The Pub­lish­ing In­dus­try in Search of a Sec­ond Life

It’s no se­cret that the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try is trapped be­tween Scylla and Charyb­dis. Even as the world reads more, al­beit texts, Twit­ter and furtive work­day vis­its to online ‘mag­a­zines’ like Bored­panda, advertising rev­enues have tanked.


Let’s be­gin with Scylla. As the lifeblood of any print pub­li­ca­tion, de­creased advertising means less money for con­trib­u­tors and to fund the in-depth, unique sto­ries vi­tal to keep­ing read­ers com­ing back.

In re­cent years, one re­sponse has been for mag­a­zines to move online. With lower over­heads and a wider au­di­ence, sur­vival should be pos­si­ble on less.

While some mag­a­zines do thrive online - Newsweek saw its for­tunes rise af­ter it aban­doned print in 2012 - the most suc­cess­ful are dig­i­tal ver­sions of mag­a­zines that have al­ready built their rep­u­ta­tions in the real world. Thus Vogue Ara­bia, which launches this Septem­ber in Dubai in part­ner­ship with Shashi Menon’s online pub­lish­ing house, Ner­vora, is able to make its de­but ex­clu­sively online be­cause, well, it is Vogue.

Now for Charyb­dis. Online advertising rev­enues are in­signif­i­cant un­til a site has hun­dreds of thou­sands of unique vis­i­tors ev­ery day. If you are a brand new pub­li­ca­tion or a small

ex­ist­ing one, the only way to get that kind of traf­fic is to in­vest time and money. And if you don’t have advertising rev­enues, well, you see where I am go­ing.

In an ef­fort to stay sol­vent, many mag­a­zines squeeze con­trib­u­tors. Pay rates have dropped and in some cases dis­ap­peared – that ti­tan of online pub­lish­ing, the Huff­in­g­ton Post rarely pays, con­sid­er­ing pub­li­ca­tion re­ward enough – and there has been an ex­o­dus of writ­ers and pho­tog­ra­phers in search of bet­ter-paid work else­where.

Things are not not as bleak as they might seem. A mas­sive tran­si­tion is un­der­way and while there is still no clear sense of where this will lead, signs sug­gest that if tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing, with its fo­cus on mak­ing money from a sin­gle prod­uct, may be dead, the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try it­self may be en­ter­ing a sec­ond life.

Print re­mains, as the French say, ‘in­con­tourn­able’. It’s not just that there has been an ex­plo­sion of in­de­pen­dent mag­a­zines, en­am­oured to the point of fetish with print (and per­versely pow­ered by the gen­er­a­tion that grew up with the In­ter­net), it’s that even for mav­er­icks like Vogue Ara­bia, a paper edi­tion is al­ready sched­uled for early 2017 and for all the fan­fare ac­com­pa­ny­ing this ‘bold new ex­per­i­ment’, nei­ther Condé Nast or Ner­vora ap­pear pre­pared to bank on dig­i­tal. Even more tellingly, two years af­ter it fa­mously mi­grated online, Newsweek re­turned to print in 2014. With a higher cover price and lim­ited dis­tri­bu­tion, the print edi­tion is aimed at a smaller, pre­mium mar­ket. It sur­vives on sub­scrip­tions, not advertising and be­gan turn­ing a profit within a year.

It isn’t just the be­he­moths that are adopt­ing this dig­i­tal-plus-pre­mium par­a­digm. Frus­trated by the lack of in­ter­est their quar­terly arts and cul­ture magazine re­ceived from ad­ver­tis­ers in Saudi Ara­bia, un­able to cut costs any fur­ther and un­will­ing to give up, Noura and Basma Bouzo de­cided to take their magazine, Oa­sis, in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

“Ad­ver­tis­ers were look­ing for print runs in the 50,000 a week category, so they didn’t care about us. We got tired of chas­ing them,” Basma ex­plained by phone. “It took too much of our time and we felt that the game was rigged in the Gulf. The agen­cies have the same clients and all work to­gether.”

Af­ter a hia­tus of al­most a year, the sis­ters re­launch Oa­sis this Oc­to­ber. The magazine will be­come a bian­nual, lim­ited edi­tion print aimed at col­lec­tors and print lovers and will be priced sub­stan­tially higher. More reg­u­lar ar­ti­cles will ap­pear on a new web­site, which will be given over each month to a dif­fer­ent cu­ra­tor.

“It will be a to­tally dif­fer­ent beast to the print edi­tion,” Basma con­tin­ues. “Things we can’t pub­lish in the magazine will go online. We see the dig­i­tal edi­tion as a kind of ‘thank you’ to ex­ist­ing read­ers and a way to at­tract a new read­er­ship to the print magazine.”

To cover costs, the sis­ters are shift­ing away from advertising and into work they get through Oa­sis; cu­rat­ing and event man­age­ment and plan­ning. They’re also about to launch their own Saudi life­style brand, tra­di­tional, hand­crafted prod­ucts with a con­tem­po­rary twist, which may later be mar­keted through the dig­i­tal magazine. It is a route with which The

Out­post is also fa­mil­iar. A Beirut­based bian­nual pub­li­ca­tion in its fourth year, and self-styled magazine of the pos­si­ble, it now sells more copies in Europe than at home.

Their fo­cus, how­ever, is re­versed. The Out­post is solidly print. It op­er­ates a ba­sic place­holder site that di­rects vis­i­tors to an online store to pur­chase the print edi­tion and its social me­dia pres­ence, which ed­i­tor Ibrahim

Nehme calls “friendly”, is more a se­ries of sta­tus up­dates on the progress of the print edi­tion.

“When first started, we were so fo­cussed on de­vel­op­ing our print prod­uct that we did not have enough re­sources left for online,” Nehme ex­plains. “We're a very small team and we just didn’t have the means to pull off some­thing de­cent online as well. It's not about not want­ing to do some­thing online but I don't want to do some­thing that won't cover its costs and I still don't know what is it I can do online that would.”

The Out­post stopped look­ing for advertising af­ter its fifth edi­tion and se­cures much of its fund­ing from magazine sales and sales of pe­riph­eral goods avail­able at the launch par­ties held for each new is­sue. At $13 an is­sue, The Out­post isn’t cheap but Nehme says that read­ers ap­pre­ci­ate

In an ef­fort to stay sol­vent, many mag­a­zines squeeze con­trib­u­tors.

the magazine’s take on the re­gion as well as the ef­fort that goes into cre­at­ing each edi­tion and so are will­ing to pay for a pre­mium prod­uct.

It’s no stranger to find­ing al­ter­nate sources of rev­enue and funded its sec­ond year through a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign on Indiegogo and it also ap­plies for grants but it is side ven­tures in book pub­lish­ing and con­sul­tancy that en­able it to make ends meet. Money re­mains tight and Nehme ad­mits to feel­ing frus­trated that The Out­post is not al­ways in a po­si­tion to pay con­trib­u­tors.

About to take a break to re­flect on how to main­tain in­de­pen­dence and raise more fund­ing, ideas be­ing con­sid­ered in­clude or­gan­is­ing events and con­fer­ences linked to the ideas ex­plored in each themed is­sue of the magazine.

But even big pub­li­ca­tions that still play the advertising game are ex­plor­ing other op­tions. Ghas­san

Omeira, ed­i­tor of Le­banese life­style magazine Mon­dan­ité says that adding to the prob­lem of mak­ing ends meet, pub­li­ca­tions must now op­er­ate mul­ti­ple plat­forms - dig­i­tal, social me­dia – sim­ply to stay rel­e­vant.

“We main­tain Mon­dan­ité’s social me­dia ac­counts daily. We use them as a teaser to pro­mote an event or an ar­ti­cle and then if you want to see the full story, you have to read the magazine,” he ex­plains. “This is an ex­tra cost for us. You need a spe­cial­ist for each and ev­ery ac­count. Will it be ben­e­fi­cial in the longterm? I don't know. But we can­not ne­glect social me­dia.”

With no in­crease in advertising rev­enues to cover this out­lay, like Oa­sis and The Out­post, Omeira has de­vel­oped a business model that sup­ple­ments tra­di­tional sources of print rev­enue to keep the social me­dia arm afloat. In ad­di­tion to its sis­ter pub­li­ca­tions – there are Kuwaiti and Emi­rati edi­tions of Mon­dan­ité – the group op­er­ates a pub­lish­ing arm and makes money from prod­uct place­ment and en­dorse­ments. In ad­di­tion, through sis­ter com­pany OMG, it gains rev­enue from out­door advertising. Look­ing ahead, Omeira is san­guine.

“What we of­fer through our online pres­ence and social me­dia ac­counts is a bun­dle for the ad­ver­tis­ers to help pro­mote their brands. Social me­dia is an in­stant mes­sage and gets and in­stant re­ac­tion from the au­di­ence but it doesn't cre­ate aware­ness. The next day, read­ers don't re­mem­ber ads they saw online,” he con­tin­ues. “But with print, and we have this feed­back from all our ad­ver­tis­ers, many read­ers tear out the page and go di­rectly to the shop ask­ing for the prod­uct in the ad. That’s why lux­ury brands are still heav­ily present in print edi­tions.”

While in­de­pen­dence hasn’t al­lowed Oa­sis or The Out­post to do more than break even, at least for the mo­ment, it does show that for smaller publishers and in Newsweek’s case, some much larger ones, sur­vival is pos­si­ble with­out the advertising in­dus­try. This may not yet pro­vide com­fort for writ­ers, it does at least mean that their skills re­main in de­mand and with univer­sal agree­ment that con­tent is king, a re­vival in for­tunes may lie ahead.

For the advertising in­dus­try, though, things may be less ap­petis­ing. Should more large mag­a­zines, all bat­tling the down­turn in rev­enues, de­cide to fol­low sim­i­lar routes, it may one day be that in place of print be­ing threat­ened by a lack of advertising, the advertising in­dus­try may be threat­ened by a lack of print mag­a­zines need­ing them. As Ala­nis Moris­sette once sang, wouldn’t that be ironic?

While there is still no clear sense of where this will lead, signs sug­gest that if tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing, with its fo­cus on mak­ing money from a sin­gle prod­uct, may be dead, the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try it­self may be en­ter­ing a sec­ond life. But even big pub­li­ca­tions that still play the advertising game are ex­plor­ing other op­tions.

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