The transition from horse and carriage to motorcars killed the market for buggy whips. It’s the classic – probably clichéd – example of how shifts in technology can send industries into decline. The story told in my family is that ostrich feathers went the same way because elaborate, feathered hats didn’t fit into cars as well as they did into carriages (my great-grandfather made a fortune farming ostriches; sadly none of it reached me).
In time, the printed media industry will provide many case studies of businesses that went the way of the buggy whip, but it could as easily yield examples of brilliant adaptation to shifts in technology.
The first revenue stream to take a pounding from the Internet was classified advertising in newspapers. Websites are free, searchable and just do an all-round better job. But it’s also in their mainstream content that newspapers have been nailed. With a variety of online sources we can curate our own news service, and get it well before newspaper sub-editors have even started thinking about clever headlines.
For many of the same reasons, magazines are also having a tough time of it. Plus, they have new competitors for their advertisers’ budgets as brand owners chase eyeballs on the Internet.
OK, so it’s not as if they haven’t tried. Every printed publication has a website, which in most cases represents a huge investment. The problem is this: no-one has any idea how to convert the web presence into profit. The two main reasons, I’m assuming, are that Internet users are used to consuming content for free, and the title’s website is not the main focus of the business.
Having dabbled with an Android tablet, I was given an iPad for my birthday (iPad is much better, in every respect). So, I’ve made a pretty serious effort to buy tablet subscriptions to my favourite magazines and newspapers. I really have tried very, very hard.
The most surprising of the lot was Fast Company, which I admire for its championing of the most innovative – and environmentally friendly – stuff in technology and business. If any magazine is going to have an app for tablets, surely Fast Company would be top of the pile? They didn’t even bother to reply to emails sent via the ‘contact’ function on their website, and if they do – indeed – offer an electronic subscription, they do a fabulous job of keeping it a secret.
Fortune magazine offers its content on iPad to US print subscribers, but not elsewhere. They, also, did not respond to my email to their customer service department. In any case, the point was to avoid the printed version altogether.
The reasons why I want tablet subscriptions are pretty straightforward. Firstly, I don’t need to wait for postal delivery (costly if it’s airmail). Secondly, why deplete resources (and poison the environment) by manufacturing paper, printing on it, and then transporting it halfway around the world? Finally, the magazine delivered to my tablet represents a zero variable cost to the publisher, which is a benefit I’ll happily share with them.
OK, so let’s have a look at the titles that are available on app. Firstly, there’s Vanity Fair, which has a quite splendid iPad app, but nothing on Android. And, despite the Kindle Fire being pitched with pack shots that show Vanity Fair on the screen, there’s no obvious availability of Vanity Fair on Kindle (other than the special editions). Single issues sell on iPad for what appears to be the full cover price. The subscribe option is confusing, in that it’s described as a one month subscription. However, the cost of this is $3.99 per month, an eye-watering multiple of the $29.99 that US subscribers pay for 24 months.
So, you see there is a challenge for publishers. It’s not just a case of being ‘digital’, perhaps by means of a website. They actually need an app, but having drifted into this territory, they need an app for each of the major platforms.
The UK’s Financial Times (FT) has a pretty good app that is available on both iPad and Android. It’s also on Kindle, but not available for download in South Africa. I happen to be a print subscriber to the FT Weekend, which gets delivered to my home. Today being Saturday, I was loving reading the FT Weekend a full day before the physical paper gets delivered. But my love ran out when a message popped onto the screen, advising me that I’d read my 10 free articles, and would need to subscribe to get more. The problem is that they offer just six-day subscriptions (i.e. no opportunity to select the FT Weekend only), which doesn’t suit my consumption pattern. And, I resent paying the normal subscription – which includes the cost of printing the newspaper and postage – when receiving it digitally (on a device that I’ve paid for).
The whole point of doing stuff digitally is that you can shape – or customise – your offering to suit your customers. And there’s no variable cost.
I realise that budgets are tight these days, and that publications’ first round of investment in delivering their content digitally may not have resulted in a proper return. This may have reduced their appetite for making further investments in ‘digital’. However, apps are different. We expect Internet content to be free, but we’re generally willing to pay for good apps. Hence, I would expect publications to find it easier to convert app-delivered content to cash.
Right now, I’m in such a state of frustration at the FT that I really don’t know which is worse; having the apps, but not making it easy for readers to buy a package that suits them, or not having them at all (like Fast Company, which should know better).
Whatever the case, my sympathy for the plight of magazines and newspapers has run out. Move with the times, or you’ll go the same way as the buggy whip.