Print media’s ad-free renaissance

April 21, 2016 14:15
Print media, often called a sunset industry, may have orchestrated a revival, and this time readers will replace advertisers as the prime source of income. Photo:

The tidal wave of free-to-read online blogs and news portals, which started a decade ago along with the sweeping penetration of the internet, has prompted some industry analysts to sound the death knell for print media.

Indeed, we have seen a spate of newspaper and magazine closures through the years.

But this is no longer the case, at least in the United States, where the market is seeing a revival of print media.

More than 200 new publications emerged last year and even some “digital natives” such as Pitchfork, a music portal, and The Tablet, an online platform for Jewish news and commentaries, have started selling hard copies.

That’s not all.

Several revered news outlets like The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have quietly raised their retail and subscription fees, but their readership continues to expand nonetheless.

There is no such thing as free lunch. The news industry should never treat its work as freebies. People must pay if they want to read quality news and commentaries.

It’s interesting to note that the apparent renaissance of print media is happening despite the outflow of ads to the internet.

Also, for the first time in the past century, we saw last year the overall circulation income of the world’s print media outstrip advertising revenue, which used to be their main source of income.

Figures from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers show newspapers and magazines worldwide earned over US$92 billion from retail sales and subscriptions in 2015, US$5 billion more than their income from ads.

Larry Kilman, secretary general of the association, said the tradition of advertising subsidizing circulation may be nearing its end.

One pioneer in adapting to the new order is Rodale Inc., a Pennsylvania-based publisher of health and wellness magazines, books and digital properties including Men's Health.

Its management has announced that starting July, its flagship Prevention, founded by Jerome Irving Rodale and currently one of the largest US magazines in terms of circulation, will break through the clutter and move to an ad-free business model for its print editions.

The tablet-sized magazine currently commands a premium price of US$24 for an annual subscription – an industry high unmatched by many other rivals; that price will increase with the launch of the new ad-free edition.

The new Prevention will hit newsstands in June with a single copy price of US$4.99, up from its current price of US$3.99.

While boldly hiking fares, the magazine’s entire advertising department will be abolished to economize on resources amid dwindling ad clients.

The magazine is expected to see a sharp drop in circulation following the price adjustment, one million copies fewer than the current 1.5 million, but the strategy will also mean less paper consumption and printing and logistics costs to offset circulation and advertising losses.

Overall, profitability will largely be unaffected, say the magazine's managers.

The New Yorker is more conservative by comparison: it still looks to woo advertisers while increasing its price.

"Print is the New Media", says an article carried by the Columbia Journalism Review late last year; the headline says it all.

In-depth commentaries and stories – fiction as well – are what gives the print media a distinct advantage to their online competitors.

Though the latter may now command more viewers, a newspaper with a circulation of just 10,000 copies may still be more weighty than a free news blog that gets 100,000 hits a day.

These observations are also echoed in a Pew Research Center survey that found internet browsers are merely “flybys”, or readers who arrive at a news website through a link on a social networking site.

It also finds that people spend only a little more than four minutes on average going through online news and articles.

Hardly can articles read in such a hasty fashion leave any lasting impression. That leaves ample room for print media to get in to disseminate serious news and viewpoints.

Like anywhere else, Hong Kong’s print media is also grappling with shrinking ad revenue and their websites are largely non-starters in competing for ads against pure online media.

The woes facing the city’s free newspapers are particularly grave, as ads are their only means of income, and now, in order to survive, they may have to start charging their readers.

Print publications have to become more expensive to compensate for the lost ad income, and the only way to do that is to have an editorial team able to get scoops and insights that cater to the needs and taste of readers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 20.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal