A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Funeral of Print Media

Submitted by: Phil Riebel 11/20/2013

Web publishers launching print magazines, e-book sales plateauing, slow adoption of tablet magazines, and now a profitable U.S. Postal Service: Whatever happened to the death of print?

Dead Tree Edition - 17 November 2013

Web publishers launching print magazines, e-book sales plateauing, slow adoption of tablet magazines, and now a profitable U.S. Postal Service: Whatever happened to the death of print?

I recall a magazine editor parading around the office in 2009 and announcing, 'Print is dead', Sure, I recognized it as the exaggeration of a middle-aged journalist trying desperately to prove he was hip to the digital age.

Still, it looked as if he had the basic trend nailed. Although I'm a print guy, I had to admit that within a few years, print would probably be well along the road to Buggy Whip Lane.

But 2013 is turning out to be the year that print media didn't die. Let's take a look at some recent events:

Postal profits
 The U.S. Postal Service revealed Friday that it was profitable in the year that ended on Sept. 30. OK, the official news release says USPS lost $5 billion, but that included a $5.6 billion payment for pre-funded retiree health benefits that it skipped.

Such payments are in reality low-interest loans to the federal government that mask some of the federal deficit. They're a vestige of the era when USPS was the government's cash cow.

The $5.6 billion is not truly an expense, and the retiree-benefits shenanigans are so politically controversial that the missed payment will probably be written off. USPS's cash position is still precarious, but better than it was.

The return of junk mail
It wasn't just downsizing that led to a successful year for the Postal Service. The volume of Standard mail, such as direct mail, catalogs, and promotional flyers, increased 1.8%. Wasn't everything supposed to have shifted to email promotions and online ordering by now?

Web to print
This month has already seen the launch of two significant print magazines, Allrecipes and Politico, from brands that were previously web-only. That's the perfect rebuttal to Michael Wolff's recent analysis for The Guardian, in which he asked, "What is the business basis for print? In fact, is there any reason print should exist?"

If Michael put a bit more effort into looking at actual data and less effort puking up vitriol all over Time Inc., he would know the answer: For most magazine publishers, print is still where the money is.

E-gads
When I headlined an article early last year Are E-Book Sales Reaching a Plateau?, many laughed off the article as wishful thinking from a print dinosaur even though it was based on an objective study.

But three weeks ago, Digital Book World wrote, "Once thought destined to reach 50% or 80% of all book buying and reading in the U.S., ebooks have stalled out on their way up to higher altitude."

And more recently Mike Shatzkin, one of the leading commentators on the digital transformation of the book industry, actually used the P-word: "Recent evidence suggests that ebooks have hit either a point of serious resistance or a temporary plateau."

App-oplexy
 
I got similar blowback for this year's article A Troubling Sign for Tablet Magazines?, which pointed out a study showing that three-fourths of U.S. tablet owners prefer print magazines to digital editions.

Many articles have subsequently come out about the surprisingly slow adoption of tablet magazines and the struggles publishers are having with selling digital subscriptions.

"Apple is a fickle partner," Jasper Jackson recently wrote, citing various challenges for magazine publishers. "Until these issues are dealt with, or a genuinely credible competing platform emerges, digital magazine marketers will be working with one hand tied behind their back."

Print still struggles
 
Don't get me wrong: Not all is well in the world of print media. The Web is driving most daily newspapers to the point of extinction. (I'm not brave enough to think Jeff Bezos' purchase of The Washington Post is a vote for print. Methinks his long-term vision for that hallowed journal doesn't have much to do with putting ink on paper.)

With the continuing decline of profitable First Class mail and a Congress that can't pass any meaningful reform, the U.S. Postal Service is still on the ropes.

Newsstand sales are still declining at about 10% annually. Retail chains keep reducing the space devoted to magazines even though it's their most profitable category. Dysfunctional sales channels, you see, are not Apple's invention.

So don't expect people to ditch their laptops and smartphones, dig their typewriters out of the attic, or revert to sending handwritten letters instead of texts and emails.

Digital substitution of print will continue, but it won't always be at the steady or exponential rates the pundits predict. An unsustainable trend cannot be sustained, and inevitable changes often turn out to be quite evitable.

A few digital innovations are immediate game changers. Some need years of refinement to catch on. (Perhaps digital magazines are in this category.) And others burst onto the scene with much buzz but soon go the way of Friendster, PDAs, and the CueCat.

As for that editor who proclaimed four years ago that print is dead? He was recently heard proposing the creation of a new print product.