Digital Magazines: A Publishing Strategy or Just a Tactic?

Rising postal rates, increasing printing costs, research showing “screenagers” not reading anything in print– all legitimate reasons to keep magazine publishers up at night.

But as we stand by and watch the publishing industry finally come to grips with the changing media landscape, we wonder: what role will digital magazines play in their overall publishing strategy?

Will publishers ultimately replace their print magazines with digital magazines? Or will they simply use digital magazines as an additional way of reaching their audience?

The thoughts and feelings shared at this year’s Digital Magazine Forum, put on by Digital Magazine News seemed to conclude that publishers will, and should, do both.

Software vendors at the conference were naturally optimistic about the evolving technologies of digital readers and how they may ultimately replace print magazines.

One vendor told me a story about a small magazine publisher who couldn’t afford to deliver her magazine in print anymore. She polled her subscribers to see if they would mind getting their subscription digitally. Eighty percent said they really enjoyed the content and preferred to get it digitally than not at all.

David Klein, VP Publishing and Editorial Director of the Ad Age Group shared less than impressive numbers on their digital delivery initiatives. He said users didn’t particularly like the software and advertisers weren’t crazy about it either. But nonetheless, they’ll maintain using it as a tactic. Klein said they are great for his international subscribers and perhaps, in time, as the platform improves along with the metrics that should go with it, it could prove to be a more viable source.

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Marta Wohrle, VP, Director of Digital Media, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S said she didn’t see any real reason for anyone to enjoy digital magazines. She said, “I won’t waste any time, money or energy in developing digital magazines.”

But don’t let that comment make you think the director of Digital Media for Hachette Filipacchi is stuck in the dark ages. Wohrle very much does believe in the power of digital—well, the Internet at least. When she shut down teen magazine ElleGirl last summer, she “had a pile of cash on her desk” ready to drive traffic to But she never had to spend the money—the traffic never died. In fact the website has experienced 300 percent growth over last year.

Attendee and media consultant Alan Bergstein seemed enthusiastic about digital magazines. “If publishers could reach an audience in India with digital editions that they would’ve never afforded to reach before, why wouldn’t they?”

Keynote Speaker Gordon McLeod, President of Dow Jones Online had four rules for publishers:

  1. “Don’t be afraid…” Experiment with new things. If it doesn’t work, turn it off. That’s the beauty of digital.
  2. “Be afraid…” The big guys can do it cheaper, faster and better than you. Know what they’re doing and learn from them.
  3. “Be yourself…” Start with what you know. You’re not going to beat Yahoo! and YouTube, but you should certainly partner with them. Do you have the guts to put other people’s content on your site? Do you have the guts to let users post content on your site?
  4. “Don’t be yourself…” Take chances, step out of your realm. Launch, iterate, repeat. Newspapers are used to a daily news cycle. Weekly or monthly magazine editors are not. This is HARD. And not everyone does it well.

After sitting through a day of digital magazine discussion, and hearing the pros and cons of digital magazines and the debates about what they are and aren’t, the one thing that remains constant and without debate is the strength of brand.

Stay true to your brand and your editorial mission, stay connected with your readers’ wants and needs, take advantage of opportunities for partnership and growth, and your publishing enterprise will be just fine.

What are your opinions on digital magazines? A strategy or just a tactic?

    Digital M.

    Interesting article to look back on as we can now see that digital magazines are slowly being accepted as a useful (and more importantly profitable) medium for publishers.

    It seems that this acceptance has been a slow process. Even now, it is not the standard for every publisher to offer a digital alternative to their print titles. I wonder how long it will be until we come to expect a digital version of every print magazine.


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