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The Future of Association Publishing?

For someone like me who works in association periodicals publishing, there have been some ominous rumbles to listen to for a while. Newspapers are contracting and even shutting down; I just read recently that U.S. News and World Report is dropping down from a weekly to a biweekly after taking a huge hit in ad pages.

Steve Ballmer of Microsoft predicts, "There will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form." Of course, part of the problem newspapers and other publications are facing is that online ad revenues just aren't replacing those that had been generated by print ads; as print ad sales go down, the online ad sales aren't making up the difference.

In the same interview quoted above, Ballmer notes that in 10 years there will be many more content developers than there are now. So I'm wondering how many association publications are asking questions like these:

1. Who will be our main competitors as content developers in the next few years?

2. What can we offer that's of greater value than straight-up content? U.S. News and World Report is planning to focus on its special package issues, with more regular news updates available online only. Seth Godin's recent post on Amazon's Kindle offers a number of ideas for ways traditional text content could become more valuable.

3. How can we partner with individual content developers (members who write, authors, bloggers, podcasters, etc.) for the benefit of our industry/profession? Publications that already work with volunteer authors should have a strong base to build on in this area.

3. If our publication was available only online, would our members read it? If it came in e-mail, would they click on it right away (or ever)? What can we offer that would make them want to click right away?

4. What additional value does our print publication bring as a print publication? If we want the print version to still be viable in 5-10 years, what steps do we need to take to make that happen?

What other questions are you thinking about, association publishers?



Lisa, this is a very interesting post that speaks to the need for business model innovation in association publications across the board. I have recently written a couple of posts about business model innovation in association book publishing that may be of interest to you and others. They can be found here:

First post: http://tinyurl.com/5fn3y5

Second post: http://tinyurl.com/5sekxh

Let me know what you think. And thanks for pointing to Seth Godin's post on the Amazon Kindle. I have a Kindle as well, and I love it. I need to read Seth's thoughts about and see how my views compare!

Interesting thoughts here, Lisa. For me, I have been hearing the same rumblings that in 5-10 years all printed magazines and newspapers will be gone. With the costs of mailing these pieces continuing to skyrocket, and the cost of printing continuing to rise as well, I think we are going to continue hearing these rumblings get louder and louder.

For me as an editor, I have been feeling the pinch to try to either reduce costs or generate more revenue like many others. How can we do it in our association? We either need to cut the distribution or begin selling ads in our publication, something we have never done, and to be honest, something that I don't know our members would like...

As I think it through however, cutting the distribution can only be a positive thing if we continue to somehow provide the same VALUE to the members who no longer receive it in printed form. Check out the innovative things that some university publications are doing at http://www.pursuantgroup.net/purdue/alumnus/0508/. This is the most recent issue of Purdue University's alumni magazine. It's pretty impressive, and if they can develop this online and deliver it without the huge cost of postage, it's certainly an interesting alternative to a hard copy piece...

Anyway, I think what it comes down to is VALUE, and if you can provide value to your readers through alternative ways than a printed publication (like Purdue and some other universities and associations have done), that MAY lead us to rethink printing our pieces.

Part of the VALUE is the benefit of reading the material where and when you want. Many people don't want to read lengthy articles on computer screens, although they will utilize online copy for search and archive purposes.

Find a way to use online and print to complement each other and you may be able to deliver real VALUE.

Hi, I just stumbled into this article and was amazed how great your fear about the vanishing of print is. I don't believe, print will vanish. If you read Ballmer carefully, he doesn't say "it will be online", he actually says: "in an electric form". That's something completely different!

You assume that your only chance is online (speaking about websites and e-mail). Sorry, but I think that's pretty short-sighted. Think about yourself and what reading experience you like most. That of a computer or that of a proper book, magazine or newspaper? The answer is simple: People will still want to read great news articles and read great stories. And they won't read them on computers, because computers offer a very bad reading experience. But people will read it on digital paper, that offers the best from both worlds (or will in a few years).

So I believe, print will shift from actual print to digital print (e-books, e-magazines, e-newspapers). But with the benefit of lower production and distribution costs of e-books, dramatically more people will write and more people will read (but not increasing as much as the number of writers). This will make alot of books and other content free, because there are millions of unpublished manuscripts (or even more), that couldn't be published before due to the high costs (compared to nearly zero costs for a digital distribution).

David is right, it's about where and when you want to read. The whole future of your business is not about value of print or how to connect it to online. It is about how to provide readers with relevant(!) content in a perfect reading environment. And people will pay for that!

If you want to know more, read my articles about e-books and e-book readers:


Jeff: Thanks so much for the links! The book side of publishing is an important discussion too, and I'm glad you're promoting it.

Bruce: You're absolutely right that it's about value--that's something to always keep in mind. I love the Purdue example!

David: I absolutely agree that the ability to read when and where you want is part of a publication's value proposition--and I'm speaking as a total printed-paper junkie (seriously, you should see the piles of books in my house). Although I do think right now is an interesting time where there are many options that could be an individual reader's choice of when and where to read--a mobile device, an RSS feed reader, print, a normal web page. Is it difficult for some association publications to keep up with the many options? Should they even try?

Robert: I don't think my post was about fear; it was about the importance of being prepared for what may be coming. Let's say your predictions in your third paragraph come true and print will shift from actual print to digital print, and a lot of books and content will become free. That implies huge changes in many association publishers' business model, if their publications are paid for by print advertising and/or subscription fees. If your publication is now free on the web, with advertising revenues that are significantly less that what you earned in print, how will you handle it? The important point isn't to be afraid--it's to be prepared for that possibility and plan for how it can best benefit your association's members.

Lisa: It's good to hear, that you don't fear what might be coming. I don't expect everything to become free. There will only be alot of people publishing articles or stories for free - the same as people are now publishing millions of videos for free on YouTube and the like. But that doesn't diminish the money spent on cinema, home entertainment videos or TV series.

As more content is available, people find out more about their real interests. That drives the people down the Long Tail (provided appropriate filters). And when people find what they really like, they are willing to spend more money on it. So lets imagine, that a writer publishes one book for free. And let's say, it attracts some thousand readers. If those readers really like his first book, they would spend like 5 dollars for his second book. And these dollars are entirely his, because the distribution costs are only tiny (compared to print). So this might be profitable for him! With a book for only 5 dollars! He could also write a book and let readers pay per chapter. That's just the start.

As of newspapers and magazines: Let's face it: Nobody likes advertisement. There is even a banner blindness for online advertisement (see http://www.useit.com/alertbox/banner-blindness.html), so nothing to win there. But as I said in my article "E-Books for free": I believe, you can earn real money by providing individuals with content that is relevant to them. And I believe, one of the reasons people would pay for that, is to minimize their time spent on searching for relevant content.

I mean, why does anyone pay for a newspaper right now? Because it contains yesterday's news? Surely not. They pay for it, because the paper thing is great to hold, to read, to browse. But more importantly: The newspaper provides content that is relevant to the reader. If you would increase individualization, you could raise the price. And nearly everyone I know, would gladly pay more for something that satisfies his personal needs the most.

In my opinion everything you have to do is: Find a way to provide a selected audience with the best content for their needs - and add a personal touch. And if you really want advertisment to increase your income, do it the Google way: Make it highly relevant and only provide it when requested!


You did make me think so I wrote my own post. Let me know what you think. http://tinyurl.com/mlbl5y

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