The Future of Print. Again

Posted on September 2, 2009 by Tony Uphoff

Ok so first let me geek out a bit. I'm writing this post at 35,000 feet above what I would guess is Kansas (don't they all look the same?) as I fly from Chicago to LA. While I hear endless commentary from other frequent travelers about how poor airline service is and the appalling aspect of charging for what were previously free services (tangent alert media attention the concept of charging for previously free services is not your nightmare alone...far from it) the reality for me is I'm still geeking out on having wireless on flights across the country. It is a *huge* game changer and totally and completely negates the increasingly shitty experience of frequent travel. But, I digress. This is not the point of my post...Print. Yes print...

Can we possibly still have more to write about, kvetch about and discuss about the Rodney Dangerfield of media? Yes we do. Even in the most atrocious media market we have seen in many, many years, in the midst of the worst recession we have seen in 75 years and against the backdrop of the once every 100 year revolution the Internet represents, print will still be a larger revenue platform then digital media. Yea I know I struggle with this one too. But it's true.

So we have a simple choice as media pro's, we can either "burn the boats on the shore", decide that print is the equivalent of a dead man walking and get out now, or we can take a more nuanced approach (one might suggest stupid or be the judge) that while clearly out of favor print has a role and one that will sustain in some format. Let's examine this a bit.

Media history is littered with dramatic proclamations about new transformative platforms that never took root. It is also littered with dire predictions of the demise of legacy platforms that have yet to die. For God's sake, billboards-yes billboards-showed growth as a media category last year. Given that Billboards are largely unchanged from their origin as drawings on cave walls, is there an older and less high tech media platform? Was it just me or did I see Google spending real money recently on a Billboard marketing program?

I've been hearing about the death of print for the last 14 years. For most of these years I've been the one making the prediction. While it's true that in many markets (certainly in the B2B Tech markets we operate in) print is a far smaller revenue platform than it was at it's peak. The reality is it is still a profitable, viable platform however. The recent dramatic headline about Readers Digest filing chapter 11 you say? Did you happen to read past the lead graph that characterized this as yet another example of the demise of print media to the small sentence that noted the debt load of $2.6 billion that had been added on top of the business in the last two years due to a P/E backed sale? Perhaps that played a role in the bankruptcy filing? Yes. Less sexy story however? Yes again.

An interesting side note that applies specifically to the tech B2B market is the related trend of the NASDAQ. Sorry but I needed to shock you into reality here. That's right. The demise of print in tech media, when graphed follows a similar decline-minus the recent 24% lift in the NASDAQ-as print does during the same time frame. But let's not get bogged down by data and facts...

There is no question that the advertiser has pulled back dramatically in their use of print. We continue to see screaming headlines about the decline of advertising in daily newspapers and magazines. This recession has accelerated the decline in print advertising as evidenced by the results in print from consumer to B2B markets year on year.

Ok so where do we go from here? Well I was hoping you weren't going to ask me that but given that you have I'll take a stab at it. Print overall will continue to be a declining platform for the next 2 -3 years at least. this decline will vary market on market and we will see some abnormalities that will defy the overall trend. The decline will primarily be due to the inexorable march from analog to digital and the resulting load balancing as the new digital center of gravity takes root. It will take time for marketer's to gauge the efficacy of print as a longer term part of their strategy. *Side note cannot do medium or long term analysis of marketing trends based on a recessionary is an outlier and should be treated as such. That being said there will be a long term systemic impact from the recession. What this systemic impact will be is unclear and frankly is the real value of the debate*. The other driver here is print innovation. Yes there is serious innovation going on in print and we will see this accelerate in the next 2-3 years.

The rate of decline for print is difficult if not impossible to predict. First off let's peg some relevant percentage of this years decline to the recession. In other words if general print media declines by 22%, which is the current forecast, the recession drove some portion of this. As the economy improves this too will change. It wasn't that long ago that my broker called me the day after Jim Cramer's famous melt down where he begged viewers to take any money they needed for the "next five years" out of the market immediately. With an earnest tone of voice my broker Matthew told me that while the market had been battered if I didn't get back into equities "I would miss the rebound market". I laughed out loud at the time and asked Matthew "what the genius's at Merrill Lynch thought the market was going to do in the next 6-9 months". He said that they felt the NASDAQ had the potential to grow some 20% based on the need for technology as the economy improved. As usual I didn't listen. Again I digress...

Bear in mind that the vast majority of hard data facts on the decline of print are far and away based on the decline of advertising. In other words, the decline in readership in print is nowhere near-regardless of the category-the decline in advertising. Pals of mine who work on wall street call this an "interesting arbitrage metric". Also take into consideration that before we became consciously aware of the recession-let's peg this as pre June of 2008-print had shown some signs of stabilizing after multi year dramatic declines. Similar to the data on "jobless claims" that reflect the loss of jobs year on year, the trend is slowing (let's hope that it continues!). In other words is there an augment to be made that print was on it's way to finding it's rightful, redefined spot on a digitally centric world and along came the recession and drove it down further ? Ahh. Are you a betting person? Then it's time to ante up.

The easy-if not smart money-says print is dead, long live the Internet. Frankly I've spent a significant portion of my career in this camp, while also carefully managing a smaller, yet dominant profitable print position as a part of my portfolio. So where do we place our bets today? Our company has market leading offerings in online, virtual environments, custom media, research, paid content, live media, integrated media and print. Yes I list print last as we certainly don't view it as the leading platform for our future. We do see print as a continued, profitable, valuable platform however. We think this for one really simple reason. Despite all of the advances of digital and live media, print retains a significant and lasting value with readers. Regardless of whether we think this is hip or not. At the end of the day I've learned one very simple truth that was pounded into me by one of my mentors in media the legendary Bill Ziff. " Tony, listen to the audience and focus on solving their needs and the rest will follow". He was right then and while he's no longer with us...he's right today.


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