Print vs digital: ‘Should my niche magazine go online only?'

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Patrick Smith, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, B2B Media, Consumer Media


Occasionally, we get questions on media business models and where possible we’re going to start writing responses here on the site. If there’s a media question you need answers to or would like to discuss, drop me a line on Patrick.Smith@Briefingmedia.com.

Harry Shapiro edits Druglink, the bi-monthly magazine for drug treatment workers from the DrugScope charity. It’s available to all members (for non-members there's a subscription charge).

The printed magazine is supplemented by a facsimile PDF edition, available at no extra charge to members, and no extra content published online. It’s more current affairs-focused than many other charity mags, which are solely designed to extract money from sponsors. Harry is looking into the possibility of cutting the print editions and he writes to us about the pros and cons.

He says that not all readers have tablets and there might not be an established userbase for any new digital product.

He writes: “Druglink is a ‘work thing’ – so where are people most likely to read it? They won’t have time at work – and probably not at home – so it’s more likely on the bus or train to and from work or maybe at work during a break. Again this mitigates in favour of the print version being available. If we ditch the print version, we are giving our members and subscribers less choice.”

What, he asks, is the research and facts to help make a decision on this? There are two points to make here: firstly, the changing needs of the audience, and secondly, the costs of digital development vs the costs of standing still.

No easy anwers

The direction of travel in magazines and newspaper readership is one-way: towards digital consumption and away from printed media. With time, readers from all across the media spectrum will demand that magazines are available on their favourite digital devices. No publishing sector is exempt from this.

Harry is right to say “not everyone owns a tablet” – but the pace of change is rapid. Something like one fifth of the UK adult population owns a tablet device, including Kindles. Tablet ownership in the UK has gone from essentially zero in 2010 to between eight and ten million today. Online enabled mobile phones are ubiquitous and so cheap that almost no one is barred access to them; a similar process will happen with tablets.

That’s the climate change picture – but I accept the short-term weather is somewhat different. Niche periodicals supported by subscription fees are in a real bind – print is expensive and resource intensive, but readers and advertisers are happy with the current product. It doesn’t sound like Druglink readers are clamouring for an online alternative. Bi-monthly isn’t a huge publishing schedule either – printed weekly B2B magazines are a far more endangered species.

What sort of investment would Druglink have to make if it was to ditch print entirely? Could it continue to create the PDF page-turning edition and ditch the printed mag (some publishers do this, with varying success)?

It could be that DrugScope justifies keeping its print magazine, given the value it no doubt brings to members. But (it’s a big but) – the key word in all this is sustainability. The cost of producing print will only rise and any title alienating readers who make the shift in the years to come.

I would be actively a few different options for the transition of the printed magazine to digital in mid-term future, whether via interactive apps or web publishing. To put off that question forever isn't an option.

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