If it wasn’t already obvious, the last year made clear that legacy print media is on the way out. Like calculators, a few will always be floating around, but the days of print being any kind of necessity are dwindling.
The year started with Iowa-based Meredith Corp., arbiter of the prosaic magazine, closing its acquisition of Time Inc., immediately putting an end to the iconic corporate name and quickly moving to flip some of Time Inc.’s best-known properties to the highest bidder. Hindsight is always 20/20, but one couldn’t ask for better foreshadowing. As the year went on, newspapers and magazines as a whole continued to morph into digitally focused entities, shrinking and sometimes losing influence, or just maybe succumbing to a loss of their raison d’etre, in the process.
In terms of shifting away from print, which has lost year-over-year hundreds of millions of dollars in ads, some of the most dramatic changes came out of Condé Nast. Among publishers, it arguably waited the longest to start shifting to a truly “digital-first” model, but part of the spectacle is that it had the highest to fall, being the most prestigious house of magazines for the better part of a century.
This year saw the company put up for sale the magazines W, Brides and Golf; consolidate and scale back its U.S. and U.K. editions of Condé Nast Traveller in a precursor to its cross-Atlantic combination of the company as a whole; effectively shutter the printing of Glamour, not so long ago and for many years the publisher’s most lucrative title, and finally force out longtime boss Bob Sauerberg, who was supposed to be overhauling the publisher for close to a decade, first as president and then as chief executive officer. Now further cuts are expected and no one is being spared. There’s also reignited chatter of C-suite artistic director Anna Wintour having her eyes on the door — uninterested in working under another, likely younger, global ceo and maybe getting ready to step out before she’s pushed, like Sauerberg, by the Newhouses. As the only remaining vestige of Condé’s glory days, Wintour’s inevitable exit will mark their official end.
Only time will tell what becomes of the company, but the decline in print advertising has yet to reach a stasis point and further contraction is certain as editors across titles again have orders to cut where they can. Murmurs earlier in the year of a possible acquisition by the likes of Apple or even Amazon have lately been dismissed by insiders, however, citing a lack of interest in Condé. “They just don’t need them,” one source said plainly of the digital giants.
Magazines certainly are not the entry point for targeted advertising they once were. There’s now data from any app or web site that can tell an advertiser more about a consumer than they should know.
Plenty of change has also been happening over at Hearst Magazines, which has likely benefited from the glare of Condé’s flames. The rival publisher has gone through a dramatic digital sweep over the year, replacing veteran magazines president David Carey with Troy Young who has a background in digital advertising and media development and essentially created the company’s digital division over the last five years.
One of Young’s first moves was to boot chief content officer Joanna Coles, said to be a favorite of Carey’s and easily the publisher’s most recognizable and ambitious editor, who led its push into television. Coles tried to take control of her August exit with an Instagram post, but while the corporate line was that she decided to leave after Young’s promotion, insiders insist she was forced out. Nevertheless, Coles is now a creative adviser at CBS News (as the company deals with fallout from multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by male leaders, including ceo Les Moonves), and Young is continuing to make broad changes.
A full review of titles is said to be still underway, with Young and his new number-two Kate Lewis focused on cleaning out any remaining Luddites, digital underachievers or those with even a nostalgia for the way magazines used to be, namely editorially indifferent to advertisers and print-focused. The digital duo in October executed a string of changes in line with their digital and financial ambitions, including naming a new editor of Cosmopolitan and a host of other leadership changes to some lackluster titles, and closing print for Redbook, a move rumored for some time, and later that of Seventeen. Another round of shifts is expected next year with Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire, two of Hearst’s most high-profile assets, said to be gearing up for some changes — perhaps even at the editor in chief level. Esquire in the U.K recently cut its print frequency to every other month with a larger investment in events around the brand.
Newspapers had their share of further change, too, over the year. Maybe more than their share considering newsrooms across the country have eliminated roughly a quarter of their staff since 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. More facts from the nonpartisan group: daily circulation for newspapers year-over-year fell 11 percent; advertising revenue for newspapers fell 10 percent; monthly unique visitors to digital-only news dropped 5 percent, and while digital ad revenue grew to exceed $90 billion, Facebook and Google netted 52 percent of it. All other digital platforms, not just news, shared the remaining 48 percent. There is no comprehensive data specific to advertising for digital news.
Suffice it to say the proliferation of digital media and content consumption has not replaced the loss of print advertising and newsstand sales that floated the industry since its inception, even with the rise of podcasts, newsletters and video.
Tribune Publishing (which thankfully this year changed its name back from the ill-conceived Tronc) is one news group that couldn’t quite get a handle on how to evolve beyond extensive layoffs and save itself. So it’s looking elsewhere for a rescue.
It sold off The Los Angeles Times and a handful of other California dailies to medical industry billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong for a total cost of about $600 million, after he came to Tribune with an unsolicited offer earlier this year. The L.A. Times had been languishing and its staff celebrated the sale as a new beginning under an owner who has promised to invest and so far gone on a hiring spree and bumped up subscription efforts. The rest of Tribune, including major papers like Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun, is weighing a merger or a sale with rival McClatchy Co., which owns the Sacramento Bee, The Miami Herald and a number of other papers.
But other major news organizations seemed to be settling into a new way of life in 2018. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal now have far more digital subscribers than print ones and are focused on growing that set going forward. The Times is also capitalizing on a renewed interest in journalism, surely spurred on by the political environment, and over the last year went deep into live events, holding an average of seven a week over the last year. Digital subscriptions are of course helping to offset what’s become an undeniably unreliable advertising landscape. But even in these newsrooms there was plenty of internal change and still some contraction. The Journal is still trying to trim some excess staff with a further push into a digital way of operating and The Times is hyper-focused on digital subscriptions and recently consolidated some non-edit staff around “missions” in an effort to speed that growth along.
But a look back at 2018 wouldn’t be complete without mention of the many wealthy individuals who scooped up distressed or essentially abandoned media assets. The rich have long been interested (inexplicably, as turning a profit is more difficult than ever) in buying up newspapers and magazines, but in the last 12 months the trend has been pronounced. There is an altruistic element at hand — Soon-Shiong has said he thinks of owning the L.A. Times more as a “public trust;” Salesforce ceo Marc Benioff bought Time magazine for its historical flair and referred to he and his wife as mere “stewards;” Laurene Powell Jobs has alluded to the broader mission of media in taking control of The Atlantic and The California Sunday Magazine.
Fortune magazine found its own billionaire rescuer in Chatchaval Jiaravanon, who is part of the family that owns Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group, but it seems he is one of the few in it for the business potential, citing the possibility of profits and the appetite for business journalism when his $150 million acquisition came out. But prestige properties seem to be the only thing of interest to the wealthiest among us, as there are several outlets, both print and digital, up for adoption.
For those who have decided to get into the media game with a purchase, they’re, more or less, following in the footsteps of Jeff Bezos, who in 2013 bought The Washington Post from the Graham family (for a mere $250 million). It took several years to get the paper running at a profit and an untold amount of investment by Bezos. Although he holds the paper as a personal investment outside of Amazon, it hasn’t stopped many from speculating that he can and does use the paper as an arm of his already considerable multimarket power. The paper is unionized and talks around renewing a contract have been stalled all year, creating some friction between an old newsroom and it’s still relatively new owner.
Speculation about what those with extreme wealth and little experience in media operations will do with their new investments once they stabilize them seems to only come after loud sighs of relief by beleaguered employees and a lot of fanfare by sellers and other observers. But only time will tell whether this new crop of owners can truly reinvent legacy titles — since money can only do so much.