We were wrong about the internet.
For around a decade we have assumed that it was killing print. It isn't. What the internet has done is severely undermine the ability of publishers to charge for printed newspapers and magazines when so much information is available for free online.
It is a truth which is underlined by the upcoming relaunch of NME.
The magazine’s print circulation has collapsed from more than 75,000 a decade ago to around 15,000 per week.
Few people feel the need to spend £2.60 a week to find out what music to listen to when, for the same money, they can buy a subscription to Napster or Spotify which lets them listen to pretty much any band they could imagine and also provides curation, reviews and recommendations.
But while NME’s journalism may no longer be a must-have for most music fans, publishers Time Inc believe it still has a mass-market in print – albeit a free one.
This is a model that worked for Time Out, which relaunched as a free weekly with a distribution of 300,000 in September 2012.
Going free also saved London daily the Evening Standard. Back in 2009 its sales were going off a cliff and annual financial losses ran into the tens of millions. Then it switched to free distribution and flipped its economic model becoming an overnight success.
Today the Standard distributes more than 900,000 copies, mostly dumped in huge piles at major London transport hubs and greedily picked up by commuters. It has just celebrated its third year of making a (modest) profit.
Other successful free titles include weekly magazines Stylist (400,000 circulation), Sport (300,000) and Shortlist (500,000).
There is also well established and highly profitable free daily Metro, which has a circulation of around 1.5m in cities across the UK.
Like its fore-runners in the free print market, I expect that NME’s editorial quality won’t be as good as you would expect to see in a paid-for title. And it may well not be as independent from commercial influences as a paid-for title might be. But it will be considerably better than you would expect to get for nothing.
And this should be enough to deliver advertisers a highly engaged and hard-to-reach young audience.
In these days of ubiquitous smartphones, mobile internet and broadband it is surprising that a publishing company is printing articles on dead trees and sending delivery trucks full of magazines around the country in order to tell a young audience what’s hot in the world of pop and rock music.
But you only have to look at the surging popularity of magazines aimed at children (from pre-school upwards) to see that print is a medium that the young are comfortable with.
Time Inc isn’t stupid. The new free NME may well work, because this is a tried and tested formula.
The best case scenario is that they recreate the success if a brand like Vice which started as a free magazine in the US in 1994 and in the UK in 2002 and has grown into a multimedia powerhouse built on a global print circulation of more than 1m a year.