How Magazines Blew Digital

On the eve of the Audit Bureau of Circulations report on magazine newsstand sales, a New York Times editor tried to find the last “best” remaining magazine newsstands in the city. Perhaps emphasising the slow death march of printed magazines, he found few that offered variety and depth beyond the big publications. Indeed, the ABC’s figures for standalone sales are dismal: down 9.6 percent from last year. Single-copy sales are big revenue drivers for publishers (hence the analog dollars) and the loss in sales has not yet been subsidized by the 70 percent growth of digital subscriptions.

And for all the growth of digital, there is a bit of a self-inflicted wound here beyond the newsstand. Instead of innovating, magazines often just port content from its print pages to its online (or tablet) home, not offering readers anything unique. These digital replica editions more than doubled from 2 million to 5.4 million, representing a scant 1.7 percent of total magazine circulation. Contrast the porting philosophy to newspapers which, for the most part, are adapting and providing extra content to its readers. Of course the biggest issue is that magazines have been giving away its content for free on the Web for years and getting people to pony up cash for what they can read for free is a fool’s errand.

This is a classic case of the innovator’s dilemma. Magazines have been hostage to their print legacies — and it appears time to pay the piper.

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