News Stand Sales: Are They the Solution?

There is no doubt that the physical distribution channel for magazines in the US is in major crisis. In the last month some of the major distributors have pulled out of the market, and it is now being reported that circulation of consumer titles through news stands collapsed in the second half of 2008. Audience Development offers an Analysis:

In the last week the fragile newsstand distribution system has essentially broken down. Two of the four major wholesalers have, in effect, exited the business. Publishers and the remaining wholesalers are scrambling to pick up the scattered pieces. If this wasn’t enough, the recently released second-half 2008 ABC and BPA newsstand sales data revealed (based on a preliminary analysis) that the unit sales of audited publications fell a devastating 14.9 percent and the revenue declined a record 6.7 percent.

The story behind the dysfunctional newsstand distribution business is so convoluted that it makes Tim Geithner’s stimulus plan explanation seem clear by comparison. But regardless of its complexities one thing is sure—there is plenty of blame to go around for the collapse of the distribution channel. It includes wholesalers seeking massive unilateral price increases and a ranting former channel partner that apparently would rather sue than try to find a reasonable solution. Equally culpable are the publishers and their National Distributor representatives that have allowed, largely for competitive considerations, channel conditions to reach these devastating proportions.

The system is very broken, and a major part of the problem is that the news stand sales for magazines (and for newspapers) have been barely profitable, even loss-making for years. News stand sales matter much less for the dollars and dimes that are generated from circulation, than for the way they build an audience for print-based advertising. Magazines that sell for a dollar or two on the news stand generate negligible revenue for the publisher (‘returns’ from unsold stock run at roughly 50% – -consider the cost of that). So this crisis in news stand sales comes just when the advertising market is already falling fast.

There is no quick and easy solution, but there is a solution and building digital subscription revenues and digital circulations has to be a key part of the response of the magazine industry. The British consumer magazine has not become as over-dependent on advertising as the American market, but it is suffering from the same general malaise. Advertising revenues are slowing fast and revenues from subscriptions and news stand circulation have been neglected in recent years. Obviously digital subscriptions can now play a key part in rebuilding the audience and generating profits from circulation.

Lessons from Feedback

Our users/readers sometimes email the Exact Editions support line, when they were intending to email the magazine’s editorial team. We received such an email last night and I am pretty sure that the publisher of Permaculture and the e-mail’s author will not mind if the message is shared more widely:

Dear Exact Editions team
I´ve been reading all year round your excellent Permaculture magazine Thank you very much I got it for free in your last year’s promotion. I’m a postgraduate student on Physical Anthropology with my thesis on Corn breeders from peasant families of highlands in rural Mexico. If by luck you still have the possibility to send it for free by mail or e-mail I will be much grateful, since it keeps me inspired. My income as teacher is minimal, my work hours long, and if you need a certified letter that I get it for free, I can send it. Nevertheless, thank you for your kindness, during all this year.

It is so good of ‘Ana’ to thank us for her magazine, but of course the thanks are due to Permaculture who not only make the magazine, they also had the clever, but wholly practical idea of sending sponsored subscriptions to ecological activists in other parts of the world who would never be able to afford a subscription to a print magazine priced for Western markets. It is a bit easy for us to forget, in the unsustainably privileged West, just how much education, culture and enjoyment can be packed into the magazine format.

As in the case of our totally blind reader of the Baptist Times, this is the type of feedback that leaves one pleased to be of service and completely impressed by the challenges that face our brothers and sisters. Humbled too, because obviously what matters to our readers is that they can read the magazine in its digital form and the magazine is what really matters to them. The platform ideally should be, as it really is for our blind readers, invisible. It is the magazines which matter. Exact Editions works best when our readers really do not notice the platform.

Information Infrastructure Projects

Today Obama is inaugurated and steering his economic recovery plan through Congress will be a key target for his first 100 days. Governments throughout the developed world are looking for significant infrastructure projects to stimulate employment and to stimulate demand. That is the good old Keynesian solution to a recession which has come right back into fashion. Why has there been so little attention given to public infrastructure investments in the information field? Universal broad band seems to be the only plausible candidate so far ($6 Billion is the projected cost of this in the US plan, less than %1 of the total package). Most of the ideas that we read about from Obama, or from think tanks, are that employment will be created by investing in mass transit, or in efficient power transmission, social housing, or neglected infrastructure projects (old bridges and roads etc). Surely we should also be thinking about infrastructure projects for the information sector? But whether the projects are physical or digital, it has to be recognised that there are at least two problems with pump-priming investments. In the blogged comment of the Nobel Laureate Gary Becker:

The activities stimulated by the [Obama] package to a large extent would draw labor and capital away from other productive activities. In addition, the government programs were unlikely to be as well planned as the displaced private uses of these resources. (Becker — Infrastructure in a Stimulus Package)

So large-scale publicly funded information infrastructure investments that are to be part of a stimulus package must not suck up highly skilled labour which is in short supply, and if they are to be part of a timely intervention they must not involve substantial leadup and planning time. Its a no-no to suggest putting billions into the creation of vast libraries of Open Source software, after all most competent programmers are gainfully employed. As for the requirement of effective planning, it will be much easier to identify a promising project that can be scaled up or replicated than to start something completey de novo. There are such projects in the information field, and rapid scaling up looks most promising for initiatives which involve large amounts of data collection. Data collection is often relatively unskilled, or with skills that can be easily taught. Of course, it is also important that the information being collected is of real use. Here are three suggestions:

  • Open Street Map — has been making great progress has global ambitions and is run and led by enthusiastic amateurs who appear to be capable of organising relatively large scale social endeavours (mapping parties/conferences). Governments could fund volunteer groups who would generate large amounts of geo-data, perhaps with particular emphasis on ecologically relevant mapping data, and culturally relevant historical data which is neglected by commercial cartographers.
  • Google Book Search has made a very substantial step towards solving the problem of ‘Orphan Copyrights’ in the USA, but there are nevertheless plenty of gaps in the US data, and the Google collaboration with university libraries is much less advanced in other countries. Although using this data to full-effect reguires the Google engine (or something like it from Open Source or another company), the accumulation of the raw scans is a relatively low-tech business. It needs little more than a careful and well planned logistic pathway and an investment in scanning machines. If governments in Europe and the rest of the developed world were now to invest in large-scale scanning of the published literature, they could reach effective agreements for Open Access or appropriately regulated Approved Access to enormous bodies of printed literature. This would have the additional benefit of putting in the public domain, material which ought to be of general benefit; the Google effort would also be, and seem to be, much less monopolistic if there was a large body of government funded scanning as a counterweight. Much of the technical expertise necessary for scanning the world’s out of print literature already exists in libraries and, with the example of Google Book Search in front of them, the world’s libraries could be geared up to scan, within a few years, several times the 7 million books already scanned by Google.
  • Ecological audits. As we tackle global climate change it will become increasingly necessary to have better information about animal and plant species and the environmental impacts of climate change on living systems. Amateur efforts like the British Bird Survey are pioneers in this work. If Governments invest now to create better and ongoing records of natural diversity these records will be very useful in the global challenge of moderating and putting a break on climate change.

Ecological Approval

Speaking of the ecological impact of print (which we just were): we have had a nice bouquet from Ecovelo:

The Exact Editions interface is one of the best online magazine interfaces I’ve seen, providing the ability to zoom each page and navigate through the document using embedded hyperlinks, spread thumbnails, and navigation buttons on the interface. In my opinion, the EE interface is even better than a high quality, fully bookmarked and linked PDF document. The page scans are relatively high resolution and hold up well to magnification, and the reading experience is as good as, if not better than, the experience of reading traditional paper magazines.

But you must read the whole thing. Alan and Michael think that digital magazines have lesser ecological impact than print magazines, and bikes are a low impact way of travelling. That must be right.

Printable PDFs

We recently enhanced our service so that a complete issue can be printed from a PDF file. We have offered page by page printing from the begining, but many publishers do not like the idea of a complete magazine issue being printed from a single downloadable file (the worry is piracy, with one person taking out a subscription and then sending out scores of PDF copies to all his/her friends). I am not sure how valid this worry is, but it is a real one for some publishers. So the option to have a printable PDF of a complete issue is now available on some of our magazines. It will remain a publisher-dependent option. Athletics Weekly is the first magazine to have opted for it.

The PDF is taken at a reasonable resolution, but it is not high-res and so the user can download an issue without undue drumming of fingers on the desk or undue strain on bandwidth (yours or ours). We also omit the external links. The PDF alternative will probably be most useful to subscribers who like to read the magazine on the train or in a plane. It will also be useful to those subscribers who like to use our service so that they can print out the whole magazine — but when I see those requests in the support log files I tend to grit my teeth. My puritanical, ecological streak is aroused by the thought of such wastefulness. Lets hope our provision of this alternative file format is not damaging to the eco-sphere……