Publishing’s real problem

I learned much of what I know about magazine publishing while at Time Inc., where I spent 12 years working on three of the company’s four weeklies. Along with Conde Nast, Time Inc. has long been seen as more than willing to spend money on content. In return, the companies gained audiences and advertising revenues greater than any other firms.

Without focusing unduly on the magazine industry’s most visible players, it’s clear that the days of building outsize circulation levels and charging advertisers boatloads of money for a print ad are coming to close. In response, a host of magazine publishers have been “right-sizing”, reducing their ability to fund content development so that they can “get their cost structures in line with new fiscal realities”.

Some phrases make me sheepish about my MBA.

The debate has taken on the tone of a beer commercial: “Less filling,” say publishers. “We need to cut costs to stay afloat.”

“Tastes great,” say editors. “Without access to premium content, readers won’t keep coming back.”

Both sides miss the core point: the problem is not that content costs too much, but that it is too narrowly deployed. Fifteen years into the internet era, we still treat the magazine as “content” and other applications as “ancillary uses”. We develop content for a single use and only after it is published (often, long after it is published) do we ask, “What else might we do with this?”

We debate structure (writing for print alone, selling for print alone or combining functions) without thinking through the uses of content. Readers really don’t care how a media company is organized. They want to be able to find and consume content wherever, whenever and however it can be obtained.

Editors have been slow to see that their new roles, they need to think not just about what is to be published, but how that content will be discovered and consumed. Publishers taken with ad rates of old struggle with the idea that selling more while charging less can work, albeit not with expense-account lunches and great golf outings.

Already out of date: media models that focus on reducing the cost of providing content in narrow channels. Think instead about investing in and gaining the revenue benefits of more robust models built around content agility.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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