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Thoughts on Print vs Online Magazines

April 12, 2010
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Fairly often, people ask me if the foreseeable future of Keyboard includes going to some kind of digital-only delivery and not being printed anymore. You don’t have to be in the magazine industry to be exposed to the buzz that print is a declining medium. Heck, in the media- and tech-obsessed San Francisco Bay area where our mothership is docked, you can't walk down the street without someone shouting from the rooftops about the digital-only future of Everything About How We Consume Information.

At least in the case of musical instrument and technology mags like ours, I think that's not true, and here's why.

 It’s true that the numbers that motivate investors and hence management—advertising revenue—have been worrisome. It’s true that Keyboard, as well as any other musical instrument or recording mag, is thinner than it was a decade ago. And yes, the media world is abuzz about digital magazines on platforms such as Apple’s iPad becoming increasingly attractive to publishers and advertisers alike—especially now that CPUs on portable devices have the horsepower to add a meaningful level of rich media to our reading experience. (This was far less so the last time there was a lot of chatter about digital magazines being the wave of the future—anyone remember the tablet PC “revolution” around 2000?)

I’d love to see iPad and e-reader versions of Keyboard and the other MPN books (Guitar Player, Bass Player, and EQ) more than anyone. Complete with videos, audio examples, and sheet music staves that blow up and/or play when you tap them. Complete with interactive demos of gear that we review. I’d love to see a digital  Keyboard that makes you feel like you’re reading one of those magical Harry Potter newspapers on the train.

Having said that, I’d like to detail two things I constantly experience that give me an overwhelming sense that the pundits who are running around scaring investors and advertisers by proclaiming “Print is dead!” simply don’t understand our readers or our market. These two things aren’t just occasional anecdotes, but a near-daily part of my experience as executive editor.

1. Getting Access to Artists. 

Let me introduce you to a creature native to the music media landscape: the publicist. Nearly every artist and gear company you might read about in our pages has one or more of them. Sometimes, they’re in-house at a record label or musical instrument manufacturer; sometimes they’re with an independent PR firm working for an artist, label, or manufacturer, but the game on my end is the same: If I want an Alicia Keys or a Trent Reznor or a Herbie Hancock or any other major artist to carve 60 minutes out of their schedule to do an interview, the request goes through the publicist. Likewise if I want a loaner unit of the latest, greatest synth to be shipped to an eager reviewer.

With a few exceptions, publicists—or at least the junior ones who actually answer the phones and return the emails—are in their twenties, trying really hard to be hip, and underpaid. From their point of view, a lot of the value of the gig comes from being close to fame and the occasional perks that go with it, such as free concert tickets, being part of an entourage, and a little bit of power, which comes in the form of the ability to say “No” to requests for media access. So here are two indelible, eternal truths of running a small musical instrument mag and trying to get big rock stars to do what you want them to:

-    The bigger the artist, the more the publicist is looking for a reason to say “No.” They have to, because it’s their job to make sure the artist uses his or her limited time in a way that yields the best returns.
-    The person on the other end of the line when I’m talking to a PR firm is a representative sample of the exact demographic that, according to publishing industry wisdom, is driving the so-called death of print: Young, uber-hipster, digitally wired to the max, and Tweeting, Facebooking, and texting their buns off.

So, when I’m trying to get people who love to say “No” to say “Yes,” guess what the first thing they ask me is…? Not “What’s your circulation?” Not “So who else this famous have you interviewed?” Not a request for references.

It’s “So, are you a print magazine, or just online?”

Emphasis on “just” is theirs—almost always. The same goes for getting free press passes to technology trade shows where registration fees normally run into the hundreds of dollars. In all cases, saying "Why yes, we are a print magazine" has swung the gates wide open, or at least applied a generous amount of WD-40 to the hinges.

My open question to the pundits of print panic: If print is so culturally irrelevant, why does it seem to be the primary barometer of credibility among the very kids you say are making it irrelevant?

2. Readers Actually Like Ads in Print

I can’t tell you how many times readers have told me that the first thing they do when they get a new issue of Keyboard is to flip through it and look at the ads. Likewise, when people request back issues, wanting to look at the vintage ads is just as often the reason as searching for some particular article they remember from back in the day.

This got me thinking about how I do the same thing with the magazines to which I subscribe, which include Bon Appetit, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Monocle.

I polled several female friends who read fashion magazines, and the result was the same: They flip through and get a sense of what’s new from the ads, then read the actual articles. Whatever the subject matter, people seem to like print ads enough to actively look at them and even seek them out.

By contrast, ask yourself how you feel about pop-ups in your web browser, or ad banners that expand over what you’re trying to read because you accidentally brushed the edge of one with your mouse pointer. Or how about a link on your Facebook page that poses as news or a friend's post, but is really part of some smart-assed viral campaign? It comes as no surprise that I get nothing but hate mail when such things appear on our website.

It follows logically that how readers feel about the experience of encountering ads extends to how they'll feel about the companies that put those ads in front of them. Especially in our little music-meets-technology sphere, where we love to pore over pictures of new gear but hate being interrupted as we're working on the computer, print has a strength nothing else does.  I respectfully suggest that any company decimating its print ad budget in favor of online-only means would do well to think about this.

So there you go. I’m not saying we don’t need to have a strong online presence. We certainly do, and are constantly making efforts to up our game in that area. But I always come back to the above two factors when people ask me if Keyboard will ever go “digital-only.” From where I’m sitting, that makes no sense.

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