Media Briefing: Why some publishers are resurrecting their print magazines

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This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

Print renaissance?

Two digital publishers are getting back into the print game this year, which is a sentence likely hard to believe in 2024.

And while the advertising revenue opportunities of print are a mixed bag, execs at BDG’S Nylon and Complex NTWRK’s Complex say they aren’t necessarily hanging their hats on this being the brand new revenue driver going forward. Instead, they’re using their relaunched print products as more of a branding vehicle and a funnel into other revenue streams like subscriptions, commerce and events.

That said, legacy magazine publishers that never left the print game, like The Atlantic and Time, are seeing a bit of a growth trajectory in their print revenue this year. An indication that, while there are no guarantees in this business, there may be a bit of cushioning available to the publishers looking to experiment with physical magazines.

“I’m a strong believer in print, not only from an advertising standpoint, but for brands in general,” said Alice McKown, publisher and CRO of The Atlantic. “[It’s] a real competitive advantage and I feel like for many magazines that have gotten rid of their print, their brand has suffered… Especially as search changes, I feel like it’s very hard to break through if you don’t have a print product.” 

Back to print

Twenty-five-year-old Nylon went digital-only in 2017 but brought back its magazine biannually this year, just in time to be distributed at the Coachella music festival last month. Only available at newsstand or distributed at events, the oversized magazine was printed with an initial 50,000-issue run and is priced at $9.99, according to Emma Rosenblum, chief content officer at BDG. She did not say how many copies have been sold. Marc Jacobs, Jimmy Choo, Kate Spade, Omega are among the magazine’s advertisers. She declined to share how much ad revenue was generated or if they were parter of broader buys.

BDG chose to experiment with Nylon in print as it is a niche culture and music brand with a devoted following with more appeal than, say, a general interest brand like Bustle, Rosenblum said during a recent episode of the Digiday Podcast. And this audience had been asking for its return for some time, which gave BDG enough confidence to bring back the business.

“Is it a super profitable endeavor? No, it’s an expensive thing to produce,” said Rosenblum, who declined to say if the magazine was profitable. “And then we can add these products on so that they are additional revenue, rather than our company being based around them, which is obviously not a sustainable business.”

Complex, while a similar story of having gone digital-only starting in 2017, is not bringing back the magazine as a supplemental revenue stream in and of itself. Instead, Aaron Levant, CEO of Complex NTWRK said the 12 magazines per year (with four being print editions) will be a part of the subscription business Complex NTWRK is rolling out as a key part of its commerce business. The subscription will launch in the second half of 2024.

Levant said that while Complex magazine will attempt to sell some advertising in the magazine, that’s not what the monetization model will be based on. “We’re not really worried about turning print into a profit line. We may profit on it by default, [but] the intent is actually to get people into our recurring revenue relationship with Complex and have loyalty and affinity for the brand,” he said.

In addition to getting the quarterly print magazine in the mail, subscribers will receive a T-shirt or other product with each shipment, as well as free shipping in the Complex Shop and early access to ComplexCon. “It’s like our version of Amazon Prime,” Levant said. The subscription is expected to be priced around $200 per year, though the cost is not officially decided yet, he added.

Does it pay to play in print? 

Print is a good business to be in right now — depending on who you ask, of course. For a couple legacy print magazines — Time and The Atlantic — the trend lines for advertising revenue and subscriptions are looking good this year. 

Maya Draisin, chief business officer at Time, said the print business is already 75% to its annual goal for advertising revenue. She declined to share hard revenue figures. Meanwhile, The Atlantic’s print ad revenue is pacing up by 20% in the first half of 2024 compared to the same period last year, according to McKown, who also declined to share revenue figures.

The same might not be able to be said for publishers like Dotdash Meredith that have robust magazine portfolios, however. According to the latest earnings report for DDM’s parent company, IAC, published earlier this month, print revenue was down 10% year over year in the first quarter, coming in at $185.9 million. The company attributed this to the “ongoing migration of audience and advertising spend from print to digital.” 

Time has seen its own audience’s interest in print to be “cyclical.” “Every three or four years advertisers realize the power of print and people understand the power of print for very high impact moments,” Draisin added.

One media buyer said that the only way that their advertiser clients buy print ads nowadays is if it’s part of a larger event or franchise, versus print being an entry point in and of itself.

They added that a Complex magazine being released adjacent to ComplexCon, or Nylon distributed at Coachella, would have better odds at siphoning some of the media buy toward print, but “what was line items of magazine money to be allocated doesn’t really exist anymore. And that’s where the larger publishers really took a hit.”

This post has been updated to reflect Maya Draisin’s title, chief brand officer at Time.

What we’ve heard

“I would say if you are looking to quit your 9-to-5 and make a career off of being an X content creator, don’t … I do have a solid subscriber base that comes back month after month. But as far as the ad share, there is really a lack of transparency there … A few times I’ve gotten anywhere from like $300 to $400 [every 60 days]. Sometimes it’s $50. Sometimes it’s $20.”

– Jessica Davis, a part-time X creator on the first episode of the Digiday Podcast’s creator mini-series.

3 Qs with Vox’s Swati Sharma

This week Vox launched a paid subscription program, an evolution of the reader contributor model it created in 2020.

The contributor payments were designed to support the publisher’s mission and journalism without the pressure of a paywall. Since 2020, the publisher received over 100,000 contributions, ranging from $7 to $250. But Swati Sharma, Vox’s EIC and publisher, told Digiday the results of this model led Vox to create a formal program that serves as a recurring revenue source and to develop a closer relationship with its audience.

Asked how many recurring contributors Vox has, Swati said, “I think that’s a harder number for us to know. And that’s what we’re working through… It’s going to take a little bit to see what our number ends up being.”

Vox members can choose to pay a minimum of $5 a month or $50 a year to receive exclusive newsletters, a digital magazine, a monthly podcast, Q&As with journalists, live podcast tapings and video interviews. The rest of Vox’s content will remain free to access. And readers who are already making recurring payments will automatically transition to becoming members. Vox will still accept one-time contributions as well. — Sara Guaglione

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Why is Vox moving from a contributor to a membership model? Was it at all spurred by a plateau in contributions?

We felt encouraged by contributions that then led to this. This wasn’t because one thing wasn’t working… If anything, we’re formalizing something that we were already doing and trying to grow it because we see some sort of promise here. That’s why we’re doubling down on this effort to try to grow and expand this program. It’s definitely because we are encouraged by the progress we’ve seen.

What kind of progress? Was more money coming in from contributors?

We didn’t put too many resources into the [contributor] program. And without that, we saw people just continuously give to us. And this kept happening and we didn’t lose traction there, [it remained steady]. [100,000 contributions] isn’t a small number. So now what we’re doing is expanding the team and actually putting effort into this… I’m excited to bet on our audience. I’m excited to bet on the loyalty that we have been seeing and hopefully if we are really centering loyalty — and of course [combined with] reach — we think that we could really get good returns for this. 

What kind of tactics will you use to convert previous contributors into members?

We already have a good base of people who do give to us on a recurring basis. They’ll be a part of the program. But we’re working on a whole bunch of different things to make sure people know of this new program we have and also working on ways to convert them into members. One is really making people know of the perks… We also hired [community manager Kelsi Trinidad], who is going to be reaching out to members [and] really be a part of building that community.

Numbers to know

37: The number of years that Ozy Media co-founder Carlos Watson could receive as a prison sentence if convicted of trying to defraud the now-defunct media company’s investors. Watson’s trial started this week in Brooklyn. 

95%: The on-time delivery rate that the U.S. Postal Service will have to achieve when shipping periodicals – a 2-percentage point increase from its current rate – before being able to unlock a 2% surcharge for newspaper media companies, if a new bipartisan bill is passed. 

$77 million: The amount of money The Washington Post lost over the past year. The news outlet also experienced a 50% dropoff in audience since 2020. 

$250 million: The amount of money that News Corp could make over five years from a new deal struck with OpenAI that will compensate The Wall Street Journal publisher for use of the AI company’s technology. 

$327 million: The amount of money that former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social media company lost in the first quarter of 2024.

What we’ve covered

How Amazon is wooing publishers to bolster its $50 billion ad business:

  • The newly unveiled features for Amazon Publisher Cloud include a number of opportunities for advertisers to directly access ad space with a host of household-name publishers. 
  • All of these features aim to facilitate the growing privacy requirements of online tech platforms and governmental requirements.

Learn more about Amazon’s pitch to publishers here

How sending fewer emails and content previews improved The New Yorker’s newsletter engagement:

  • The New Yorker has refocused its newsletter strategy in an effort to retain its cohort of 1.2 million paid subscribers and grow its audience beyond that — by sending fewer emails.
  • Currently, the publication’s daily flagship newsletter has more than 2 million subscribers and newsletters have the highest subscriber conversion rate among The New Yorker’s organic referral sources. 

See how The New Yorker’s newsletter strategy is engaging high value audiences here.

The Washington Post adds AI-generated audio to three newsletters:

  • The Post recently debuted AI-generated audio to its three politics- and policy-focused newsletters to give readers the ability to listen to those emails.
  • The audio versions of the newsletters are available by clicking through from the emailed newsletters to The Post’s site — but the focus for the initiative is the experience of listening to the audio in the Listen tab in The Washington Post’s app.

Read more about why the Post is testing AI-generated audio in its newsletters here

Condé Nast, Forbes, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The Independent on key revenue trends:

  • Digiday recently spoke with executives at Condé Nast, Forbes, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The Independent about their current revenue strategies. 
  • This report includes their thoughts on key revenue trends in the industry, including affiliate commerce, diversification of revenue streams and global business expansion.

Learn more about recent publisher revenue strategies here.

Publisher execs talk AI licensing deals, new applications for AI in latest earnings calls:

  • Things are heating up between publicly-traded media companies and generative AI tech companies, resulting in more than one new AI licensing deal.
  • Of the half dozen or so publishers’ earnings that Digiday tracks, two of them have announced deals with tech companies since their Q4 earnings calls in February. 

See what publisher execs had to say about AI in their latest earnings calls here.

What we’re reading

Google may withhold investment into news media over new California bill: 

Google is once again threatening to pull back funding for California-based news media outlets through its Google News Initiative, citing the California Journalism Preservation Act as the reason, Axios reported. If the act becomes law, Google would have to pay a fee on links to news content, with the state using the fee payments to fund newsrooms.

Apple News may become a lifeline for publishers amid referral traffic declines: 

Media companies facing declines in referral traffic from social platforms and search engines are seeing Apple News as a way to make up some of the deficit, Semafor reported. Time, for instance, garnered 5 million unique visitors from Apple News in April 2024. 

BuzzFeed has a new investor and it’s a former presidential candidate: 

Vivek Ramaswamy, former GOP presidential nominee, acquired a 7.7% stake in BuzzFeed, equivalent to 2.7 million shares, according to Axios. As of Wednesday morning, the media company’s share price increased by more than 50% to $4.15.

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