Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
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Bo Sacks: Publishing opportunities in unlikely places

Last week I wrote of my optimism for the publishing industry. My view was skewed towards what we now call “Magazine Media.”  I have no fear of that side of the publishing adventure. New and modern rules are still under construction, and alternative revenue streams are multiplying for those entrepreneurial explorers who look for them.

A friend and long-time reader of this newsletter was an editor and a publisher and questioned my optimism, writing to me, “You must be having lots of dinners with Mr. Magazine. While it might be true that a few relatively new media companies of more than modest but not huge scale are doing just fine, almost every ancient large scale media company is suffering and suffering badly and therapies/remedies applied have been ineffective.” 

I replied: “Actually I don’t agree. While most publishing houses with ancient Victorian business plans based on Rate Base mythology are struggling, some are not. Trusted Media, for example, is doing very well. But I don’t judge the entire industry by the success or failure of 5 or 6 large companies. Magazine media is a big, brave new world, and there are plenty of positive achievements in B2B and B2C. “

On the whole, the industry has been revitalized. We will never print as many pages as we used to. But in the smaller footprint of the industry is a success for those smart enough to make the transition.” 

I went on to say, “Active Interest Media (AIM) is, of course, the poster child for magazine business brilliance. But there are boatloads of others around the globe doing very well. It’s not the old magazine business that is doing well, but a new one with different revenue strategies that are prevailing.”

Our conversation then shifted to newspapers, and my publishing friend wrote, “It’s not just 5-6 large companies-the newspaper industry has been decimated, particularly in small towns (and nothing has emerged to replace the RIP businesses)…”

Indeed, what about the newspaper industry? I began in this industry by starting a weekly newspaper, with my friend Andy Kowl. I then went on to start two others before my involvement in the magazine business with High Times Magazine, which was again with my friend Andy.  So, it is here in the examination of the newspaper industry that my optimism is, at best, stymied by reporting that more than 2,000 local newspapers – mostly weeklies – have gone out of business in the past 15 years. 

As Thomas Jefferson put it, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” My friends and fellow publishers, we need vibrant local journalism and an informed public to keep our society whole and functioning. 

Take note that social media, which is where too many of the public get their news these days, is a literary sugar trap – it briefly feels good but has no lasting substance. Social media is a rabbit hole of fraud, misinformation, and a fraternity of tribalism that does little to inform of our community’s needs. 

We are lucky here in Charlottesville where we have two healthy newspapers, one a daily and one a weekly. I subscribe to the Daily Progress, and regularly pick up our free circulation weekly called C-ville Weekly, which is a vibrant, healthy publication with this week’s issue a robust 64 pages with a rough count of 45 pages of ads. As you might expect, I am friends with the current publisher of the C-Ville Weekly and with the former publisher of the Daily Progress. I will reach out to both of them and ask the question, Why are you successful here while most other newspapers are struggling? Charlotteville is a unique gem of a prospering community and perhaps not representative of other small cities, where papers are withering on the web.

With all the optimism I have for magazine media, I still hold some for the newspaper industry for two reasons. One is that each year I go to Berlin to FIPP‘s annual Digital Innovators Summit (DIS), and each year there are representatives of newspapers sharing positive revenue results from around the globe, using new revenue streams, applied data technologies and some reporting local news using A.I. as a foundational tool. These new technologies are too late for the now missing 2,000 dead newspapers but perhaps not for the survivors. 

I don’t have any real answers to newspaper’s dismal survival forecast, but I think it is weird that we seem to be relying on individual philanthropists and the possible reorganizing of some papers like The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah to become nonprofit news organizations, when it appears to me entrepreneurism is a reasonable and viable answer. 

I look at it this way, nature abhors a vacuum and so does the nature of business. As a life-long entrepreneur, I would suggest there are probably some opportunities in communities where an old-style newspaper has gone out of business, creating a void. The community is still there; the local businesses are still there, and most importantly of all, the need for local information is still there. 

Local news still has great value, and it can be re-monetized, not by hedge funds but by smart businessmen and businesswomen who see the need and figure out a new paradigm of information distribution for a profit.