The pace of doom and gloom stories for printed media continues unabated but I’ve noticed more and more that are offering brilliant insight into the problem and even a few solutions.

A story in Business Week about a thriving newspaper industry in Germany (here) surmises that the problems with US newspapers is not the internet it’s the content:

“I suspect the real reason German papers still thrive is their embrace of competition. Unlike so many U.S. papers, Bild was never part of a quasi-monopoly that allowed complacency. It’s telling that Bild doesn’t deliver —it depends on newsstand sales. ‘Bild has to prove itself at the kiosk every day,’ says Deputy Editor-in-Chief Michael Paustian.

That pressure helped Bild maintain its focus on original content. It uses almost no wire copy and brags that every story is an exclusive. Even during the crisis years, Bild kept its 800-strong editorial staff intact. What advice does Diekmann have for American newspapers? ‘It’s too late.’ ”

Along a similar note Dr. Samir Husni (AKA Mr. Magazine) scolds all the top magazine titles for causing the failing newsstand themselves by selling subscriptions at cut rate prices. The practice, to offer dirt cheap subs as a way to control circulation and meet rate base not only undermines newsstand sales but in my mind it destroys the content by bringing in consumers who are barely interested in reading the magazine in the first place and forcing the editorial staff to cater to a more general audience of readers. Dr. Husini’s unlikely cure for the newsstand woes:

“Stop chasing the numbers of customers and concentrate on customers who count. The first step in doing such is stop the rate base gimmick. You can’t anymore chase a rate base number and try to meet that number. Today’s customers are different and reaching those who count is much more important than counting them.”

Mygazines continues to make headlines for allowing consumers to freely scan and distribute their favorite magazines in a clear violation of US copyright laws but it doesn’t look like they will go away anytime soon because they’re owned by the same company that runs Pirate Bay (CNet story here). They’ve been on Hollywood’s most wanted list for several years now and appear to be indestructible.

There are many, many reasons why this will never become the napster of the publishing industry; it takes a lot of effort to scan an entire magazine and converting magazine pages into jpgs hardly seems like a brilliant solution to portability online, to name a few, but it’s certainly caused quite a few people to sit up and take notice and spark discussion. I agree with this motley fool story entitled “It’s the end of publishing as we know it” (here) when they say:

“Magazines like Cosmo, Wired, and Playboy always looked like prime online properties, dishing out their advice, entertainment, and other well-written and popular articles through this huge series of tubes. But here we are, well into the digital age, and most of them simply haven’t made the transition yet.

If Mygazines teaches Time anything, it would be how to present the print magazine in a tasty online form, easy to navigate and easy to use. Copy that model and then improve on it, inject a bit of revenue-generating advertising, and see if your readers prefer the official version with corporate backing or some fly-by-night rip-off where everything is free but nothing is guaranteed. Now let’s see which publisher might be the first to get a clue so we can invest in it.”

Of course publishing companies are like lumbering giants and as risk adverse as you get (a few serve as retirement accounts for their owners), but it would only take one textbook case of a magazine doing it right online and proving that the revenue and audience exists to turn the entire industry around.

I don’t think printed magazines will ever go away completely and why should they, people still like to read them and they’re awfully convenient for the airport, bus, train or limo rides, but the audience is limited and will continue to shrink so publishers need to follow the young audience and the casual, used to buy it for 1 article readers where they’ve gone, online.

Also, if you’re simply going to reprint the entire contents of the magazine online with all the advertising intact it should be free. Simple math will tell you that the newsstand and subscriptions prices don’t even cover the printing and distribution cost for a single issue, so if I’m saving you that expense the least you can do is not charge me for it online. If you’re going to transform the content online and run epic photo essays, allow reader interaction and leverage the technology available then the possibilities for audience and revenue are endless. If you treat the internet like a piece of paper you may find equilibrium between audience size, expense to produce and profit but the the multi-million dollar profit glory days are now coming to an end.

Overall, the theme here seems to be content, quality content. Can it really be that simple? I think so.

UPDATE: Pirate Bay refutes ownership of Mygazines (here). Thanks Sean.

Recommended Posts


  1. I think that it really is that simple as well. This model of quality content has been proven correct by several titles (ie: Britain’s Monocle, Canada’s Cottage Life), and the days of relying on your weakly proven reader base via poor circulation tactics are waning.
    Look to magazines that have that proven readership (they attend their magazine’s trade shows, post in the publication’s online forums, participate in their photo contests, etc.), and you’ll see the new and reliable business model.

  2. You are spot on!

    I’m amazed how newspapers cut cut cut to make the mandatory 30% margin and then wonder why they continue to lose circulation and advertisers.

    Maybe it’s because they cut the unique content in favor of the generic canned copy that anyone can find on the front page of Yahoo.


  3. If only the dinosaurs at the papers would take the Mygazines approach and make it better, they wouldn’t be suffering.

    End of the day, the people in charge are often over 40, have very little clue about this intaweb lark and therefore are pretty hesitant to embrace it.

    Maybe we do need a few papers going out of business? Maybe a shake-up is needed, so that people finally take risks.

    Radical, but maybe finally needed.

  4. The only problem with this all is that “Bild” is not a serious newspaper. It’s a tabloid. Imagine the “New York Post” with a pair of tits on the cover every day – that’d be “Bild”.

    The overall conclusion is still true, though: Newspapers in the US are suffering simply because they don’t deliver any real news any longer. If people want entertainment they switch on the TV.

  5. PS: Lest people start foaming at the mouth about my choice of words in my comment: “Bild” is catering to the absolutely lowest common denominator, and their photo of a nude woman (usually in a “sultry” pose, accompanied by an unbelievably offensive and stupid caption) on the cover might easily be one of the most insulting and demeaning image German women get to see every morning. To present “Bild” as an example for how newspapers can make money is unbelievably pathetic (unless, of course, you think that the “New York Post” or the “Boston Herald” are serious newspapers).

  6. I wondered about that. Business Week seemed to hedge a bit on the tabloid nature of bild. You would think they could find a better example because this is not the first I’ve heard of booming newspapers in Europe. Hopefully we don’t have to endure the laddie magazine makeover we just made it out of in the newspaper business now.

  7. Hey Rob,

    I am really glad you raised that issue. A couple of weeks ago my wife bought me the weekend edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. I was blown away by the quality and size of the photos, and even more so by the depth and sophistication of the content. My remark to some friends was that this paper made the NYT look like our local paper. I had a similar reaction a couple of years ago when, on my way back from Berlin, I bought a copy of Der Spiegel. I read it on the flight back to Orlando, and was by no means finished when we landed.

  8. Old Media online properties already have eyeballs and numbers. Let’s take the gen’l tech publishing space as a case study: Wired gets 2-3 million uniques/month (see quantcast). Compare with Ars Technica, the web-born-and-bred tech junkie site with content most similar to Wired (and recently bought by CN) — 1-1.5 million uniques/mo. If we cast a broader net on comps, Cnet has an audience of 8-9 million/uniques on a much, much broader format and content strategy. So there’s a chance for to grow, probably on the order of 2x uniques, though for what CN’s invested so far is doing pretty well for itself. But that also risks diluting the average age, HHI, etc. of the Wired audience.

    Digital magazines (the flip-page-flash-player format) have audiences on the order of 100x lower than that. The format is clunky, not Google-able, unviewable on the iPhone, and unclickable/linkable. The only reason why mygazines has a chance of gaining a decent amount of uniques is because it consolidates all media properties (illegally) into one site — and even then quantcast tells us that the aud is now at 20K uniques/mo, plus the profile skews low-end (see the comparable sites). I would guess the high end of the audience of the site is 200-300K uniques/mo.

    If you can read business numbers (circ, sales, etc.) Folio has a great piece on the digital strategy of the Atlantic. It’s a pretty good case study on how eds and publishers are approaching digital.

  9. JM Colberg is correct about Bild-it is the absolute bottom of the German barrel…an extremely popular mix of soccer, scandal, sex and celebrity. There are several papers like this in the UK as well, also very successful. Maybe not the best example to use when considering the problems of more mainstream US, or German, newspapers. For me the bigger question is whether newspapers should publish only what sells because that is how to maximize revenue, or whether they need to serve, at least to some extent, a higher public purpose. And if, in doing that, will they still be able to economically viable.

  10. And if you want a real shock, compare Time and Newsweek to the German weeklies Focus and Der Spiegel. There is a huge gap in the number of pages with the Germans coming out way ahead. And the German magazines tend to be a lot fresher and more interesting to look at and to read these days.

  11. Citing the Pirate Bay to me was a much more interesting then arguably trashy “the Bild” example. Theres a lot to be said about “Bild” and British yellow Press is another example – personally I could do without them but I feel that is not what we are talking about here. Its easy to dimiss Bild because of tits – but really show me the magazines which can do completly without the “Sex Sells” approach. Also print magazines who hope to compete at the Newsstand seem to need an “eyecatcher” or a “media scandal” at least once in a while. Look at the Obama cover of the New Yorker.

    Wouldnt it be nice if there are just magazine with quality photography, articles and superb content? Most peoples answers here is probably yes -but is this really they way magazines have worked historically -and are supposed to work as a medium?

    I am really all for great and quality content but the notion to transform the magazine (or newspaper) business into something high-brow as a whole does really not sound like a realistic solution to me. “The Scandal” and Erotica (=Tits), the Inside Scoop, Provocation etc have always been part of this world – as they have been of the medium of photography. I want to see good design and content – sure – but don’t make it into something elitist because then I might turn away too (or just read a good book, which I should be doing anyway)

  12. The real problem is that 99% of US ” newspapers ” are owned by the same hand full of right wing corporations. That is why I had to go online and read overseas papers to get early news on stories like the Plame outing and the Downing Street Minutes.

    The American newspaper industry is nothing more than a propaganda wing of the Republican party and has become irrelevant to anyone interested in getting real news.

  13. I’m currently writing a piece about the future of photojournalism, which – I think – should touch this issue to some extent. I think the conundrum here (if we want to pretend it’s a conundrum at all!) is quite simple: When publishing a newspaper do you want to aim for making a profit or for making a newspaper?

    Most US newspapers aim for making a profit – and with that basic thinking you obviously cannot make a good newspaper (because firing essential people and paying photographers a pittance is a guarantee for not getting a good newspaper done).

    It’s as simple as that. And as long as any discussion on this topic involves “making money” first, the steady decline of the newspaper business in the US will continue until there are no real newspapers left.

    PS: “Doktor”, get a plane ticket to Germany and buy some newspapers there. It’s as simple an answer as that.

  14. Die Zeit is another beautiful German newspaper. Color on every page (not sure if that’s only on the weekend edition?), elegant type, nice paper (thinner stock), large photographs…looks much more upscale and beautiful than most American papers. Like something worth spending my money on.

  15. Aiming for the lowest common denominator is the problem with many industries in this country. Who needs first amendment rights when there’s fear of losing an advertiser?

  16. Looks like people have been reading Monocle. Tyler Brule talks about several German newspapers as the epitome of the future of the newspaper. They are beautiful and they produce good journalism but there are a few key things you all haven’t touched on. Die Zeit is beautiful but it’s a weekly. There isn’t something like Die Zeit here because, well, our country has a legacy of dailies outside of the local small-town paper. Even most large universities’ papers are dailies — and most newspaper reporters are/were trained at their university’s paper. Time/Newsweek/USNews sort of replaces something like DZ, but I mean, from a purely aesthetic perspective, um — no.

    As a thought experiment, imagine if the Times decided to cut back and publish only the Sunday edition. Lots of great news coverage (Week in Review, Sunday Business, most of the investigative pieces that win Pulitzers). Lots of glossy, beautiful photos (Sunday Mag, T: Style). Lots of culture coverage (Arts, Book Review). Probably lots of profit (luxury advertisers, business advertisers) — I’m sure Sunday is the highest margin section outside of the dregs of Saturday and Friday. But we would lose THE paper of record for the country, an immeasurable loss to the nation. We’d also probably lose a couple the country’s best foreign bureaux (ie, The Times’s Baghdad bureau is by far the only well-staffed bureau in Iraq outside of the BBC.)

    Making a profit is not mutually exclusive to excellence in journalism and photojournalism. Again, let’s look at the Times — some of the best photography and long-form journalism and photojournalism comes in the Magazine, yet the Magazine is a pretty decent moneymaker for the Times. (T: Style is an even bigger moneymaker and does feature good talent in fashion photography and styling, but lets just say that the words aren’t the best in the business.)

    And I’ll beat on this dead horse — The Times is not owned by any right-wing corporation (it’s family-owned and the Sulzbergers are pretty center-left), and it is still considered the paper of record for the United States. Yes, it fucks up sometimes (umm, Judith Miller?) and it gives short shrift to foreign affairs, but it still covers a broad array of news and is very well written.

  17. Clarence – a very large thank you for your post.

  18. @Clarence: I find the quality of the NY Times very debatable, given my German background and the kind of journalistic quality I’m used to.

    But in principle, you’re right, you can make a profit with excellent journalism – but I’d be happy to argue that that’s only true if you put journalism first and the profit aspect second (and not the other way around as in all those sorry pieces of work that most people have to live with as newspapers).

  19. @JM
    I’d agree with that assessment. That’s why the Times Magazine does well — good long-form journalism on a variety of stories without worrying too much about editorial costs. (Also, I believe that there are sales incentives on the business side for selling ads in the magazine.) I’m just worried that the pendulum’s been swinging the other way — that people on our side of the Chinese wall say that the profit motive should be removed from newspapers entirely. Media remains relevant when it has an audience and profit motivates journalists, photographers, illustrators, editors, and art directors to chase eyeballs.

    (Just to defend the Times once more, a lot of what gets covered on a daily basis seems to be for the record, since it is essentially the only paper of record for the States. They still break the occasional nuanced and exhaustively researched story, like the investigative piece on military officers appearing on news shows under retainer — which I think was on a Sunday A1. The Sunday Magazine seems to do a much better job of covering interesting stories at length with good journalistic quality. I am excited that — hopefully — the additional resources currently being poured into WSJ will result in higher quality journalism for both papers on a daily basis.)

    Let me also make a little schpiel to all designers and photographers out there — I work as a designer on the editorial side of a publication and the only reason I know anything about the business side and the state of the industry is because I talk to the publisher of the mag frequently. I think we all need to start talking more with the other side of the wall so that we can think of ways to remain relevant as our industry changes in radical ways over the next five years.

  20. True,Clarence….the Times are in the 1%.

    Doesnt make them less complicit in what is going on here in the US. The Times and the rest of the mainstream media have gotten on their knees for the Bush administration.. not what you expect from The Paper of Record.

    You mentioned White House stenographer, Judith Miller.. add Neocon clown, Bill Crystal to the Times woeful record and you got yourself a right wing rag that no one who wants the truth turns to anymore for news.

    It’s a shame that I have to read a paper from New Zeland to get news about the WH outing a CIA agent. Or a UK paper to read about how we were lied into a war.

    Screw The Times… the magazine and book review section are still good….but I cant remember the last time i turned to them for news.

  21. @JM:
    I like your sharp and insightful observations on your photography blog but I am lost with your postings here…this might change when I get to read your actual article but for now:

    concerning German newspapers: I’m always suspicious of the “its as as simpel as that” card – but yeah sure I’m reading German as well as American newspapers each day – love them and had the honor to work for some of them.

    Wasn’t sure why I got the recommendation to fly , but it might have something to do with your second posting that the NYtimes is below the journalistic quality “you are used” to. I would really like to hear an argument supporting this – I love German papers and other European papers (Liberation, Guardian etc) as much as the NYtimes but I really don’t see the superiority of German Journalism against the NYtimes. Please explain.

    To say that making a profit and making a newspaper dont go together sounds a bit simplistic to me – is there a German paper who is actually not keen on making a profit – there is a somewhat different tradition and philosophy in Germany on journalism and a different newspaper culture then in the States – yes – not better or worse just (a bit) different. But please name a German paper who is not keen on making a profit – I seem to be missing soemthing here because I havent heard a statement like that from the people who actually work at the German papers I know.

  22. Competition and diverse ownership has worked well here in Japan. While the English language papers are on the brink of death the indigenous papers boast a loyal and devout readership regardless of ubiquitous access to high speed internet access. Several still produce three editions per day.
    The Magazine market is likewise both as diverse as it is energized, no complaints over here.

  23. Having just left a news org in part because I was just sick and tired of hearing about how we couldn’t do this or that because we weren’t growing, the sky is falling, we’re dinosaurs…

    Yesterday I was at a pub that was growing, not a newspaper, and it was such a relief.

  24. The NYTimes from a photographers perspective:

    “… a heavy bias toward getting the “moment.” This isn’t that surprising given that the Times is often referred to as “the paper of record.” I would come back from baseball with images that were shot full frame and perfectly lit–a photograph of an outfielder perfectly outstretched missing a catch, say. And often the editors would say: oh, that play wasn’t really a deciding factor, we don’t need it, but did you get the image of Derek Jeter hitting the game-winning home run? My response would be: who in the world would want to see another photograph of yet another guy swinging a bat? Those photographs are a dime a dozen… and people surely the readers get tired of seeing them every day! Don’t they?”

    But to the Times, their job was to report on the news, not just show pretty pictures. Your job there was clearly delineated: get the play of the game, a nice shot of the most valuable player–and if you can come back with these moments captured with a good amount of aesthetics, more often than not you were considered a star photographer. What your backgrounds looked like, how tightly you shot the image (and how much of a crop you later applied to the original) was completely irrelevant.”

  25. @Clarence: The thing about the Times’ magazine is that in principle, that’s not what a newspaper would do, though, would it? I mean the role of a newspaper is to produce a newspaper and not a magazine. Those are very separate things. It might work for the Times, but still, one could worry a bit about priorities there.

    I also didn’t say one should remove the profit motif entirely from newspapers; what I do believe in, though (and I can back it up with a lot of data) is that if you make profits the first priority at a newspaper, the quality of the newspaper suffers tremendously (for obvious reasons: it cuts into profits to have lots of people in jobs with high pay, and it’s not a very good business idea to pay someone to spend a couple of months on a single story; not to speak of paying photographers for their work etc.).

    That (@Doktor) also addresses your comment. It’s too simplistic to claim that I’m saying newspapers can either make a profit or a newspaper. I never said that. It’s about priorities.

    And if you look at major German newspapers, it would be tremendously hard to find obvious cases such as Judith Miller’s selling of the war (or other cases of fake reporting) in German newspapers (at least in the big ones, like FAZ or Sueddeutsche). I’m frankly still surprised how nonchalantly people are accepting this episode.

    You’re right, though, to say that the tradition of journalism in Germany is different, and – in my opinion – that’s why – at least for me – German newspapers are simply of higher quality than US ones. Just recently, I read a lot of coverage of the war in Georgia in various newspapers, and of all the news sources, the German ones appeared to be most even, willing to look beyond the posturing of the various players involved and very willing to question their own governments weaknesses etc. That’s what I expect from a newspaper: No fluff, no “some say” crap, no “some progress seen” stuff. And there is too much of that stuff in the NY Times.

    I frankly also don’t understand why people love the NY Times so much. I think the Christian Science Monitor is actually a better newspaper, often with much better analyses than the Times. The Times relies way too much on its reputation (and maybe that’s what bothers me about it so much, it’s almost dripping from its pages).

    But the main point that has got lost completely in all of this is the simple fact that if newspapers do not fulfill their roles any longer who else will? Who will provide the in-depth information needed to understand what’s going on, to decide, for example, who to vote for?

    As is obvious from some of the posts here, making profits the center of newspapers not only lowers their quality but it also makes people very suspicious of the motifs of the publishers. That’s also very toxic for a modern democracy.

  26. Bild is a piece of crap. It’s hardly a newspaper.
    My other comment is that Germans love to read – the old fashion way. There is a love for the letter and traditional printing dating back to Guttenberg Press & Goethe that perhaps is missing in the US.Germans also spend less time on-line than Americans – at least that is my experience.
    That being said, it is true that content and quality is better in general in German magazines (again in my opinion) than in US publications. One great example is Dummy Magazine, well worth checking out.

  27. […] A Photo Editor – Media Needs A Makeover Some interesting ideas for revitalizing US media, from the German newspaper and magazine industry (tags: media publishing journalism economics ideas magazines newspapers) […]

  28. […] A Photo Editor – Media Needs A Makeover Some interesting ideas for revitalizing US media, from the German newspaper and magazine industry (tags: media publishing journalism economics ideas magazines newspapers) […]

  29. […] its ability to capture high-definition 720p video. Lately, from what I have gathered, everyone from photo editors to journalists and fine art to commercial photographers are wondering what direction photography […]

Comments are closed for this article!