Are magazines still periodicals?

This question occurred to me when I saw a suggestion that the mooted, not yet launched, Apple magazine aggregating service will include newspaper content:

Earlier this year, Apple got into the magazine business by buying a digital magazine distributor. Now it wants to add daily news to the mix. Peter Kafka at Recode

Well, this is only a rumour and Apple’s new magazine-inspired service has not been launched, but it is surely unthinkable that the big newspapers (New York Times, WSJ, FAZ etc) will allow all their content to be bundled into an Apple service in which they have no direct stake. They have been seeing encouraging success with their own audience building for digital subscribers, and that is bound to be a longer term concern for them. But one can see them offering, via Apple, a premium access to news items and some of their content. So much has news content and news distribution been comodified that a deal for just-in-time stories or streamed articles is surely do-able, and if Apple want those stories I am sure they will be available.

Newspapers can no longer view themselves primarily as edition-based periodicals. Once Google news was possible, newspapers needed to make a decision. Either they were primarily news channels freely available through the web, in which case they would be in perpetual and instant competition with every other free digital news channel, or they had to consolidate their audience around a subscriber base, preferably a subscriber base that would be willing to pay for the content that the editors and journalists formed and curated. But to do this well, to build an audience for news in the digital era the news has to be instantly updated and in real time. Digital newspapers are no longer periodicals, especially if they are behind paywalls.

In their hay-day, periodicals, whether newspapers or magazines could reasonably aim to serve their audience with three distinct functions:

(1) opinion via editorial and articles

(2) news via stories or reports

(3) product or service awareness via advertisements

The publication was literally built from these distinct sources — and the staff also would be segregated into these different teams. This three-fold plait of content, carefully woven into each page and issue, was — as it happens- matched by three distinct and yet corresponding sources of recurring revenue:

(1) subscriptions (content delivered by post, paid for by quarterly or annual subs)

(2) newsstand sales (content delivered by the kiosk paid for episodically by $ £ or cash)

(3) advertisers (who paid for pages of content, in advance, so that they could ‘reach’ readers)

After about AD 2000 this three-pillared system of content packaging and revenue harvesting can no longer be relied on. Digital technology has separated the threads, and the idea of a package which weaves these separate commercial strands into periodical issues, editions that appear on a daily or weekly basis, makes less and less sense.

Advertising is the first pillar of content to be knocked away. Magazines or newspapers of the conventional kind simply do not have the precise targeting and broad audience that is needed to make digital advertising work for consumer content.

Very few magazines have been able to stem the digital tide aimed at ad revenue. There are one or two exceptional examples of magazines that have moved successfully to majority funding from digital ads, but the magazines had to be made into databases to take advantage both of product differentiation and audience differentiation: Auto Trader 25 years ago a rather boring magazine for the second-hand car market in the UK has turned itself into a spectacularly successful and effective transactional platform. It is no longer a periodical but a digital second hand car marriage bureau (sometimes orphange?).

Many newspapers, especially in global centres, decided to become news streaming enterprises with news and comment updated 24X7. Digital papers such as the Guardian or the Washington Post are no longer in any strict sense periodicals, their content is organised primarily for their webservices, their sections are sections of the website and their videos are videos for the digital reader. In consequence, much of their content will not be registered in the daily editions that they still print (for how much longer?).

When it comes to retail distribution: magazines and some newspapers are still uncomfortably dependent on physical newsstand sales. But newsstands, kiosks, are steadily disappearing and supermarkets are not a good alternative. Newspapers or magazines that expect to charge readers for news have recognised the need to find the equivalent of a digital newsstand, and an audience that is willing to pay for better and reliable instant information episodically, in dribs and drabs. Because the news feed has to be continuous (to keep pace with the evolving story) there is little justification for separating the content into artificial ‘issues’ or ‘editions’. So newspapers and newsy magazines have been eager to experiment with new distribution or audience building aggregators (Flipboard, Facebook or — no doubt — the new Apple magazine solution), but they do so by syndicating stories or parts of their internal workflow.

But where does this leave the magazines that concentrate on opinion forming and deep content, often for niche audiences? These are the sort of magazines that have always relied on their subscribers (preferably annual and renewed). There are many such magazines covering all areas of culture: politics, religion, hobbies, art, music, technology, professional engagement etc. In many cases the communities and the expert audiences rely on the deep content that they get from their specialist periodical. Increasingly these serious and committed publications, occupying a well-defined niche, are throwing their efforts into building the subscriber base.

Print subscribers continue to be important to securing this revenue pillar, but if the deep archive of the magazine can be turned into a searchable and continuously improved database they have taken advantage of the digital turn. Thoroughly digital magazines such as The WireSight & SoundArt Monthly or the fashion title Dazed are now databases just as much as they are ‘periodicals’. All their content is available to all their digital readers, all the time. Right from the first issue.

The only thing that is ‘periodical’ about them is that they periodically get bigger.

SightSound

Sight & Sound archive with stacked issues from 2000s

This last weekend the Benioffs, founders of Salesforce, have personally bought Time magazine “….a treasure trove of our history and culture” for $190 million. Since the new owners view themselves as “caretakers of one of the world’s most important media companies and iconic brands”, my guess is that Time will soon find a more compelling way of presenting and growing its rich archive.