Digital Publishing
4 mins read

Bo Sacks: Presumptions of the new normal one year later

It’s been about a year since the world and the publishing industry went into quarantine and an unknown dangerous void lay before us. Last year I wrote an article titled Presumptions of the New Normal where I laid the case that:

“the magazine industry was under stress before the rise of COVID-19. Each year advertising was down double digits, and so were magazine newsstand sales. There are, of course, many success stories out there, and that is important to recognize. You may be one of them. But when viewed as a whole, the charts and statistics were not pretty. I guess you can say there were many individual victories, but the war wasn’t going well.”

A year later where are we and what is happening?

I think it is safe to say that the great Klingon writer Worf Nietzsche got it right when he said, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

Those of us who survived are indeed stronger on so many levels. We have reinvented everything that could be analyzed and made more efficient. We learned that we could work remotely and still thrive. It also seems that we have proved that our offices are quaint vestiges of the past and in many cases irrelevant to a successful media product.

We learned that readers are willing to pay for quality journalism. I wonder what took us so long to make that conclusion? Could it have been the seductive allure of flighty mistress Advertising?

We learned that the traditional methodologies and business plans that were in place in January 2020 were mostly a dream based on a previous reality.

The time machine we entered into a year ago accelerated whatever was happening before into new possibilities that under pre-covid processes would have taken years to develop.

We learned we could take the entire magazine process and launch it into the cloud. Sure, we all worked in the cloud before, but not like we did that year. Instead of taking years for the technological jump, we did it in days. One day in early March you worked in an office, and the next day you stayed at home for a year and worked in the refuge of family, zoom and casual attire, and you did not miss a beat. The cloud became your new best friend.

Perhaps the toughest thing we learned was pulling the plug on the existing advertising model. It is fairer to say that plug was removed for you.

Now the world has moved on and our industry with it. We are doing exciting things with our properties.

The industry is working hard to create drop-down menus for on-line shopping and the selling of magazines from retail stores and grocery chains.

We have reengineered the event business and have started to make virtual conferences work and be profitable. Admittedly in most cases not as profitable as live, in-person events, but we are headed in the right direction. (I am a big fan of the networking possibilities of in-person events and what the connections made do for your career.)

We have learned that there are various new methods to drive subscriptions such as podcasts, texting, and, of course, newsletters, not to mention damned good content worth paying for.

We have created new opportunities for consumers to form new habits, enabling publishers to establish more direct consumer relationships. As the popularity of subscriptions increased, many publishers have been able to move away from low price trials, improving profitability, as well as broadening their offer with enhanced membership benefits to reward increased loyalty. Hearst, for example, reported that they were able to remove a number of their lowest-priced trial offers and still grow subscribers by 33%.

The pandemic indeed introduced stress to the already struggling magazine newsstand industry, but it may have boosted the success of bookazines. Meredith, which publishes People, Food & Wine and dozens of other popular titles, has seen newsstand revenue grew by $3 million in the past quarter compared to the year prior. Its earnings report specifically cited bookazines, which are usually presented as single-topic, in-depth magazines often marketed to consumers as collectors’ items. Hearst produced 80 bookazines last year, up from 75 in 2019.

What are the lasting long-term effects of the covid year I discussed above? No doubt a continuation of remote working where possible, continued searches for efficiency, and an ever-flighty and unpredictable advertising market.

Last March I also suggested that we will have a new roaring 20s. The public will emerge from quarantine with a revitalized lust for life. That will manifest in splurges in retail spending, restaurant visitations, air travel, car travel, and hotel stays. Concerts and plays will be back and with all this a rebirth in alternative weeklies, local magazines, and the concurrent advertising to go with it.

Looking back, we have done an excellent job adapting to the conditions presented to us. I’m most proud to belong to such a fascinating publishing community. It has always been our job to communicate, inform, counsel, entertain and inject cautious sobriety into the body politic. And that is something we are dammed good at.

We will always adapt our work methodologies and our business plans, and, in so doing, protect the public by distributing knowledge. That is what we do best. That is the responsibility we have always willingly accepted.

A year into the new normal and under conditions no one could have prophesized we are about to come out as a leaner and stronger industry. More so than anyone might have expected in March of 2020. I expect that what we have learned, the new revenue pathways, and the new processes will profit us in the near and the long term.

Keep up the good work. And congratulations on your stamina, good cheer under an extraordinary situation, and your creativity.

Bo Sacks
President, Precision Media Group

This commentary originally appeared on Bo Sacks daily newsletter and is re-published with kind permission. You can subscribe to Bo’s e-newsletter here.