No death for print — until the last drop of profit hits the bottom line

Press Gazette carries a gloomy prognosis from Graham Harman, the managing director of Incisive Media’s business and technology magazines.

Harman has just merged Computing and IT Week, two weekly trade titles for IT professionals. Last time I looked, these titles had a combined circulation of nearly 150,000.

Harman has also severed the title-specific loyalties of his journalists and set them to work as content specialists across a range of technology sites and magazines.

You’ve got to have some sympathy with Harman when he says: “You can’t just stick to the old practices and say ‘that will do’.”

But sympathy comes a bit harder as Harman revs up the rhetoric. In particular, note the claim that Incisive’s changes have nothing to do with “cost cutting or cost savings”.

Why do publishers always say this? Beats me. But if Incisive isn’t making savings, I’m the shah of Iran.

The need for economies is pointed up by Nielsen Media Research, which suggests that ad volumes in Harman’s markets fell by 20%-30% YOY between May and July.

These numbers are worse than anywhere else in B2B publishing (with the possible exception of financial services). In fact, they resemble what you’d expect to see in regional press classified markets.

So is Harman’s predicament the result of working in a volatile vertical sector? Or is it a sign of things to come for everyone else in B2B publishing?

Depressingly, Harman thinks it’s the latter. He predicts that a lot of his B2B rivals “won’t be ready” for big revenue declines. He predicts that many “won’t have thought about it, or be where we are in terms of the online offering.”

Upheaval is always more bearable if you emerge from it feeling far-sighted. Harman might even be correct. But Incisive’s logic seems odd in other ways.

For example, there’s this bit of advice: “You have to say to yourself: ‘If I was launching into this market now what would I do?'”

Now quite clearly, B2B technology publishing is the kind of market where readers migrated online long ago. The one thing a new entrant wouldn’t do under any circumstances is to launch a weekly print magazine. Actually, no-one has done it for the best part of a decade.

But oddly, after closing IT Week‘s print edition, this is exactly what Incisive will continue to do by continuing to publish Computing. . . as a weekly magazine.

Graham Harman can be forgiven for not highlighting the contradiction. At the leading edge of B2B publishing, print really is on its last legs. This is making life tricky.

The problem for Harman is that a dwindling pool of advertisers still have some cash to spend on print ads. So even as yesterday’s medium enters its death throes, Incisive hesitates to switch off the life support machine.

Publicly, B2B publishers in this situation will say that print remains valuable because some readers still want it.

Privately, they know they need to wring the last drops of profit from a dying medium before they can flick the switch.

But there’s a problem with what we might call The Last Drop approach.

It has hidden costs. Continuing with print to the bitter end consumes lots of editorial resource in relative terms. It bends editorial and sales teams out of the shape they need to assume for the future. It dilutes focus on digital.

Some will say that this has been going on for years. True enough. But earlier in the game, print had an ace up its sleeve. It was able to generate the profits required to bankroll digital development. Presumably this is no longer the case at Incisive.

The lesson that Graham Harman really should be offering up to the market is this: It would be best for everyone if we got this over with quickly and faced the future. . . but our shareholders have made this an impossibility.

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