Why Paper Is Bigger Than Ever

Is digital dead? CNN Money recently touted print as the “new” magazine medium. Print has become becoming a differentiator for publications like Sift, Airbnb Magazine and Porter. Printed on rich, thick paper and bursting with color, these magazines pull readers in for cozy, long-term engagement.

The big challenge? Print is really expensive. So it’s not surprising that these print titles are all content marketing projects. What does this “boutique print” movement mean for magazines in general?

Today’s editors and writers shouldn’t be asking ourselves that tired question, “Is print dead?” The real issue – yet to be decided – is whether or not the old magazine subscription and advertising revenue models are dead. For these plush new magazines, it looks like the only way to float a skilled photography, design and editorial staff for print is with a single corporate sponsor.

At one point I helped launch one of the Edible licensees in my hometown. The Edible magazines were also touted in the CNN Money piece as yet another print success story. Each Edible covers food and culture for its own region or city, and they are printed on heavy, matte paper with eco-friendly soy inks. Even cheap paper is expensive and this isn’t cheap paper.

Why print takes more work

Starting a traditional magazine - not content marketing - has several challenges. The revenue model is based primarily on advertising, which is a tough sell in today's market. And small staffs mean there is rarely much of a budget for contractors or freelancers to handle photography, design, illustrations or interviews.

Contrast that traditional advertising model to a magazine like Sift, run by King Arthur Flour. Sift doesn’t have advertising. Each print magazine costs $12.95, but that would hardly pay for the professional-quality photography, layout and stories that Sift features. Only a deep marketing budget can produce those top-notch results and attract readers worldwide.

Brand publishing, then, could be the healthy future of magazines. Why should a publisher scramble for multiple advertisers when he or she can align with a single sponsor? And why should a brand pay for advertising with dubious conversion rates when it can instead build its own devoted readership?

"Brands as publishers" will require a bit of a shift in thinking for both editors and brands. I have some advice for both.

Brands: This is not advertising

Magazines build relationships with their readers, and for your brand to build the strongest relationship possible, readers must trust the magazine. They must trust that the quality stories are worth their time, and that the information is helpful and entertaining instead of salesy.

Give your editorial team guidance on the target readership and topics, but don’t micromanage and don’t set sales goals. Experienced editors, designers and photographers know how to pull readers in. Let them do that for you.

Editors: The brand calls the shots

Traditional journalists are sometimes shocked that Edible publishers frequently also hold the title of Editor-in-Chief. Granted this is unusual, but not unheard of even in mainstream publishing – in fact, Inc magazine’s president Eric Schurenberg is also its Editor-in-Chief.

Expect more unusual editing/publishing partnerships like this. In this new model, editors have a closer relationship with the brand/publisher than with ad-sponsored magazines. The brand/publisher will set a target, sometimes a moving target, for readership and topics, and it is the editor’s job to deliver within those parameters.

One content-publishing magazine I worked with decided to evaluate whether or not print was worth continuing to pay for. When we did a reader survey, the response was overwhelmingly, “YES!” Readers (especially millennials) definitely prefer print, saying they are tired of screens and want to settle down with something more tactile at the end of the day. They want to hold and feel the paper, and rest their digital-weary eyes – something our competitors at that time weren’t offering.

Print is very much alive, it’s traditional advertising that’s in trouble. Brands – you can increase customer engagement by beefing up your publishing department. And editors – figure out how best to work within this new publishing model. It’s your future.