Lessons in print success from digital-only publishers

It’s undeniably been a bad week for print in the UK:

Shortlist Media (now rebranded as ‘The Stylist Group’) announced that its flagship men’s lifestyle title Shortlist was to go digital-only as the company prioritises Stylist magazine instead. If a circulation of over 500,000 isn’t enough to sustain a free title, what hope is there for the smaller titles? Especially, as Shortlist alumni Terri White pointed out, when the advertising market simply isn’t there to support them?

Shortlist commanded a huge share of the free titles

Esquire also announced plans to go bi-monthly rather than monthly. In doing so it is increasing page count, page quality and the number of sections, in part to refocus its business model around the core audience of ABC1 men who it is betting will pay to support a doubly-luxury title and its new suite of events. In the light of what’s happened to the once-thriving “lad’s mags” market, Esquire has always tried to set itself apart – but in the face of falling print ad revenue has been forced to change itself once again.

And in the most earth-shattering news, the bell finally tolled for Johnston Press plc, which despite the success of flagship titles like the i and The Scotsman, was forced to go into administration to help wipe the debt it had accumulated over the course of being a regional news publishing powerhouse. It took the newly-formed JPIMedia to provide some much-needed surety against the uncertainty, with the Independent’s Chiara Giordano reporting:

“In a statement, JPIMedia offered reassurance that the acquisition of Johnston Press “secures jobs and [the] future of its brands and titles”.

“JPIMedia’s shareholders recognise the vital role that local and regional media plays in the communities they serve and remain committed to protecting and enhancing the value of the business in the future,” it added.”

Even with the restructuring of the debt, it was far from plain sailing, with a scathing letter from Johnston Press’ largest shareholder Custos Group’s chief executive stating: “Today’s pre-pack was not so much a corporate rescue as a blatant pre-planned corporate theft by bondholders, suitably aided and abetted by Johnston Press’ incompetent and double-tongued board and its chief executive David King”.

So, all in all it’s been a bleak weak for the prospects of mass-market print titles, in the UK at least. But what lessons can we take from digital publications within that men’s and generalist news space, and can any be ported across to the print titles that remain?

Digital lessons

Shortlist’s business model relied heavily on reach, with the print title available at public transport and other points spread throughout cities. It bet that its circulation – relatively huge for a men’s lifestyle and listings title – could carve out enough of the print advertising spend to make it worthwhile. More importantly, it was also betting that a physical touchpoint could deliver more tangible metrics than could be offered by social, onto which ad spend is increasingly heading. Speaking at Magfest earlier this year, Shortlist Media chairman Mike Soutar told us:

“I want to pick up on your point about social, and social numbers having very little worth. I have to agree with that, it’s very difficult – apart from as a promo tool – to find out how social can help you, because the example of Team Rock is a very pertinent one. They were shouting a lot about how social numbers had increased in the way they had, but it really wasn’t worth anything at all.”

However, the advertising market for reaching audiences fell too sharply to make publication of Shortlist sustainable as a physical product, as a result of the cost base.

By contrast, lifestyle sites like Joe Media target a very similar audience, but do so in a way that skirts the issue of cost despite producing quality content. By reaching audiences online and in audio and video in a way that a print product could not, Joe Media has been able to open regional offices to expand its marketing proposition, and consequently is cited frequently as a digital publishing business done right.

By going digital-only, it’s possible that Shortlist (with its existing infrastructure) will be able to hew closer to the proposition of Joe and Stylist, and deliver product recommendations to a wider audience, on the platforms on which advertisers will pay to reach audiences.

Similarly, there are no shortage of content aggregators out there, many of which are making a decent living as a result of having an extremely small cost base (it’s notable that despite its media pack proclaiming the value of its original content, and despite much criticism, the Daily Mail’s online counterpart is still routinely nicking copy wholesale from other online sources).

However, that only works with for companies with low overheads. For the JPIMedias of the world, that simply isn’t an option. And while much has been said about the need for local and regional titles to actually focus on their great strength of knowing and being embedded within communities, it’s harder than ever to do that properly due to cost-cutting. Instead, those regional sites should look to transition the service journalism provided by their US counterparts or, failing that, emulate Refinery29.

That’s a strange suggestion since Refinery29 actually missed revenue targets this year and were forced to take a haircut, but the way in which they are refocusing is admirable. They are more or less abandoning short-term, social-driven content in exchange for more evergreen content that can continue to deliver value to advertising partners for longer. It’s a step away from the chase for easy, low-cost scale that put them in competition with so many low-cost digital competitors who could afford it, and a step towards high-quality publishing that competitors can’t afford to replicate.

For a while, then, it’s seemed that certain print titles have been replicating the downsides of digital publishing – overreliance on scale, easy replicability in other formats – without focusing on their own strengths. While the current crop of news around print publishing is disheartening, it should hasten those publications to deliver on the things only they can do effectively.