Another one of those blog posts appeared this month lamenting the end of computer print publishing in America. Whenever this happens, our office experiences a range of responses, from gloating to that odd sensation that comes with being invisible. What about us, dude?
Another one of those blog posts appeared this month  lamenting the end of computer print publishing in America. Whenever this happens, our office experiences a range of responses, from gloating to that odd sensation that comes with being invisible. What about us, dude? Sometimes the eulogists point us out as an exception , and sometimes they don’t.
But we’ve always been an enigma, a unique little creation that is in both worlds. We certainly look European, and we sell lots of magazines in the UK and Europe. European publishing is in our DNA, and yet we are published in the USA by a team with roots dating back to the early days of American computer publishing, and that gives us some perspective to talk about what the sentimentalists are leaving out. I too will miss these classic American magazines, and it is true that changing times played a role in their demise, but there is a little more to the story.
If you are going to blame the Internet for the problems in print publishing, the first thing to say is that American print publishers didn’t just compete with Internet publishing, they subsidized it, often in grand and foolish ways. You might even say that print publishers started Internet publishing, all because they convinced themselves they were going to make lots of money at it. But if you think it is hard to make money in print, try making money on the Internet. For every print magazine that has gone out of business, dozens of professional websites have disappeared. One company that I worked for during the dotcom boom signed a five-year lease on a massive office space that was supposed to be the nerve center for their massive new Internet presence. Eighteen months later, the space was still empty, and all the print magazines in the company had to ante up a share of their dwindling revenue to pay the rent on an empty building for the remainder of the lease.
Another factor that goes unmentioned is how much American publishing depended on direct mail (otherwise known as junk mail). More subscribers meant that the publisher could charge a higher price for ads, and ad revenue was so much more important than circulation revenue. The cover price was kept to a minimum (in some cases, the cover price was free if you met the demographic or happened onto a promo). Every year, the publisher would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct mail to attract new subscribers, and at some point, this expense got baked into the system. Many of the readers weren’t all that passionate about the magazine – they just signed up through a promo, but they were eyeballs that could be presented to potential advertisers. In this climate, there was always a steady stream of readers leaving who would need to be replaced. Ad reps would fly to gigantic trade shows (also a dying breed) to sell ads in order to buy more direct mail in order to get more subscribers in order to maintain the ad price.
When the bottom fell out of the ad market due to competition with online, the whole thing went into a downward spiral. When that happened, the UK-based mags, with their higher cover price and lesser dependence on ad revenue, still had some fuel for the tanks, whereas the US pubs, with their unrealistic, subsidized cover price designed to maximize circ, had no natural defenses.
Another factor leading to the decline was corporatization. Many of the best-loved pubs began as homegrown businesses started by passionate geeks who just wanted to write about what they loved. These pubs were gradually acquired to fill out the portfolios of giant corporations like Ziff-Davis, IDG, and United Business Media. In the fat years, no one noticed, but when the times got tough, those geeky niche publications were taxed with paying a huge share of corporate overhead for lots of managers and office space with no real connection to what they were doing, and the heat was always on to trim expenses and maximize profits, or the shareholders would move their money to a more lucrative sector, like fast food or pharmaceuticals.
One way they would save money was to kill a lower-circ magazine and fill the remainder of the subscription with a higher-circ pub. This would help them cut staff, but equally important, they could bolster the circulation of the flagship pub without having to invest in direct mail. The problem was that the higher-profile magazines were often more generic and less tailored to a specific audience, so the more they did this, the blander the industry became as a whole. I once worked in a publishing group with six American computer magazines, and they gradually folded in every single one of them until only the biggest one survived. Then they folded that one into another even bigger magazine somewhere else in the company – an IT business mag that offered almost nothing to the technical readers who were the original audience. None of this would have made any sense to the customers, but it was all perfectly logical to the people in the board rooms with the spreadsheets, who were trying to maximize profits and keep their own jobs in turbulent financial times.
So, a note to bloggers: please don’t call the American computer print magazine industry “officially over” when Linux Magazine and others like us are still standing. If you want to shed a tear for the decline of this once vibrant industry that so few of us still inhabit, so you should, but just remember: It wasn’t just changing times that brought it all down – much was frittered away.
Joe Casad, Editor in Chief