Business Tech: Print Media Part 1

We've talked about all sorts of business models in the past. I thought it was time to talk about Print Media: magazines, books, and related media.

Print is Dead

So, I guess we are done with this topic. Except, this is a magazine article, so I guess Print isn't dead. Even if you are reading it as a PDF, on some sort of e-book reader, or next-next-next-generation device, the bulk of the business is unchanged. So, even if printing was dead — and it isn't — Print Media and Print Journalism are both alive. The delivery mechanism is different, but little else is.

The reason you keep hearing print is dead is twofold: (1) Print is so mainstream that there is too much of it, and advertisers are having trouble deciding where to spend for ads. This has caused many of them to pull back too hard and leave good outlets without enough ads; (2) you are hearing it from Digital Media outlets who, surprise surprise, want it to be true.

Night of the Living Publisher

The technology a Publisher needs is generally of the BI/Dashboard flavor. They need to know the world in summary: Did the average issue go out on time? Is the ratio of content to ads within guidelines? Is ad revenue within projections? Publishers only need details when thing fall out of spec. Their job is to manage the profitability and credibility of the publication.

Underworld: Rise of the Marketers

Think of everything I've mentioned in the three Business Tech articles on Marketing and then add this thought: Print Media markets a product which provides advertising opportunities to other marketers. So, in addition to the normal marketing needs from technology, they also need to manage a barter system of "you provide me with space on your blimp and I'll provide you space in my newspaper" or "you provide me with new subscriber addresses and I'll grant you space inside my book's back cover." Those barter deals are as important as the cash deals. According to the IRS, they are taxable transactions in most, if not all, cases. Your marketing system needs to allow for quid-pro-quo payments.

Dawn of the Sales

There are likely to be two sales departments: one for selling the book, magazine, etc., and the other for selling ad space. The second will need to connect to your marketing system, but possibly in a restricted manner. The first will need their own circulation and distribution system. Even if the magazine is digital only, there are still matters of delivery — perhaps by cron job instead of truck — but still delivery. Remember that circulation is not just about making the issue available, collecting statistics but also about verifying receipt, at least for some percentage of readers.

Editor of the Damned

This is the evil, troll-like god of deadlines who... scratch that. This is the infinitely patient person — or team — that sources articles, hires writers, fixes the mess the writers send, and keeps the entire product to a set standard. For example, my editor permits my vague attempts at humor. (Editor's Note: Humor? Oh, so that's what that is.) Other Print Media products might have rules to limit or omit humor. In a decent sized business, there are usually two kinds of editors: Managing Editors, who hire/fire, set policy, and keep on top of deadlines; and editor Editors, who manage copy and coddle us emotional creatives. Often, these editors are also responsible for integrating press releases and other non-article content.

The tech here is mostly spreadsheets, publishing programs, photo-editing, and word processors. Many of the spreadsheet functions are much better suited to project management software, but Editing is the second least likely place for Print Media to spend money.

House of a 1,000 Writers

This is the first least likely space for Print Media to spend money. Writing is a "glamour" industry. Like working in Fashion, which I've done, it is an area that generally attracts a fair number of candidates, and this makes Publishers think of writers as expendable/replaceable people. The exception are marquee writers who bring a following with them. Often, these people end up in syndication — more on that later.

And the aptly named, Not Appearing in This Article

We've slid past artists, photographers, fact checkers, and others because the custom software support needed in those cases is pretty minimal. That is not to say they don't need software, tech support, and training, just that off the shelf software is the norm here.

Fall of the House of Us Here

So, what can technology do to help a Print Media business succeed in today's market? For one thing, it can turn the business into a Digital Media company, or a hybrid of Print and Digital. Let's spend a few minutes talking about how those business models work.

Digital Media is one of the easiest businesses to do badly in a very public way. Nearly all Blogging is a prime example of bad media because virtually all of it lacks editing and fact checking. It trades those for immediacy and a rush to publication. Everything Print Media should do before an article appears applies for Digital Media as well. So, from a cost standpoint, Digital is cheaper to "print" but all the other costs should remain the same.

Of course, if Print Media is suffering from a glut of product, Digital Media is suffering worse. Anyone with a hundred bucks and a computer can be a bad Digital Media publisher. We don't know of any profession — programming — where unqualified and untrained hacks are not immediately distinguishable from the quality people, do we. The harder it is for readers and advertisers to separate the wheat from the chaff, the harder it is for any of these Publishers to make enough money to break even or perhaps create profit.

What's the best way for a Digital Publisher to establish credibility? Print. People are more likely to trust your digital product if you are a hybrid. There are exceptions: people trust known brands, like Google or Yahoo, but since we aren't usually in a position to build that sort of multi-billion dollar business to support our digital credibility, print is a more reasonable option.

One of the trends in hybrid media that leverages this is print media with a supporting area — a read more about it — on the web. International Spectrum magazine has been using this technique by peppering certain articles with short re-direction links. This allows the physical media to become a gateway to the digital while also providing a stand-alone value. Until I breakdown and install a web-capable computer in the bathroom, I will continue to expect the print editions make sense without an IP address.

Just like click-and-mortar has been a successful play for many retail operations, ink-and-pixels has been an important area for publishing. An alternate approach, which was gaining momentum, is splitting the line. There are publishers who are branding a print magazine and separately branding a digital magazine with partially overlapping content. This allows them to optimize content for each mode and minimize the interconnection. Revenue models for the digital only magazines are more problematic when you split brands.

A lot of this territory is still operating in a try-and-see mode. There will be more shake outs as the readers and advertisers begin to settle on what models they want to support.

It's a Syn to Tell a Lie

Syndication is the art of meta-publishing. Instead of the writer working for the editor and so on, up the chain, the syndicated writer is delivering pre-edited content to a number of competing organizations. It turns the paradigm upside down by actually giving control to the creative side. Except, of course, that it doesn't. The Syndicate is a Media business, and as such, it has publishers, editors, and all the other people above the creative, just like in non-meta-publishing.

The difference is really in what is sold and how it is sold. A publisher sells magazine, books, newspapers, what-have-you to readers. A syndication publisher sells content to publishers. So, Dear Abby sends six letters to the Multivalue Times Sun Mirror Standard newspaper and they publish six or less letters based on their space.

The advantage to syndication for a business is that they get reflected glow from the popularity of the column. The danger is that it makes their product a little less unique. If I can get my Snoopy fix from any paper, it makes those papers more interchangeable to the consumer. If I can only read Multivalue's Top Nth Book List — we aren't limited to 100 or any other fixed number — in International Spectrum, then you must get that specific magazine.

All The News That Fits, We Print

That's all for this installment. The next part will talk about Print on Demand and other more modern business models.


Charles Barouch is the CTO of HDWP, Inc. He is also a regular contributor to International Spectrum Magazine, a former Associate Editor for both Database Trends and for Gateways Magazine, a former distance learning Instructor for CALC. He is presently the Past President of the U2UG. Mr. Barouch has presented technology and business topics in front of hundreds of companies, in a wide range of product and service categories. He is available for on-site speaking and consulting engagements in and out of the United States.

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Jul/Aug 2010