Adapting to the post-print world

The theme of this week’s Cybercultural newsletter is paper to digital; and how that transition is going for news media, magazines, and books. All three sectors have been forced to migrate from a largely paper platform to an increasingly digital one. In the US, print consumption of news has dropped from 47% in 2013 to 19% in 2019, according to a new report by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (more on that below). The same report notes that social media as a source of news has moved in the opposite direction in the US: 27% in 2013 to 46% in 2019. What does all this mean for cultural content? Keep reading to find out.

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News publishers losing direct relationship with customers

We all know print newspapers are on the way out for news media. What was less expected, perhaps, is that news media organisations are losing their direct relationship with customers – even if those people subscribe digitally. According to the 2019 Digital News Report by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:

“One of the biggest implications of the shift to online news has been the weakening of the direct relationship between readers and publishers. Across all our countries, just 29% now say they prefer to access a website or app directly – down 3 percentage points on a year ago. Over half of our combined sample (55%) prefer to access news through search engines, social media, or news aggregators, where large tech companies typically deploy algorithms rather than editors to select and rank stories.” (page 13)

This trend, weakening of direct relationship, varies across countries. In the US, just over a quarter (27%) of survey respondents said they get their news direct from a publisher website or app, compared to 25% from social media. In Finland, it was 64% direct (the highest percentage), while in South Korea it was just 4% (the lowest).

My take: Better curation would help fix this. Social media has proven to be largely a failure in terms of curating news (fake news, groupthink, etc.). So in my view there is a big opportunity for better curation of news, whether that be by automated means or more human curators. Some would argue that publishers are best placed to do this curation for their audiences, but with the polarity of news nowadays I don’t think that’s the case (compare the front page of left-leaning Guardian with the conservative The Times, for example). I’d argue that better automated tools (e.g. AI) and smarter human curators (which we’re seeing currently in newsletter format; they used to be bloggers) can not only improve news curation, but help send more people direct to the publisher for the original reporting.

YouTube is now Seventeen magazine’s key platform

Hearst’s teen magazine Seventeen has successfully re-fashioned itself into a digital-first brand, according to this MediaPost story:

“Last year, Seventeen stopped regular publication of its print magazine to focus on its digital properties and quarterly standalone issues. With executive director Kristin Koch at the helm, the title reports success with its YouTube channel and digital strategy.

Seventeen counts 1.5 million subscribers to its YouTube channel, with a 404% increase in watch time year-over-year and a 205% increase in views year-over-year […]”

My take: I’d argue magazines have been one of the most successful cultural sectors to adapt from print to digital. In an earlier edition of Cybercultural, I did a deep-dive into how Condé Nast’s Glamour magazine has become an Instagram-first publication and generates much of its income now from affiliate links and branded content. It’s a similar story for Seventeen, except it has chosen to double down on YouTube – the most popular platform for its audience (Generation Z).

The other thing to note is that Seventeen’s website is now, it seems, a second-class digital citizen. It wasn’t mentioned at all in the MediaPost story, likely because traffic to the website is flat and maybe even declining. In an article last November, when Seventeen announced the digital pivot, it was noted that “traffic to has remained at about 2 million unique visitors from September 2017 to the same time this year, according to Comscore figures.”

But unlike with news publishers, flat traffic to its website doesn’t bother Seventeen. That’s because external platforms like YouTube and Instagram are where its audience hang out – and it’s all about brand reach for niche magazines. The reliance on social platforms allows Hearst to boast that Seventeen reaches “more than 22 million readers in print, online and socially every month.” Emphasis on the socially.

Print books continue to fall

If magazines are growing on digital platforms and news publishers are at least keeping up, the book industry is really struggling to adapt to the post-print world. This from PublishersWeekly:

“Unit sales of print books fell 1.9% in the first half of 2019, compared to the same period in 2018, at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. Units dropped to 310.7 million, down from 316.7 million a year ago.”

My take: The problem is, print still dominates the book industry. While ebooks as a category have grown over the past decade, in the last couple of years ebooks have actually gone backwards (for a variety of reasons, but increased prices is one of them). This chart from BookStat shows the trend:

Sometimes it seems the only digital success story in book publishing is Amazon. Even in the growing audiobook segment, it’s Amazon’s Audible brand that is benefiting the most.

Put bluntly, the ebook market is due for a shakeup. But I don’t think Amazon will be the one to do it. Witness its lack of innovation on Kindle in recent years; Amazon simply has bigger fish to fry these days (streaming video, for one). Indeed, something akin to streaming needs to happen to ebooks. Because as I noted in a previous edition of Cybercultural, the book industry cannot rely on the continued growth of audiobooks to keep it relevant.

Tracking 👀

  • Speaking of the physical-to-digital transition, independent record stores are furious with the 3 major record labels for poor distribution of CDs and vinyl. It seems all the labels now outsource distribution to a company called Direct Shot, which has resulted in “lost sales, lost customers and lost confidence.” (via Music 3.0) 💿

  • Before there was digital: Poynter has a series of articles about the tv, radio and newspaper coverage of the moon landing, 50 years ago this month. “All of the networks had space units,” said ex-NBC exec Bill Wheatley in one report. 🚀

  • Back to the future, and now it’s digital getting disrupted by digital. Who needs Marvel movies when we have games like Fortnite. According to The Verge, Fortnite’s “mecha-monster battle” last weekend was “reminiscent of Pacific Rim” and “exhilarating to watch live” (note: he said watch, not play). 🎮

  • Physical spaces news: Netflix’s lobby is “the hottest see-and-be-seen spot in Hollywood,” reports The NY Times. “An 80-foot by 12-foot video screen makes visitors feel like they are inside Netflix shows — visiting the Narcos cocaine lab, for instance, or sitting on the Blue Cat Lodge boat dock from Ozark.” 📺

  • When robots tag art: Microsoft has announced a $10 million tech program, AI for Cultural Heritage, “dedicated to the preservation and enrichment of cultural heritage.” An example is The Met using Microsoft technology to help classify and tag its 1.5 million works of art. (via VentureBeat) 🤖

Data Points 📊

Tweet of the week 🐦

I’m going to shout out one of my own tweets this week. I’ve started doing culture-tech threads, partly to amuse myself and partly to help promote this newsletter. Follow me on Twitter if you don’t mind GIFs in your feed 🙂

That’s a wrap for another week. A reminder that I’ve opened my inbox to consulting enquiries, so do reach out if you’d like me to dig deeper into a specific sector.

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