’s the good news.

The bad news: People who grow up reading devices are not going to embrace print. At a recent magazine industry conference, Dr. Jeffery Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, gave this blunt assessment about the future of print publications: “Every time one of their readers dies, they’re not being replaced by a new reader.”

Brands are creating content, and a surprising number publish some kind of print magazine. If I’m right about these demarcations, then the dumbest thing a brand could do would be to publish a text-heavy print magazine aimed at younger readers. That’s the worst quadrant to be in. If you have to publish text for younger generations, put it on the web or in an app, but not on paper.

However, there’s still a sweet spot in the quadrant where designed magazines meet 40-plus readers. It’s a big audience and one that tends to have lots of money. Probably worth considering. Yes, create a digital version that lives alongside the magazine. But the print product could win you some brand love.

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