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Periodical prognosis

In Communicate, Dubai, Interview, Journalism, Published journalism on November 23, 2010 at 6:37 pm

The FIPP’s Don Kummerfeld says magazines in the region can survive the crunch, but only if they expand their online scope

Originally published in Communicate, June 2009

Although advertising spend in the Middle East is notoriously hard to measure, the ad revenue from magazines in Western Europe and the US is in decline, and Don Kummerfeld predicts this region will not be far behind.

Kummerfeld is the president of the International Federation of the Periodical Press (FIPP), a global organization that represents magazine publishers and organizes training, networking and licensing fairs. He was recently in the UAE, and told Communicate advertising growth in magazines is likely to be on hold for a while in the Middle East.

“We don’t have statistics that are totally reliable, particularly for the Arabic press, so you have to be careful,” he says. “But just from my discussions with our members [which include Dubai publishing house Motivate, as well as the magazine publishing arms of Gulf News and Khaleej Times], it appears that the region is suffering very much like South East Asia. Your growth has disappeared, and you’ll be lucky to be flat. You might even be slightly minus this year.”

As advertising revenue declines, capturing online ad spend will be critical to the survival of magazines, says Kummerfeld. “If you haven’t developed a successful online editorial product based on the expertise that causes the success of your print product in the first place, you will not be successful.”

That is not to say, however, that online will mean the death of print. The average length of a magazine article may be less than half of what it was 20 years ago, but Kummerfeld insists that print periodicals are “the keepers of long-form journalism.” It is just that those full-length articles are now only one facet of magazine publishers’ work; periodicals are at the vanguard of multimedia. “We must learn how to integrate tools, digital tools, video activity, and immediacy,” says Kummerfeld.

This often means a move away from a monthly, or even weekly production-cycle mindset. Instead, Web site journalism needs to be more immediate, and more akin to newspaper journalism.

“We know that in order to keep people coming back to a Web site frequently, you’ve got to have new stuff up there all the time. Some newspaper editors can make that shift: ‘On the Web today, it’s going to be interesting to my audience and my readers, and at the same time I’m preparing an article for the next issue of the print magazine.’ … I think [magazines] are hiring print reporters who have to be better able to work on short deadlines and put stuff up quickly.”

There might be more of those news reporters floating around the job market now. Although dailies are still relatively strong in this region, throughout the Western world, newspapers are cutting back on seven-days-a-week distribution, and choosing to come out only at weekends when people have time to read them, says Kummerfeld.

“Specialized magazines probably have a better long-term future than a lot of newspapers,” he says. “I don’t mean that newspapers are going to be out of business, but they are declining in most areas of the world. … The future of magazines depends more and more on specialization. This category has been growing the fastest all over the world. The so-called ‘enthusiast magazines’ based on hobbies, sports, scuba diving, knitting, crocheting… Those are the magazines readers can’t get enough of, whether on the Web or in print.”

Digitally, says Kummerfeld, magazines will need to look beyond simply putting their print content online. “Video will continue to be the dominant media form,” he says. And that is where magazines will need to look. “When I go into magazine companies today, sometimes the first thing I do – just to kind of shake them up a bit – is to say, ‘Show me where you make your videos.’ How do you think you’re going to be successful on the Web if you don’t have video material that complements your print?”

Very few magazine publishers dedicate resources to video, says Kummerfeld, but they should. “It only costs a few thousand dollars, at the most, to set up a little corner in the office with a video camera and start doing it,” he says. “You don’t have to be an actor or an actress. These are not high quality, but it’s the substance that’s interesting. You learn how to do these things and you will be able to put them up on your Web site and cross reference them to some of your print stuff.”

While Kummerfeld holds strong opinions on how magazines can tap the Web for content opportunities, he is less certain on the multi-million dollar question of how to monetize the Web and get decent returns on advertising. “The biggest and insoluble problem right now is the useful format for the Internet,” he says. “And it takes cooperation from the advertisers and the creative people, as well as the operators of the Internet sites, to come up with ways to solve that.”

Kummerfeld lays out one possible solution: “My own view is that if we created something like a magazine made for the Internet, it would be a full page, no scrolling, no zooming. It would be full-screen, maybe 50 screens long, and maybe with full-page ads inserted between the pages just as you’d have in a magazine. People would flip through the magazine, 50 screens, in 10 minutes or so, which is the average amount of time people spend on the Internet.”

Regardless of how print and Web interact, for the foreseeable future online advertising will generate less money than print. Kummerfeld says that although few magazines have more viewers on their Web sites than they do readers of their print edition, they should aim to attract more eyeballs to digital than to paper. “Until you get twice as many unique users as you have print readers, you’re not even in the ball game,” he says. “You can’t make any money on the Web unless you get a larger audience than you are able to get in print.”

This means that although online media has long been billed as the last word in niche publishing, it is the opposite. “You’ve got to have huge audiences. The irony of all this is that when the Internet first arrived we thought this was going to be the ultimate one-to-one de-massification media. In fact it is a mass media, because you can’t make any money unless you get mass,” says Kummerfeld.

One publication he says has handled its online content particularly well is the fortnightly American business title Forbes. Its Web site, Forbes.com, launched more than 10 years ago and is now one of the most successful sites for a magazine, with 16 million unique viewers a month. Rather than luring the title’s readers away from the magazine and towards the online content, this helped drive up print readership. Over the past decade, readership has risen from 100,000 to more than a million. “The Web site improved the print,” says Kummerfeld. “Magazines that didn’t have successful Web sites lost circulation; Forbes gained circulation.”

So, it seems magazine editors must become movie makers, the technological revolution does not yet mean the end of niche publications, and a successful Web site can rescue a print title by helping to pull up circulation. We are living in unusual and sometimes uncertain times. But there is one factor that will have an even more unpredictable effect on the print industry – both in the region, and beyond.

In the global recession, the strong will survive but the weak will perish or be swallowed by larger competitors, predicts Kummerfeld. “Small companies without strong financial support and resources will suffer terribly and therefore get caught up by the bigger ones that have stronger financial backing,” he says. “Particularly if it goes on for a year or more. We will see a fair amount of consolidation in the industry, just because the little guys can’t hold out for financial reasons.”

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