Like many of my colleagues, I have watched as our profession, automotive journalism, has been transformed, first by the Internet, and over the last four years by this relentless recession that has caused an unprecedented consolidation among automotive publications.
Every morning before starting my work day I read a half-dozen publishing, tech, and media blogs, trying to get a handle on the intensifying transformation of our profession. And it’s not just the automotive publishing segment that has been impacted. You name the genre – shelter, travel, culinary, sports, celebrity, lifestyle – all have seen titles contracting, going all-digital, or simply closing down.
Just last week the Dow Jones publication SmartMoney announced that it was going all digital and was laying off 25 staff members. SmartMoney is not a magazine with insignificant readership; it has a paid circulation of more than 800,000. This reminded me of a couple of years ago when Conde Nast shut down Gourmet when it boasted a paid circulation of almost one million. You can see all the bad news on how magazine advertising is declining by clicking here.
Last year we witnessed a seismic event that directly and indirectly affected us all, the Borders bankruptcy and the closure of its 600+ newsstands. What’s so funny is that I haven’t seen much of anything written on its impact on the magazine industry. But rest assured, it’s had a major impact on single-copy sales coming in the aftermath of Walmart’s well-publicized 2008 reduction of 1,000 titles it carries. With many other retail outlets, like supermarket chains, reducing their assortments and the space dedicated to displaying periodicals, it all paints a pretty bleak picture for those of us who write for a living.
Of course there’s the Internet, but few of us have found the way to fully replace good-paying magazine work by writing primarily for Internet properties. There’s a pretty simple reason for this. The advertising that typically supported automotive magazines, mainstream and niche, has not migrated to the web in a meaningful way.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at any of the four mainstream automotive magazines with huge circulations and compare their advertising packages today with their 2008 counterparts. The number of ad pages are down sharply, especially those double-page ads from the car manufacturers.
It’s not much better for niche publications. Magazines that once enjoyed robust ad packages of 40 pages or more, now struggle to sell 20 pages of ads. I suspect that some of those ads are sold at a deep discount from the magazine’s rate card or are packaged together with ads in other titles. The net result is that magazines that were once 100+ pages now are published with less than 70 pages between the covers.
One report I recently read said that only one dollar in 27 is migrating to the web. I’m not sure I believe it’s that bad. But the difference of the loss of ad dollars in print magazines that hasn’t migrated to the web is significant. The question that begs to be asked is where all those dollars are hiding? I don’t have an answer.
Good journalism, automotive or otherwise, is expensive. Expensive if contributors are to be paid a living wage. We all bemoan that we’re working harder and getting paid less today than 10 or 20 years ago. That’s a fact, the reality that we all struggle with.
A while back, in answering a blind Craigslist ad seeking experienced automotive writers, what I found was a well-funded web publisher seeking contributors to produce 500-word “articles” for $10 a pop. Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather write for free for my own website and hope that at some point I’ll get the breakthrough I think I deserve and find the necessary advertiser or subscriber support. But I know it’s going to be a struggle.
What keeps me going every day is that even with all the success of the iPad, no publisher, large or small, has really been successful in monetizing their digital properties. I know of few digital-only publications that are self-sustaining, Automotive Traveler included. But I know we are making progress and have invested heavily with my two partners to develop a platform – we call it a viewer – that is well-suited to present magazine-quality content to any tablet or computer.
What’s great about the approach I’ve taken is that I have complete editorial control over what I publish. The content – automotive and travel – can be viewed on any device running a browser (but I think it works best on devices with screens nine inches or larger, like an iPad), that whatever I publish is indexed by search engines and shows up as text and image searches when you Google a search term. This is not true, to my knowledge, with any device-specific app.
I will acknowledge that apps do have their advantages in certain instances. I’ll cite the British motoring magazine Octane. I think that many of you will agree that Octane is a top-tier print publication and that any of us would welcome being published in its pages. And it should be noted that Octane has not one, but two digital editions.
One digital edition is what I call a magazine replica. This is where the pages and layouts from the print version are simply carbon copied to the app with the addition of active links. This version suffers from the problem of when reading text – since it was originally designed for a vertical page layout with small text – requires zooming and scrolling.
But the publishers and editors of Octane have taken a second, separate approach, what they call their interactive edition. They have redesigned each new issue of the entire magazine with fresh, horizontally-oriented layouts that take full advantage of all the iPad’s capabilities.
The text in the interactive edition is bigger – important for those of us who now own shares in reading glasses companies – and this interactive edition includes outstanding videos. One case was a time-lapse film of a full day’s studio photo session of the cover story on the four significant cars introduced in 1962 (the Ferrari GTO, Shelby Cobra, MGB, and Lotus Elan), that are fully integrated into the issue.
In the case of Octane, I think the digital interactive version is even better, more compelling and engrossing read than the already excellent print version.
As automotive journalists, we have to stop complaining and take our digital destiny into our own hands. We have to band together and innovate, coming up with our own fresh editorial concepts. One of the beauties of the Internet and the digital age that we are transitioning into, is that in many instances we have eliminated the need for traditional publishers. With the tools available to us, it’s possible to publish directly to our readers.
The issue remains how to support ourselves as we move to this new and exciting publishing model. This will require a leap of faith on the part of advertisers and sponsors. Because we’ve grown up in an era where our readers expect content on the Internet to be delivered free, we need the support of advertisers and sponsors to publish the same level of high-quality, properly edited, and fully vetted content that serves our needs, those of our advertisers and sponsors, and most of all, our readers. That is the reason why most of us got into this business in the first place.