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Print down, but not out, yet



Observers of this nation’s media environment might be forgiven for being slightly manic-depressive. One day, everyone’s convinced print publications are headed for the trash heap; and the only question seems to be, How fast will this happen?

The next day, having imbibed the bracing tonic of some academic study or other, we remain confident print isn’t going anywhere. We hear that more Millennials are subscribing to magazines; that advertising is returning to print, having previously abandoned it during the Great Recession; that even young people are tiring of their obsession with (and enslavement to) mobile devices.

I, myself, have been consistent over the years in my position—which is not to say I’ve been correct, just that I’ve been saying the same thing all along. And that is in line with the “print isn’t going anywhere” theory. It has seemed to me that print publications are in a strong position to not just survive but thrive going forward, although I may be prejudiced, in terms of both my age (I grew up on newspapers and magazines) and my past career as a print guy.

Given the obscurity of the situation, no one really knows what’s going to happen to the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Which is why we so eagerly grasp every new study or factoid that comes along, hoping (perhaps against hope) that it will accord us some tidbit of understanding. The latest information comes via the Wall Street Journal, which last week reported that “Print Magazine Sales Decline in 1st Half of 2014,” a situation that must depress print fans. For the data—down 12% in newsstand sales compared to the 1st half of 2013—are especially troubling, since “Newsstand, or single-copy, sales have been considered the best gauge of consumer demand because they can’t be propped up by deeply discounted subscriptions or free copies distributed in public places such as doctor’s offices.”

(This last sentence strikes home. The discounts I’ve been offered to the magazines I subscribe to make me wonder how those magazines can stay in business at those prices; meanwhile, the three publications I see given away free, in almost all the hotels I stay at in California wine country, are the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Wine Spectator.)

Well, that’s print magazines. And what of digital? Up from 10.2 million last year to 11.6 million this year, a rise of 13.4 percent. But there’s this catch: “However, the category [digital] accounts for just 3.8% of the industry’s circulation,” a very small slice, and thus not particularly reassuring to financially-pressed publishers.


Does any of this matter, except to publishers and their bank accounts? It does, if you think of a nation’s wine consumers as part of a community, in which group decisions are made, after a give-and-take (this is, after all, how wine trends become ensconced into traditions; for example, the rise of California Cabernet Sauvignon was a group decision, driven largely by the power of the media).

If you don’t care about group decision-making, then the dissolution of the media won’t bother you. After all (you may reason), a group that was based around print will simply cluster into a group based upon digital. Yes, but…If that happens, there will be, not one group, but many; not a single conversation (such as has always existed) but multiple ones. And when you have multiple conversations, each driven by its most vocal adherents, but none of which really touches upon the others, you have chaos, whether it’s in domestic affairs or in something as relatively calm as the wine industry.

All this drives wine marketers bonkers. They try to come up with messages that appeal to all groups, and realize how difficult that can be. The broader the message, the less refined it is; the more refined, the less broad; but this, at least, keeps marketing people employed.

Is this then the cloud, or the silver lining around it? I’m an eternal optimist. The marketing of wine is more fractionated than it has ever been, but this simply means that wineries have to work smarter, in order to succeed. Part of working smarter is producing better wine. Part of producing better wine means having your finger on the market’s pulse, and divining where the public is going. This, in turn, requires knowing how to tell the difference between a trend that is going nowhere, and an authentic shift in public preference. No easy task.

  1. “We hear that more Millennials are subscribing to magazines; that advertising is returning to print, having previously abandoned it during the Great Recession; that even young people are tiring of their obsession with (and enslavement to) mobile devices”

    Where do we hear this, exactly?

  2. I read the Wall Street Journal everyday and there has been plenty of coverage about each of these topics. Although I do grant that, on any given day, exactly the opposite is claimed! Which is why I say the whole thing is manic-depressive, or maybe schizophrenic is a better word. Unforutnately, it’s increasingly difficult to get information that everybody agrees on.

  3. Gotta admit, I’ve not seen much in the way of saying print is on the comeback trail. Personally, I’d hate to see print totally die (and doubt it ever would), but there’s no way I’d invest any of my own money on the assumption that it will do anything but contract from here.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (October 10, 2005, Page C1ff):

    “Black & White and Read by Fewer”


    By James Rainey

    Times Staff Writer

    In a recent e-mail chat about the future of their business, several young New York Times reporters concluded with dismay that most of their friends don’t subscribe to the newspaper.

    . . .

    A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers — estimating that BY 2010, ONLY 9% OF THOSE IN THEIR 20s WILL READ A NEWSPAPER EVERY DAY. . . .

    Excerpt from the Wall Street Journal “Markeplace” Section
    (June 24, 2013, Page B2):

    “Gauging Investor Appetites for Print Media”


    By William Launder

    “The Week Ahead” Column

    Not as many consumers buy newspapers as they once did. Several major corporate newspaper deals moving forward this week will test how much appetite investors have left for print media.

    . . .

    Driving these deals, one way or another, is the collapse of the newspaper print ad market over the past few years — which shows no signs of stopping. U.S. PRINT ADVERTISING FELL 55% FROM 2007 TO 2012, according to the Newspaper Association of America. A FURTHER DROP OF 6.2% IS EXPECTED THIS YEAR, AND A 6.8% DECLINE NEXT YEAR, predicts Magna Global, a division of IPG Mediabrands.

    Another media agency, ZenithOptimedia, expects total ad spending on newspapers to fall 8% annually in the years ahead.

    At that rate, THE TOTAL MARKET FOR PRINT NEWSPAPER ADS WOULD BE REDUCED [BY NEARLY 80%] to less than $10 billion OVER THE NEXT DECADE from $49.3 billion [pre-recession 2006 levels] . . .

    WHILE DIGITAL ADVERTISING IS GROWING, it was just 11% of total ad revenue in 2012, according to Newspaper Association data. Magna sees it rising by more than 14% next year – A GROWTH RATE THAT IS STILL TOO LOW TO FULLY OFFSET THE PRINT DECLINES.

    . . .

    Aside from taking steps to cut costs, publishers are trying to offset the ad declines by boosting subscription revenue, including by raising print cover prices and charging for full access to websites if such “paywalls” weren’t already in place.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Updated for recent news:

    The Wall Street Journal
    (August 5, 2014):

    “Newspapers Press On, On Their Own;
    Gannett Is Latest Media Giant Splitting in Two, Separating Publishing From TV”


    The New York Times
    (August 10, 2014):

    “Print Is Down, and Now Out;
    Media Companies Spin Off Newspapers, to Uncertain Futures”


  6. The process of using paper to deliver wine information, daily news, research papers, fiction or anything else we consumer with out eyes eyes and brain is and will die a slow lingering death if only because next to digital deliver paper is extraordinarily inefficient.

    I suspect in the future we will still have printed material for use where it is convenient and as an artisan pursuit or vanity much the same way we still have wrist watches today.

    I don’t know if it needs saying, but I will nonetheless. The slow death of paper as an information delivery vehicle doesn’t reflect any disinterest in information or reading. At least I see no evidence of tha.

  7. Unless all advertising migrates away from places like the Wine Spectator, Bon Appetit et al, there will be a place for print simply because the advertising-supported model does not seem so far to work efficiently in digital space.

    Can it? Will it? Maybe. The problem with newspapers is that they do not deliver fungible information in the digital era and are incredible expensive. But, so is the Wine Spectator incredibly expensive and the paid subscriber revenues barely, if at all, cover the cost of postage let alone all else that goes in to that publication.

    What is dying in print are the newsletters like Parker, Tanzer, Connoisseurs’ Guide, Berger et al. Without advertising revenues to support them in print, they have all, save for Parker, migrated to digital.

    I suspect that reports of the death of print journalism, in forms like the Spectator, are greatly exaggerated.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Ad agency art directors and their lifestyle luxury goods clients still like glossy stock print media for its four-color bleed advertising capability.

    Spread ads (especially those with bind-in cards) stop readers in their tracks as they page through a magazine. There is no digital advertising counterpart to that form of “engagement.”

    Wine Spectator has a dual audience: the public, and the trade (importers, distributors, brokers and retailers) who need to know what the public is currently reading up on and thinking of buying. (Say, “Top 100 List” wines.)

  9. One thing that is nice about online vs print, you easily skip past the advertisements/paid spots. Seems like every month in WE, WS, Decanter you see the same companies with a similar ad, but probably just my imagination 😉

  10. Bob Henry says:


    Lots of consumers ENJOY reading the print ads: they serve as a shopping guide/idea generator.

    (Think of women’s magazines and all those four-color bleed ads promoting cosmetics.)

    If you are seeing the same companies advertising in each and every issue of WS, WE, and Decanter, there’s a reason. Actually, many reasons:

    1) those wineries have “brand building” consumer paid media advertising budgets;
    2) those wineries have negotiated a “frequency of insertions” discount on the advertising rate;
    3) those wineries have negotiated for “guaranteed franchise positions” in the magazines that give them enhanced prominence (e.g., inside front cover; inside back cover; outside back cover; opposite the table of contents; opposite a well-read wine column; inside the buyer’s guide). If an advertiser fails to fulfill its frequency of insertions contract, the magazine will shop those coveted positions to a competitor — potentially locking them up for years.

    ~~ Bob

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