Everyone knows by now that the publishing industry is in a period of massive flux. Revenue (and circulation) have fallen off precipitously, and the increasing presence of the internet has proved to be one more giant conundrum faced by corporations whose long-standing livelihood is dependent on being “the” location for information. Cut-backs and layoffs have been well-documented, and the transition to any future at all has been filled with obstacles. Recently, we’ve seen the results of some of these changes in the local industry, and I’d like to discuss a couple of those.
Also, if you’ll notice, I’ve placed a collection of links to various print publication websites on the side-bar. This is by no means a complete list, and it will no doubt grow as I do a little research. Basically, it’s the ones I could think of off the top of my head. This area, for being a former rural, agricultural community, is very rich in print publications.
As I was leaving the grocery store last evening, I picked up a copy of the newest entrant in the local print advertising fray, the Better Bargains Advertiser. This new shopper (strictly classified and display advertising, no content to speak of) is being published by the people who bring you Cecil Soil Magazine. The Better Bargains Advertiser is clearly chasing the market that has long been owned by The Bargaineer, produced and distributed by Chesapeake Publishing. (Full disclosure: I work as an independent contractor for The Mariner, also owned by Chesapeake Publishing.) Classified advertising is a slice of the print advertising market that has taken it on the chin of late, largely due to the growth of online alternatives such as Craigslist. Fighting for a limited market can make for a pretty pitched battle here.
While the two publications appear eerily similar on the newsstand, the new arrival has opened with an intriguing approach, playing up the “local” aspect of the company. Right on the front inside page of their debut issue, there are several references to being locally owned and keeping your money at home. This is pretty clearly a shot at Chesapeake Publishing and its parent company in Texas, and their parent company in Australia and, in my opinion, it’s a smart move. I’ve opined in the past about how the push by large conglomerates into the hyperlocal markets is largely wishful thinking on their part. My reasoning was that small, locally-dependent businesses won’t really want to support publications where their money gets whisked away to a corporate office hundreds or thousands of miles away. This marketing effort speaks to much the same line of thinking. In bad times, “keep your money at home” can be a powerful message. I also can’t help but wonder how much this expansion effort into classified shoppers affected the recent decision to transition Cecil Soil from a free-distribution magazine to a paid model. Going from free to 3 bucks a copy is a steep jump, but it will definitely cut down on your printing costs. As it is, The Better Bargains Advertiser is a full frontal assault on the Bargaineer and Chesapeake. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond.
One of the reasons I don’t believe hyperlocal will turn out to be viable for large corporations (besides the obvious “we wouldn’t give you the time of day when national advertising was humming but now you’re the savior of our industry” hypocrisy) is the push to consolidate work in central offices sometimes far out geographically from the areas they’re trying to exploit, er, serve. Another local publication has just enacted a similar effort. Nor’easter Magazine, owned by Dominion Enterprises based in Norfolk, VA, has recently undergone a few significant changes. (Even fuller disclosure: I was an original founding member of Ira Black’s Nor’easter Magazine in 2001 and left the company in July 2007.) The most obvious is a format change. The publication, once 14 x 12- inches, has shriveled to a mere 8 x 10 or thereabouts, losing nearly half of its page area. It remains to be seen how such a drastic change will sit with readers and especially advertisers, whose ads now look tiny in comparison. But they will definitely save on paper.
More to the point, however, Nor’easter–based in North East, MD–has also laid off their entire locally-based graphic design and production staff, outsourcing that work to a sister publication under Dominion Enterprises in Essex, CT, a long way from the Chesapeake Bay. My thinking has always been that you can’t appeal to a local market without actually being local. And a couple employees in a shell office doesn’t qualify as local.
Looking at the Chesapeake Bay boating market, in particular the highly competitive free distribution portion of it, the leader of the filed, in my opinion (as Editor of The Mariner, another competitor, so don’t take this lightly) is Prop Talk and its sister sailing publication Spin Sheet. Both publications are owned and operated out of Annapolis, MD, at the very heart of the Chesapeake Bay’s boating community. It’s long been accepted that the Annapolis area is very difficult to break into, due largely to an allegiance by local businesses to their local publication(s). This is precisely the kind of result that larger companies may encounter when chasing local dollars against genuinely local competitors.
One thing all of the six above-mentioned publications have in common is that all of their websites feature interactive PDF versions identical to their current print copies. Putting my personal biases out there right up front, I’ve never been a fan of those. I’ve always questioned the wisdom of having an identical copy of your print publication available online at the same time you’re trying to move copies on the street. In fact, with The Mariner (and earlier with Pet Companions Magazine that I was owner and co-publisher of from Oct. 2007 to Sept. 2008) I have made it a point not to replicate our print work concurrently online. To me, it’s always been a matter of understanding where your bread is buttered, as it were, and keeping your eyes on the key goal, getting print copies into people’s hands. To me, the PDF replicants undermine that goal.
But that may be the point. In the past, in discussions with companies trying to sell me on the notion of producing one of these for my magazine, the conversation always came around to using the PDF version to cut back on printed circulation. I’m not saying any of these publications have taken those steps, I don’t know, just that it is an actual selling point by the companies who produce these digital editions for magazines. For one thing, a computer screen is not, and never will be, a magazine. The whole “look, you can even turn the pages” thing is lost on me. If you’re going to do a digital edition online, at least design something that takes advantage of the medium instead of trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. For shoppers, it makes slightly more sense as ad exposure is the whole enterprise, but I still can’t get past undermining your own print product when that is what pays the bills.
Still, the emergence of the Better Bargains Advertiser, in the face of cutbacks at traditional outlets, is the sign of a trend. I fully expect, as the economy improves, to see more small, independent start-ups join the fray. The long-standing legacy media, as it were, is more vulnerable now than perhaps ever before. The great thing about America is that when a vacuum appears, there are always enterprising people willing to step in to try and fill it. How the entrenched, larger corporations address this issue will go a long way in determining what the media will look like years down the road.