Teaching Readers to Devalue Content

Writing on the MediaWorks channel on the Advertising Age blog, Nat Ives recently compared single-copy sales in the Canadian and U.S. markets.

The most recent data (second-half 2011) showed U.S. single-copy sales down 10%, while Canadian sales dropped 2.4%. Ives uses recent sales comparisons to bolster an argument that “long-term reader demand is only part of the problem“.

It’s true; the Canadian economy isn’t as depressed as the U.S. economy. A bad economy certainly isn’t good for impulse purchases.

But (as Ives points out), aggregate single-copy sales in the U.S. have not increased in years. That’s a trend that covers a period of booms as well as busts. It also predates the iPad.

If reader demand is only “part” of the problem, it’s a big part. Every print vertical faces competition from the web as well as cable television, which has splintered into hundreds of special-interest channels.

Publishers have also dug a deep hole of their own. In the U.S., at least, you can buy a subscription for little more than the price of one or two single-copy purchases.

We’ve all received offers for something like “86% off!” if you subscribe. Publishers give those discounts because they want to keep rate bases where they are.

Along the way, “reader demand” has devolved into a proxy for “anyone who pays“. In a rate base world, that’s reality.

But don’t fool yourself into thinking that people who try a subscription for $5 will become single-copy buyers when the economy improves. We’ve taught a generation of readers to devalue content, and we’re still at it.

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.