Are niche publications the future of print? Part one

It’s no secret that print magazines have been hurtin’ recently. Circulations of consumer magazines are consistently among the fastest falling types of publication, and increasing cover prices will only go so far to ameliorate that for their publishers.

There are even suggestions that some consumer magazines have essentially become parasites, unable to survive without the boost from the celebrities who appear on their covers. Last year Beyoncé appeared on the cover of Vogue despite not actually having sat down to talk to anybody from the magazine.

And it’s not just Queen Bey who commands such rapt attention, as Fashionista explains in this article entitled “Do magazines need the Kardashians more than the Kardashians need magazines?”, saying:

“But since newsstand sales are always in decline anyway, media brands looking for digital traffic, clicks, impressions and brand-building buzz can still find value featuring the family. For example, a representative for Hearst confirmed that a Cosmopolitan anniversary party (at which all the Kardashians were in attendance) in October garnered 9 million views of a Snapchat live story and 9 billion media impressions.” 

Nor are those print magazines transferring well to the internet. While the apps and attendant sites of magazine brands might be successful, porting the print product directly across has never been especially successful.

It was the case with newspapers like Murdoch’s The Daily, and it’s the case with magazines too. Professor Aileen Gallagher of Syracuse University writes, in a post on Medium titled “2016: When tablet magazines get to die“:

“The magazine industry, desperate to bolster flagging circulation, utilized this exciting new platform by … offering mostly replica versions of the print magazines. Innovation, costly to begin with, was bad for business.”

The failure of those replicas to work well on digital platforms is frequently blamed on publishers’ obsession with skeuomorphism, that the user experience on tablets is fundamentally different to on print, so to try to emulate it was a mistake.

So if print magazines are losing readers and attempts to port them to digital haven’t been successful, does that signal the end of print products entirely? Are the bells tolling for the print magazine?

Well, possibly not. There’s still the possibility for viable print products – it just requires a rethinking of their purpose, and an understanding that the values of content and the medium through which that content is delivered aren’t one and the same.

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Iasiah Thomas said “Print… is the preservation of all art”. 

And one area that’s been borne out is in the niche print magazine marketplace. The rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have enabled enthusiasts and amateurs access to capital to launch niche print products in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before, with the added bonus of demonstrating there’s a pre-built audience for the product. As a result, there’s a growing niche print marketplace.

And, by and large, the enthusiasm for the subjects they cover mean the magazines are themselves minor works of art. 

Samir Husni, who has the moniker of ‘Mr. Magazine’, argues that what makes a print product work is a sense of quality:

“To me, the role of print today has to be a combination of creation and curation, plus credibility and an authority that says ‘if it’s in print, it’s authentic, it’s there to stay, it’s documented’. It cannot have the feel of or even a sniff of being a disposable item.

“Print must have a collectability factor built into it, which means its production values have to be different, which means the paper quality has to be good and that the type of content that demonstrates ‘what’s in it for me”. 

But quality of material isn’t the only factor in what makes a niche magazine successful. Jeremy Leslie is the founder of magCulture, a site and newly-opened brick and mortar store dedicated to high quality print magazines. He argues that a well-done magazine is a sort of time capsule, a reflection of the design schools and cultural mores that helped produce it:

“When it comes to deciding what you’re going to put into print it has to be good enough, because it’s not disappearing down a blogroll, it’s still going to be there in a year’s time.

“That, to me, is a clear definition between digital and print. In magazine land the default position tends to be more considered, longer-form, more edited, just more thought put into it.” 

It would be easy enough in the age of crowdfunding for a group of like-minded enthusiasts to get a single issue of a magazine out. The difficulty for the people behind niche magazines, says Leslie, comes from sustaining interest past the second and third issues:

“Issue one… is almost like a band making their first album. They’ve been together for ten years and they’ve put everything into that first issue and then… a couple of weeks later you’ve got to pull yourself together and put together issue two.

“But if you can get to issue three then the whole financial situation, the cashflow is make or break then, whether you have enough money to fund issue three.”

Ultimately, then, explaining the growing success of niche print products comes down to understanding that both print products and the content they’ve traditionally covered both have value in their own right.

But in an age where print is no longer the primary medium on which people consume time-sensitive information, both values are diminished if combined into one product. That’s why some magazine publishers are seeing audience growth on their websites and social channels – because that’s where news content is now consumed.

And by focusing on creating print products that eschew immediate gratification to focus on quality of product, niche print products are increasingly finding an audience.

Parts two and three of this series are available now.

By |2016-01-08T00:01:00+00:00January 8th, 2016|Analysis|Comments Off on Are niche publications the future of print? Part one

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