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What Life Is Like for Titles After They Leave Print

PC Mag, SeattlePI.Com, Adjust to Smaller Staffs, New Approach to Content

By Published on . 3

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A small but growing group of publishers are navigating lives after what once seemed like death: the end of their long-running print editions. And the hardest decision for most -- whether and when to stop the presses -- now looks in retrospect like perhaps the simplest.

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"It was clear to us with the revenue we were giving up that we would have to make adjustments," said Jason Young, CEO of Ziff Davis Media, which ended PC Magazine's 27 years in print with the January issue. The operation needed to reduce its footprint in areas like "content and sales and marketing," Mr. Young recalled, describing just about everything that made PC Magazine what it was.

Life after the print edition, which Mr. Young said was still profitable even at the end, would offer room for only about two-thirds of the staff. The online-only PC Magazine would benefit from the brand that print had built, but it also needed to meet readers' expectations despite fewer resources. And while print's advantage used to be that it offered some shelter from new competitors -- starting a national magazine is no cheap or easy prospect -- the web welcomes new competition by the minute.

So retooling for a new life meant a cold assessment of the old one. "We looked very closely at our core brand value proposition -- the things that the brand as a whole did that held more meaning in print and the things that held more meaning in digital," Mr. Young said.

That meant an end to the product troubleshooting guides that once worked so well in the magazine, because countless websites, including manufacturers' own, by then offered the same thing. Professional laboratory reviews of gizmos and electronics, on the other hand, drew a lot of traffic and remained costly for competitors to match. A similar evaluation unfolded on the business side, where the reduced sales force all but gave up chasing advertisers from outside core tech categories. Partnerships with outsiders, such as a content deal with Yahoo and keyword ads from Google, became more important.

Local trouble
So far, according to Mr. Young, the results are encouraging. The online-only PCMag.com is profitable, he said. The site will publish slightly more reviews this year than last year. It may be too early to get a good read on web traffic under the new model; unique visitors rose 19% in September from September 2008, but declined 22% in October from last October, according to ComScore Media Metrix.

Local and regional newspapers quitting print may have it tougher. Where PC Magazine had expensive and sophisticated lab reviews, newspapers once had local monopolies. But that's changed with the web, said Alan D. Mutter, an independent analyst and consultant who writes the Newsosaur blog. "Now the marketplace is much more competitive," he said. "You have to have something pretty good and you have to get it right pretty much the first time, because you don't get an enormous number of go-backs."

The all-digital SeattlePI.com, which was hiring about 20 people to succeed a work force of 170 at the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer (R.I.P. March 17, 2009), prioritized the content that played best on the web: sports, Seattle politics and regional business content such as blogs on Microsoft and Boeing. It also held on to a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist whose blog was already drawing a big following. And it got content from siblings elsewhere in Hearst Corp., which owns many other papers and magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Esquire.

But the key differentiator may prove to be a corporate strategy on the sales side. Hearst has directed all its newspaper sites to position themselves as each market's local digital agency, so the digital Post-Intelligencer's sales staff is selling marketing programs, search marketing services and inventory including other sites.

"We don't need to rely on our core website alone in order to succeed," said Lincoln Millstein, senior VP-digital media at Hearst Newspapers. "We do very few deals now that aren't packaged with one or more solutions."

Traffic to the site, which benefitted from the election cycle last fall, seems choppy compared to the old days. SeattlePI.com attracted 2% more unique visitors in September 2009 than in September 2008, but 41% fewer this October than last, according to ComScore. Mr. Millstein declined to discuss ad revenue but said he expects the site to turn a profit in less than five years. "Our revenues are accelerating month after month," he said. "We're on plan with both revenue and traffic."

Easier transition
And then there's the daily Christian Science Monitor, which operated at a loss for decades, subsidized by the First Church of Christ, Scientist. The proposition was getting more expensive every year as the costs of printing and distributing the paper rose, so it published its last daily edition in March.

Killing the print daily, creating a new print weekly and introducing an electronic daily for $5.75 a month didn't require quite the same cuts as other publications needed after ending their core print products -- the Monitor's edit staff fell to about 80 people from 95, and business staff went from about 25 from 30. But the Monitor still had to figure out what it could offer that others could not.

Weirdly enough, the contraction of traditional media created the opportunity it needed. Other newspapers and news were closing overseas bureaus and cutting back on international coverage, so the Monitor decided to protect its overseas reporting as much as possible. "We think that's an opening for the Monitor as the world contracts and becomes more interdependent," said Jonathan Wells, managing publisher. "We've got a journalistic enterprise that someone couldn't create in their garage tomorrow."

Monitor executives want the new business to break even in four or five years. So far costs have fallen 20%; producing and distributing the new print product costs lass than half what the daily required. Online ad revenue is down some 20%, which the Monitor attributes to the recession, but print ad revenue has actually held steady, the Monitor said, because the weekly is drawing higher revenue per page than the daily did.

Subscriptions to the weekly Monitor, a cheaper $89 subscription than the $219 daily, have increased 55% to 67,000 in the seven months since the Monitor made the switch. The electronic daily news product has only attracted 1,800 paying customers, although Monitor executives call that glass half full amid publishers' search for ways to sell content on the web. Unique visitors to CSMonitor.com in September fell 6% shy of last September's mark, but gained 11% in October, according to ComScore.

It's still too soon to tell how the reshaped trends will bear out. "We're six months into a five-year plan," said Editor John Yemma. "We're a real-time lab now for web-first journalism, and every day we learn something new."

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