Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
5 mins read

Thoughts on Dotdash Meredith and the “Data Industrial Complex” 

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Our publishing nation will continue to grow, but most likely in directions that are still unexpected and as yet, unexplored.

I’ve been getting many industry reactions from my subscribers about the Dotdash Meredith news of shutting down venerable and, to my eye, successful print publications. We are talking about taking out of service 9.1 million print editions. I try to make it a habit of not criticizing another person’s business plan unless hired to do so. And I won’t here. Dotdash has a plan, and it doesn’t matter what we think about it.

They are the owners of the titles and can damn well do as they please. As I’ve said many times in these pages, nostalgia is a terrible business plan. And the closing of large-circulation magazines is nothing new but rather historic.

Here are just a few comments I have received on the subject:

“After reading the stunning announcement from Meredith today, I was chilled to the bone. It’s a never-ending avalanche of bad news for print…“

“I find this both inevitable, scary and disheartening.”

“This is what happens when you hire a plumber to do electrical work. The subtleties of the different disciplines do not mix well. Dotdash is all about “clicks” and knows nothing about print, nor do they wish to.”

“Killing the leading Hispanic magazine should give you a clue to where things are heading… no more scared cows anymore, just cash cows… keep on milking them until they die from starvation…”

For Dotdash, a member of the Bo-named “Data Industrial Complex” (DIC), it is just business as usual with no appreciation of history or the impact their business moves might mean to the rest of the “off-line” industry of publishers. The closure of 9.1 million magazines is part of a diminishing publishing infrastructure.

Advertisers continue to spend less on print publications; printers continue to print fewer magazine pages; staff is hard to find and keep; prices for ink, paper and distribution continue to climb. Trucks run on fuel and the shipping costs are rising rapidly too.

Speaking of distribution, did you know that Walmart is decreasing its display space for magazines and that is of course not helping with the sales of magazines.

My friend James Hewes, CEO, FIPP said the following recently in an interview:

“From a business point of view, we’re in the middle of an interesting transition. The number of publishers that you can find these days who are prepared to say that they are “magazine publishers”, you could count on the finger of one hand. It is not a business that people want to be seen to be in.

Now, the big secret, of course, is that they all still make a large proportion of their revenue and enormous proportion of their profits from their print business, even the ones that are digitally successful. So there is this kind of – almost a duality – in the industry, which is being pulled between two different poles.

On the one hand, the print business is still so fundamentally important to the current financial status of the business. But from both an investor point of view and for the futureproofing of the business, the publishers know that they need to have a digital hat on… they need to have digital investments and show digital growth.”

From James observation we go to Neil Vogel, the chief executive of Dotdash Meredith who wrote:

“We have said from the beginning, buying Meredith was about buying brands, not magazines or websites,”…

…“It is not news to anyone that there has been a pronounced shift in readership and advertising from print to digital, and as a result, for a few important brands, print is no longer serving the brand’s core purpose.”

On the other hand, Vogel said the company plans to invest in its 19 remaining print magazines — which include People, Better Homes & Gardens and Southern Living — by enhancing paper quality and trimming sizes. Dotdash Meredith also plans to invest $80 million in 2022 in content across all brands.

Vogel said the company has more than 100 open jobs in editorial, engineering, product, design, and e-commerce, some of which it hopes to fill with people whose roles have been eliminated.

Vogel said during a November 5th IAC earnings call, “We’re not the guys that are going to change the secular advertising decline on print.”“The end of the print editions follows a now familiar industry trend: Many magazine companies are looking for ways to cut costs as the circulation of physical copies continues to drop and competition for advertising dollars becomes more fierce. Shape, a women’s fitness magazine owned by Meredith, stopped print editions at the end of last year. In September, the U.S. print version of Marie Claire, owned by the British publisher Future Media, was shuttered. Hearst discontinued regular print editions of O, The Oprah Magazine, in 2020.”

And let’s not forget last week’s announcement that Cosmo USA is downing its frequency. In 2019, there were 12 issues, now it’s down to 8 issues. Each issue is now a themed “collection” issue. The issues will be numbered and not have a date.

Where do we go from here?

Answer, nowhere but onward. Magazines will continue to rise and fall as they always have done. They will be more expensive to produce and distribute, that is a given. Magazine circulations will continue to get smaller and more deeply into niches.  The smaller the niche, the better the chance for survival in an industry in flux. It is specialization that is important, readers want something that they cannot find elsewhere. Indeed, so long as you consistently produce “editorial excellence” in you chosen niche, your magazine can do well.

We are indeed living through truly extraordinary times with the plagues, innovative technology, and unexpected business curves growing at unprecedented rates.

I remain optimistic about the power of the publishing industry to perform and grow.

The pandemic has proved if nothing else the power and value of quality journalism and the importance of trusted media. As we move further into 2022 with all the changes still ahead of us, remember our purpose. We have the power to make our customers laugh, cry, or become more knowledgeable on any and every subject and on any substrate. At the end of our efforts, we hope our work is appreciated, valued, and fairly paid for.

If your company stays with print as the main product, you too can have your share of the billions of dollars that are still left in the field. 

The trick will be to stay smart, agile and very demanding – demanding of your staff and co-workers – as only the very best can and will survive. It doesn’t matter what the trends of the overall industry are to individual companies so long as you can continuously produce unsurpassed editorial excellence in your particular niche.

What happens to Conde, Hearst and Dotdash Meredith and how they run their companies is almost irrelevant to most magazine publishers. They have their business plans, and you have yours. I say almost irrelevant because every magazine taken out of the supply chain makes it harder for the natural order of distribution cycles to work correctly. Oddly enough, volume is a key component to efficiency. The less weight/volume we ship the harder is it is for the small, medium and mini-large publishers to maintain a shrinking distribution channel.

Our publishing nation will continue to grow, but most likely in directions that are still unexpected and as yet, unexplored.

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.