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Paper-based wine magazines: We’re still standing

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I was saddened by the apparent demise of Appellation America, which I learned about through Tom Wark’s commanding post yesterday at Fermentation.

Tom did a superior job analyzing the reasons for AA’s failure and its meaning. Although he made many fine points, the most interesting (and alliterative) in my opinion was this: “Where profitable publishing is concerned, there is something to be said for paper.”

I do sense a retreat from the gloom-and-doom prognostications of six months ago that wine magazines are dead and that the Internet, through social media and blogging, will take their place. That hasn’t happened, and if anything, it looks like paper is getting stronger while the Internet is treading water. My feeling is that, as the Recession retreats (and it looks like it is),  we’ll see advertising recover. Subscriptions remain steady and, certainly in my travels and contacts around California, I’ve seen no evidence that wineries view paper-based wine magazines like Wine Enthusiast with any less importance or respect than they ever did.

Sure, wine blogging has attracted wineries’ attention, as evidenced by Napa’s embrace of the Bloggers’ Conference this year and Washington State’s of it next year. But I’m not sure this pas de deux means anything other than that the industry wants to forge some sort of relationship with the blogosphere, and showing up at a Conference and hosting an event is a very inexpensive way of doing it. It doesn’t cost  wineries anything, or very much, to make kissy-face with bloggers. To understand how wineries actually assess the importance of any particular writer or publication you have to look at where they put their money. And industry money is still pouring into paper-based magazines (through advertising), not into blogs.

Appellation America wasn’t the only online  publication to hit the dust last week. So did Yummy, a wine, food and lifestyle site out of San Francisco, to which I contributed for a few months. Yummy was a fine read, informed and informative, and the publisher tried her best to support it through advertising. But it didn’t work. “The bottom line,” she emailed me, “is that no one sees a true value in online. While they may enjoy receiving e-letters and reading blogs, they are not willing to pay a premium for ad space as they are in print.” The publisher also puts out a paper-based magazine, Northside San Francisco, that brings in quite a lot of cash in ads. But “No one is going to pay that for online,” she said.

I think this reality is sinking in, dashing the optimism of bloggers and rekindling hopes for paper-based magazines, whose publishers after all are the ones that must make these all-important decisions. The Recession, with its fearful anxieties of last winter, no doubt made publishers and editors more nervous than ordinarily they would have been, and contributed to feelings of dread, as well as published reports of print’s impending demise. But we have gotten past the worst of things (I hope), and the major wine magazines have emerged unbowed and untattered, for the most part.

Years ago I sponsored a debate between the owner of Cody’s Books, in Berkeley, and the head of U.C. Berkeley’s New Media Department. The topic was “The future of print.” The U.C. professor said that paper-based pubs would soon be obsolete, to be replaced by lightweight, flexible hand-held devices (of course, that was before Amazon’s Kindle). The bookstore guy said it would never happen, because there’s something in our human nature, or soul, that makes us want to hold and admire a real book or magazine made of paper. I think he was right. Even though Cody’s had to close last year due to the tough economic times, I believe paper-based print is entering a new heyday. It’s undergone a jolt, but the survivors will emerger stronger, leaner and meaner. Blogging also will continue, but independent bloggers (as opposed to “lifestyle managers” like Hardy Wallace)  are going to have to give up on the idea of getting paid, for now.

  1. “The bookstore guy said it would never happen, because there’s something in our human nature, or soul, that makes us want to hold and admire a real book or magazine made of paper. I think he was right.”

    Of course he is right. The really interesting thing that we forget about paper is that it is disposable. How important is that?? VERY. We all already carry around phones and some of us go no where without a computer. Those must stay with us. They can’t be discarded.

    There is something comforting about being able to buy a book or magazine, read it, then toss it away with no care.

  2. Steve,

    I think your assessment is a bit too sweeping. There are blogs and there are blogs. Huffington Post, for example, is a money maker. And there are other forms of online publishing. Magazines/newspapers which place their content online for a price, like the Wall Street Journal, are oftertimes winners. In the Wondrous World of Wine, opinions on the Internet by and large will never capture advertizing or consumer dollars, only those cyberpubs that offer info which professionals need to do their business, e.g. Wine Industry Insight as previously discussed.

    No one stated that the main mags and newsletters like Connoisseurs’ Guide will go away (I think Charlie is on the right track offering the Guide at a discounted web rate.) Not supplanted, augmented. What is worth following over the next few years is how the Wine Market Council’s “core consumer” gets his or her news and commentary. You know my bias. Just as Trip Advisor is used by the frequent traveler and Chowhound by the foodie, while the travel and food mags continue to prosper, wine enthusiasts will turn more and more to CellarTracker and Snooth for guidance on vino.

  3. Tom: “There is something comforting about being able to buy a book or magazine, read it, then toss it away with no care.”

    Or read it on the beach and not worry about salt and moisture damaging it. Or seeing a lovely bookcase crammed with volumes. Or saving a newspaper with a historic headline. Or not having to worry about losing a magazine (as opposed to losing an expensive portable device).

  4. A bookcase is much like a trophycase. It’s rewarding to admire the wrinkled spines of past conquests–a visual testament to knowledge I’ve internalized and return to from time to time. More over, it’s nice to share your personal library–the fact that it exists permanently on your shelf speaks to the text’s credibility in your eyes. What better reading recommendation than to see the books we hold onto.

  5. All good comments. I am in the midst of rewriting a book that Norm Roby and I had in print for years. One of the questions about its re-emergence has been competitive content on the Internet.

    There is no question that no book can ever now capture all the reference material available on the Internet for free–let alone at not great cost, but Dylan’s point is why I believe my book will find a home. It puts everything in one place, and it enables the user to access all that data very quickly rather than trolling for long periods on the Internet.

    I do expect that the book will someday find its way to Kindle-type platforms because it is portable and can be carried along with other books in one piece rather than many. Still, finding things on Kindle is not so quick so finding them in a book.

    Paper may become totally obsolete some day, but not tomorrow, in my humble and admittedly biased opinion.

  6. Interesting and thought provoking. One key element that is missing from this post, and posts of those who believe that traditional print media will not go away because of the advertising aspect, is that Gen Y and Millenials don’t trust and generally disregard advertising altogether. At least in its traditional format. Surveys, buying habits, post buy surveys and all sorts of data is available that says this is true. These consumers trust their friends and people they follow online who provide credible, authentic and transparent knowledge, info and advice – not advertising. Traditional advertising is not credible in their eyes, at all, period. They also aren’t subscribing in large numbers to the significant wine publications either.
    The fact that online publications, blogs etc. have not yet quite mastered how to monetize through advertising does not mean traditional media will survive in its current business model. Monetizing the online world will not come from advertising. We all have to stop thinking about “ads” as the means to monetize and create value. There are other ways to create value, gain customers and monetize in the online space that are being realized outside of the wine world at the moment. It is only a matter of time before that trickles over. I do not believe, by the way, that ALL traditional media will be a thing of the past. Only those that change their business and revenue model away from advertising and ridiculously high subscription rates and identify new revenue streams will survive.

  7. What might be “those other ways to create value”, Michael, that will trickle over to wine 2.0?

    It also needs to be said that of course magazines and books will always be with us. Where the Internet shines is in its immediacy. Print can’t do this and where they do try in newspapers, they are failing–hence the shutting down of metro papers. When one picks up the latest issue of WE, WS or Decanter and reads the news in front it’s all so yesterday.

  8. Well guys I have been living this for about a year. I do not know if others have had this same ride (the Yummy publisher sure as H has), but I can infer from some of the comments that some have not had to try and manage a business is this space.

    Tom and Steve are dead right, there is a intangible value to ink on paper and it is NOT going away. That does not mean electronic pubishing will be replaced by paper, but it sure does mean paper is NOT going to be destroyed and abondoned due to the internet.

    I have the same EXACT comment the Yummy publisher does on monetizing an internet property. It is a failed business model at this time if you are remotely trying to develop an organization based company.

    Sure if I am a one man show, do all the writing, write the code, sell ads, content, my sole et al and have ZERO employees I can get cash flow positive, but likely not truly financially profitable using normal accounting practices.

    Original content costs lots of money to develop as writers expect to be paid and like to feed their families. The value advertisers are willing to give internet media is not even remotely comparable to rate base in print. If you like $3.50 CPM on a piece of real estate that would generate $4,000 on a 1x page rate inprint, jump into the pool, but be prepared for ice water.

    As I have said before and lived before, being a real pioneer is rarely lucrative, it is those that come much later that find the solutions.

    I am going back to my vineyard to enjoy life

  9. Yes, and one man shows. or reasonable facsimiles thereof, are exactly hwo CGCW, Parker, Tanzer, even the Spectator got their starts.

    This business of throwing a lot of money at a new venture that tries to run before it walks is exactly what sunk WineShopper.com.

    Sorry to see AA go. It took a lot of my friends down with it.

  10. Despite the rise of the Kindle, you guys aren’t goin’ anywhere just yet.

  11. Tom – There are a couple but, in the interest of protecting a couple of ventures I am involved in, I can’t speak directly about them.

    I would suggest taking a look at the very best companies in America who are using social media successfully. There is a great report on brand engagement here – http://www.engagementdb.com/Report. Take a look at how they are executing in terms of brand engagement, using social media to attract talent etc. and how that is turning into revenue. Then look at the professional organizations and industry specific online communities, information sources etc. who are talking about those companies and have utilized social media to create robust and lively communities of people sharing information and educating one another. There is revenue being generated in these examples. How is that converted to offline traditional media? The answers are there to be found.

    Roger is completely correct, the real pioneer is rarely the one who capitalizes to the maximum. It is those that come later and find solutions to the vexing questions the pioneer was unable to answer who capitalize in such a way. I would argue that the pioneers of online and social media have long since passed (yes, it hasn’t been that long but the pioneering part is over) and it is up to us to figure it out.

    I do want to reiterate, I don’t believe that traditional print media will go away EVER. I merely suggest that in its current form it will not survive. There will be some who figure it out and go in a different direction. The rest may not make it.

  12. Morton Leslie says:

    I have been working my way through the pdf that lists all the attendees to the Bloggers Conference. Checking out their sites. It’s easy with the links provided. I am about half way thru and so far it appears that most of the attendees were there to find out how to make an unsuccessful blog without any readership (or reason for any readership) into something. I must say I was surprised at the low frequency of posts and the quality of what was posted on most of them. Some just have a landing page “under construction.” Maybe for many the conference was a great wine vacation subsidized by the wine industry.

    My overall conclusion is no surprise. It is all about the quality and quantity of content. People will flock to wherever they find it. So far, it’s still mostly on paper.

  13. Re Kindle:

    I think Kindle will make print journalism stronger because it needs content, and print journalists have content to spare. All of the existing print journalists have data bases that run into the tens of thousands of reviews. Kindle is a natural for that–as is virtually any other form of moving reader of content from laptops to pdas.

    And there will be no way to get all that content unless you pay for it. I have no doubt that people and sources not now in traditional media will make inroads there as well, but Kindle ain’t nothin without content. And valuable content that runs deep does not exist without lots and lots of hard work.

  14. Great post Steve. I’m a huge fan of blogs, but I was never convinced that they were here as the replacement to print media. The two can both co-exist.

    Print media is here to stay!

  15. Morton,

    You are spot on! There are many wine bloggers who do not regularly post and their blogs sit idle for weeks or months with nothing. They occassionally post a wine review (sadly only when they get a sample in some cases) and occassionally post something else. You are correct, seek out those that post regular, interesting, engaging and knowledgeable content and enjoy them. The rest will, pun intended, die on the vine.

    Michael

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