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How to future-proof your magazine when cutting print

When faced with increased print and postage production costs, it’s natural that magazine publishers – particularly those that are struggling to maintain print advertising revenue – review the frequency of their print editions, or their circulation numbers. But what does a successful reduction in print editions or circulation look like? 

“Reducing print publishing…should be one step in a gradual, carefully-planned transition to digital”

While some print magazines are thriving, others are facing declining print advertising revenues. A reduction in print ad revenue combined with increases in print and postage production costs – which are expected to rise again in January 2020 – often lead publishers to review their print frequency and circulation to improve profitability. 

This is a fair short-term response, but cutting costs doesn’t provide a sustainable business model for the long-term. 

The American Press Institute (API) recently released a report titled Cutting print: Making it work when publishing days must go, which explores how newspapers in the US can “chart a sustainable path forward by reducing expenses related to print publishing and delivery”.

The report has some interesting takeaways for magazine publishers looking to reduce the frequency or circulation of their print publication.

“Reducing print days is often about cutting costs for immediate financial survival,” the report states. “A better approach is to make planned, proactive decisions about downscaling print as a step toward a long-term digital future.” 

1. Plan which print editions to cut and how to maintain ad revenue 

Not all print editions are created equal, and often particular editions throughout the year perform better than others – whether that be due to the time of year, events happening around that time, strong editorial features, or 

Identify which are the poorest performing editions, and consider how the advertising revenue within these editions can be retained if the print editions were to cease: 

  • Can they be funnelled into a different print edition? 
  • Is it worth producing a digital edition instead to maintain advertising revenue? 
  • Are there digital options that would suit the displaced advertisers? 

API states that digital editions are commonly used by publishers to fill the gap left by reducing print frequency. However, while successful for some, API notes that there is debate about whether digital editions are a good replacement as the editorial and design resources required to create a digital edition are the same as those needed to produce a print edition. 

“These resources could instead be invested in better news coverage and digital products,” the API states. 

The report also states “As much as reducing print publishing days is about losing something, it is also an opportunity to build, to embrace new products and technologies. 

“As publishers pursue cutting days, they will find gaps and disruptions in the ways they traditionally interact with audiences and advertisers. It is at these junctures where innovative thinking is needed.” 

2. Use your audience data to build a digital product that works

The API report explains that publishers need a deeply planned and well-executed strategy that continues to deliver quality content to their audiences on the digital platforms that they engage with. 

“While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for digital success and every market finds its own approach, the foundation is built on a better understanding of the audience and a deeper use of analytics,” the report states. 

Penelope Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC, is quoted within the report, stating that it is important for publishers to identify their unique value proposition and cut anything that no longer works. 

“You need to figure out what your key assets are that will translate in the digital realm,” she said. “You have to do it in a way that is going to serve the needs of your community.”

Ken Herts, Director of Operations at The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, explains why taking a hard look at the data is necessary: “Subscribers need to see the value of the digital component of their subscription if they’re going to continue to pay after they lose print.” 

And, the report states that unless a publication’s goal is to “fade into oblivion, reducing print must be accompanied by investment in better digital experiences for readers”. 

It outlines that publications “cutting print must already have built a digital business that is based on a deep understanding of their audience. Time and resources saved by cutting print should be devoted to figuring out how to increase the value proposition for digital subscribers.” 

3. Restructure your team to make the change a success 

The report explores how the US Greeley Tribune has embraced digital while reducing its print days using the mantra “digital first, print better”. 

Greeley Tribune Publisher Bryce Jacobson explains that the paper now has a ‘content creation department’ and a separate group focused on audience engagement, which “gives the old editor title — the director of content — time to focus on creating content,” he said. 

“The director of engagement is focused on what to do with the stuff that they created — whether the reporter should put it up right away on this (platform), which audience segment is it going towards, and how are we measuring whether or not that works.”

Jacobson explains that this means that they analyse more, and tactics are revisited every couple of days so that they can learn from everything that they do. 

4. Communicate the change to advertisers and subscribers 

Advertiser and subscriber communication is critical when reducing print frequency. The report notes that various tactics can be used, from publishing articles, columns and ads, to holding meetings with advertisers and one-on-one chats with subscribers.

It is important to ensure that subscribers and advertisers understand that the quality of the magazine brand will not diminish, and content will continue to be produced, even with fewer print editions. 

Within the report, former General Manager of Sierra Nevada Media Group Brooke Warner outlines how the group communicated its reduced print frequency to subscribers by: 

  • Reminding readers they could get magazine content on the website and social media
  • Making sure the community understood the value of the publication continuing to exist.
  • Improving the website user experience for subscribers. 
  • Reinforcing other aspects of publication value such as coupons that pay readers back with weekly savings worth two to three times the subscription cost.
  • Providing more automatic billing options to decrease the likelihood of lapsed subscriptions. 
  • Simplifying subscription pricing with an all-access monthly rate that gave subscribers access to their publication everywhere, including print delivery, online and apps.

Cutting print: an opportunity to innovate, but not a smooth road 

API notes that some tactics employed to transition to a reduced print frequency have helped publications move away from old print cycles and schedules that are less relevant to modern readers. 

However, it also states that the transition is tough. “For [those] that have gone through a publishing reduction and fundamental restructuring to content operations, there is a common truth: Transformation is hard — very hard.” 

The full API report can be found here: Cutting print: Making it work when publishing days must go.

Written by Lyndsie Clark

Niche Publishing Network Founder and Editor Lyndsie Clark has over 10 years of niche publishing experience, working in a variety of roles spanning B2B editorial, sales, operations, events, BD, and management.

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