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Challenges facing magazines discussed at Toronto panel

It’s not easy being in the magazine business these days. That’s the conclusion of a recent panel discussion in Toronto, Canada, hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.

The discussion, called "Digital or Bust? The Future of Magazines,” was held on 30 November in Toronto. Panelists included John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's, Sarah Fulford, editor-in-chief of Toronto Life, Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus, and Steve Maich, SVP of digital content and publishing at Rogers Media.

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The conversation, moderated by Laas Turnbull from Zoomer Media, centered around the challenges facing magazines, namely, silos and diversity, the transition of economic models, the business reality, advertising, and the appeal of print.In his opening remarks, the moderator noted that it was hard to monetise digital because so many advertising dollars went to Facebook and Google, who, in turn, were “gobbling” up others' content.

Indeed, Facebook and Google are eating publishers’ lunches, according to a column published in the New York Times earlier this year. Writer John Herrman quoted a Morgan Stanley analyst: “in the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in online advertising will go to Google or Facebook.” At a time when more than 40 per cent of web traffic is coming from Facebook, says a recent Parse.ly report, the bulk of media spending at these digital giants is hard to ignore and has far-reaching impacts on the industry.

Lack of diversity

“I'm worried that good people will not want to be journalists,” Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford said. Walrus editor Jonathan Kay agreed, saying that not many people have the privilege to write for free. “Not everyone has the luxury of being able to do that,” he said. “Salaries have gone down ad freelance rates have gone down. People who can afford to be writers now, they often are trust fund children,” Kay continued. “It makes much less sense for the sons and daughters of immigrants who scrimped and saved to come to Canada precisely so that their children would have a better life, to do so. When we talk about diversity, the economic model of our industry is driving diversity away because it's only the privileged who can afford to become writers.”

Revenue decline

Much of the conversation centered around the decline and uncertainty around the economic model. It’s becoming harder to survive for publishers in Canada, as print advertising is falling. The industry is in transition, according to Rogers Media SVP Steve Maich. He said he believed there would be a sustainable economic model, but it won't look anything like what the industry has now. “We're in this awkward middle stage where we're transitioning from one economic model to a new one, and the new one isn't at all clear. I run a publishing business within a very large telecom and communications company, where generally, the share prices and growth is what it's all about. It's not really about cash flow for us,” Maich said. “It's about the prospects for growth, that's what management expects from me.”

“The changes we've gone through in the past year, pulling back from print, focusing more of our energy and resources on digital because we know we can grow revenues there... and that's very much the focus.

In September, Rogers Media announced it was discontinuing the print versions of four of its lead magazine titles including Canadian Business, Flare, MoneySense and Sportsnet and putting them online, among other significant changes to it’s magazine division. Just recently, Rogers announced it would lay off 87 and planned to shutter its women’s magazine LouLou, after it could not find a buyer for the publication.

However, the decision “was necessary for our business as we continue to address the ongoing challenges facing the print media industry,” a spokesperson told the Financial Times.

At St. Joseph's Toronto Life, Fulford says the pressures are different. “I have this theory that advertisers will continue to play with us, providing our brand equity remains high,” she said. “We have to create these places where advertisers will want to engage with us, and we have found great success with our events.”The pressure comes with continuing to come up with these areas “where we can dance with our advertisers,” Fulford said. “This being a somewhat golden age of experimentation, because the market is driving us to create these new forms of expression and advertiser and reader engagement.”

Print is not dead

MacArthur put forth the argument that print was not dead.“I want to dispute the premise that there is still gold in them there digital hills,” the Harper’s magazine president and publisher said. “If we just figure out how to monetise it, or how to manipulate the digits... I just don't buy it. Print is very much alive, he suggested. “There are hundreds of millions, even billions, of people who like reading on paper,” MacArthur said. The statement was echoed in a recent piece by Monocle Editor Tyler Brule in The Financial Times. Kay suggested print and digital could work in concert. “Eighty to 90 per cent of people read content online,” he said. “It's true we have trouble monetising it, there's no question." However, Kay pointed out, the print edition of The Walrus has a certain authority, a brand standard that reaches to the website as well.

“People have an association with the print magazine,” he said. “It's not just about dollars and cents, it's because we have a print product, it adds an aura of authority to the editorial content on other platforms. "Print, however, isn't being consumed by younger generations, Maich retorted. “Today's 20-year-olds are less interested in consuming content that way than 20-year-olds ten years ago,” he said. “The problem we have in print is that it's an incredibly expensive way to disseminate content. From production to distribution, it's expensive, it's inflexible and slow.”MacArthur disagreed.“We're finding (through) our subscriber surveys, that the vast majority of our readers still prefer to read on paper,” he said. Despite the challenges the discussion reflected, the publishing industry is in an interesting period of transition, and publishers and editors alike were optimistic about the future, regardless of their circumstances.

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