As the terrain in print media continues to change, one area that has not received much attention is trade publications. When I started in the business over 30 years ago, the SRDS (Standard Rate and Data Service) book that was our bible for publication rates and circulation was one hell of a doorstop as it included over 3,500 publications. That’s just business pubs. There is a separate listing for consumer, newspaper, broadcast, online, etc.
I don’t have an accurate count today but like all print media, suffice to say there are far fewer than 3,500 publications. We have all seen the health of print media on life support over the last seven years or so. Perhaps newspapers have been the hardest hit as hundreds of newspapers have either gone out of business, shortened their frequency of issue (see New Orleans Times-Picayune) or cut their reporting staff to the bone.
What is rarely reported is the relative health of business publications. We have seen scores of them fold during the recession and others left standing are a shadow of their former selves. Still, there are some that appear to be as strong as they were going into the recession. Is it that some markets are still strong consumers of print?
Is it that some publishers have played the game right to somehow keep their print product vital? We are not sure of the answer but it is clear that not all trade publications are ready to take their ball and go home quite yet.
Newspapers provide an interesting laboratory for this discussion. The PEW Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that 450 dailies now have some type of pay wall. Further, their most recent report notes that the NY Times is now generating more revenue on circulation (both print and online) than ads.
That got us to thinking. The traditional model for creating revenue for trade publications has been advertising. The magazines are mailed to the recipients free under controlled circulation meaning that you have to “qualify” as a valid recipient to receive the publication, thereby assuring the advertiser that they are reaching the intended audience as stated in the publication’s circulation statement.
While newspapers have always charged for the print version of the paper, the advertising is what really kept everyone employed. When the advertising dropped off dramatically during the train wreck that was the recession combined with the meteoric rise in digital, the ability to print a newspaper and have it by your front door the next morning became a losing venture for many newspaper publishers. Their only option was to cease publishing a print version and go solely online or fold entirely. But that’s where the real problem surfaced. Newspapers found that charging for online content when most people had grown up expecting it to be free created a disconnect with their readers. The Wall Street Journal and the NY Times were at the front end of trying to determine the appropriate model for success. After various starts and stops, both papers now have a pay wall that is working. As noted above, the NY Times is even generating more revenue with circulation than with advertising. This statement would have been almost unheard of just a couple of years ago.
Now back to the question of trade publications. Yes, they have all transitioned online with a multitude of online advertising options from banner ads to enewsletter sponsorships to eblasts and video sponsorships. The problem is that none of these opportunities come close to generating the same income as a full-page ad in their print version. Even if we all agree that print is less important today than it was in the glory days, the cost of print still seems to be “grandfathered” in when it comes to rates. If online is where it is at today, why can I buy a group of online offerings for less than one full-page print ad?
So now the ultimate question. If business publication companies are so sure of their product, why don’t they consider a paid circulation option or at least a pay wall online for their content? Are they afraid that their audience would just not ante up? Recently, a major publisher of medial journals created a very nice iPad app to allow people to read their journals online. Until now, you just had to download the app and read any issue or article you wanted. But now, they have decided to charge $12.99 for each issue if you are not already a subscriber. It would be interesting to know how much revenue they generate with this tactic at the end of the year. And next year, will they charge even their subscribers for the online version of the magazine?
Changing business models has been a major point of discussion at publishing companies for years now. They are constantly looking for other avenues of income. That is why so many publishers have gone into the trade show business. At first, it was a hedge against the risk that other departments within the company were suffering but many found it to be a tremendous winner (at least as long as the trade show business remains healthy).
It will be very interesting to see how this plays out over the next couple of years. Stay tuned.