More than 70 publishers and editors joined Diane Young, co-founder and MD of the Drum and Paul Lomax, CTO of Dennis Publishing, to debate the challenges that the next ten years will bring to the world of publishing.
At 2025: Visions for the Future of Publishing, organised by publishing software supplier Page Lizard to mark its 10th anniversary, the threats identified ranged from the accelerated speed of change to ad blockers, the rise of social platforms and the challenge of converting the millennial generation to be paying customers.
Here are the top 10 things we learned at the event.
1 – No one is immune to change
It doesn’t matter if you’re a small media producer or a large publishing house; no one in this industry is immune to changes in it. This doesn’t mean jumping on every passing bandwagon, but both speakers highlighted how susceptible businesses can be if they don’t keep up with digital developments. “New channels of delivery will come but the old ones will not go away entirely, so life is going to get more complicated,” The Drum’s Young explained.
2 – Print still has a role to play
Everyone agreed that print magazines and publications would continue to have an important role in ten years’ time, although there was some debate about its relevance to everyday life. Young had a vision of technology enabling readers to compile personalised issues, and Dennis’ Lomax maintained that ‘coffee table’ and ‘service’ editions will still be going strong. Niche and membership publications will also in all likelihood do very well for a long time yet, although the main sources of income for those groups will be from events and ‘extras’ rather than the print edition directly.
3 – Ad blocking is top of the agenda
Ad blocking dominated much of the panel discussion, and is clearly a pressing issue for many publishers. Lomax controversially predicted that Google Chrome will one day include ad blocking by default. This caused a heated debate, where he pointed out that Chrome has blocked pop-ups for a long time, and no one really noticed it come in.
The signs are already appearing with its Accelerated Mobile Pages project; adverts don’t load unless they’re in a ‘light’ AMP-acceptable format, typically served through Google-approved ad platforms. “In the last post, Google specified that the ads have to be beautiful and engaging, not simply functional,” Lomax added, highlighting how quickly the goalposts can move.
4 – Most publishers are seriously out of touch with millennials
This hit home particularly when the millennial panel joined in the debate. “I talk to a lot of my friends and peers about what they read,” one panellist asserted, “and not one of them has ever bought a print magazine,” highlighting the widening gap between publisher’s expectations and reality for the students and young professionals. The reasoning became clear in the discussions; under-26’s are the ones who spent their teenage years on mobile phones rather than reading magazines, and consequently have no set habits or affiliation with publishers or brands. “We’re loyal to platforms, not brands,” 21-year-old Adam Blades explained.
5 – Flexibility is key
The pace of innovation is relentless, and there are now innumerable opportunities for publishers to expand into multiple channels. “Whatever you know, you are going to have to learn, unlearn and relearn, because the pace of change we are facing and the amount of information being absorbed is almost overwhelming,” Young commented. People and publishers who are flexible with skills and willing to try new things will be more resilient to the inevitable decline of print.
6 – It will be all about the platforms…
…which will steer the focus away from driving traffic to publisher’s websites. What was more concerning is that the debate around platforms was uncomfortable for some publishers in the room who openly admitted to not really grasping Snapchat, Facebook and other ways of platform publishing. Lomax acknowledged that we can’t be sure that these platforms will survive in the long term, but for now they are far outstripping the reach of websites and, if approached properly, can add great value to publisher’s products.
7 – The publisher-audience relationship has changed
Historically, publishers and editors have ‘told it like it is’ and have had complete control over articles, page layout, arrangement and reading experience. With digital and social, the tables have turned, and it is the readers who decide their ‘top story’, what they enjoy and what they don’t. Insights like this can be incredibly useful to drive strategy, but the strain became apparent when the audience discussion turned towards quality.
This isn’t a new concern; the popularity of click-bait and celebrity articles has long infuriated publishers, but social media has propagated the problem. “We could write a listicle about cats and it could get more views than a piece of our top-quality journalism,” one audience member complained.
8 – Losing control of content seems inevitable
It’s a simple trade-off at the moment – if you don’t put your content in front of your audience, someone else will whether that’s on Facebook, Snapchat or Apple News. Rebekah Billingsley of contract publisher John Brown Media raised an interesting point in the discussion; that we could have all joined together and stood up to the tech giants to negotiate a better deal for publishers. However the time for that has well and truly passed, and discussions will now be focused on what we’re prepared to hand over and at what cost.
9 – No one knows where the money is going to come from
Monetisation was the other hot topic after the talks, with the millennial panel taking some tough questions about their expectations. “How are you expecting us to fund that content if ad blocking increases?” one audience member asked. Links were drawn with the music industry, with another asking why there was such a willingness to pay for music and film, but not for articles.
“We’ve never expected to pay for content, and there’s little value attached to it,” Natasha Clark from the Times’ RedBox explained. “If one publisher puts a price tag on their news, someone else will have the story for free.” Although there were plenty of reasons offered for content’s lack of value, no one was able to suggest a way forward, meaning that diversification may be the only way to save failing print brands in the future.
10 – We’re all really bad at predictions
Lomax summed up the difficulty with predicting future trends with Amara’s Law. “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run, and underestimate the effect in the long run,” he said, citing early spikes in App Store revenue for Dennis which have since plateaued.
From Horace Rackham’s assertion in 1903 that horses were here to stay and automobiles were just a fad, to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stating that “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share” in 2007, the one thing we know for certain is that we can’t be sure of anything