I get it. I really do. It’s tough to do print profitably at scale. But a ‘print is dying’ narrative founded on the idea that online audiences are just so much bigger is disingenuous at best.

The spark for this little rant is a comment made by Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch in an interview with Kara Swisher. Condé Nast, publisher of glossy titles like Vogue, Wired, The New Yorker, and GQ, is “no longer a magazine company,” Lynch claimed, because it only has 70 million magazine readers compared with 300 million web visitors and 450 million social media interactions.

Where do you even start with that?

OK, I know, let’s start with the numbers, which I have described elsewhere as ‘classic bean-counter bollix’. 

Magazine readers are simply not the same as people who show up on your website or throw you a like on the socials. Proper magazine maths – done by someone leading a magazine company – would factor in the clear differential in engagement times. No one that buys a magazine spends two to four minutes with it. Few publishers share detailed data on print vs digital engagement for obvious reasons, but we do have the estimates around the NME’s switch to digital, cutting engagement time by more than 70%.

I’m not for a second saying Condé Nast can’t leverage significant digital revenues from its hundreds of millions of online visits. I’m sure the company’s objective to secure a third of its revenue from digital subscriptions and ecommerce is eminently achievable.

But talking about magazine readers as if they are the same as online audiences makes absolutely no sense. As more than one muppet sang on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others.

And the other thing that really irks me about this ‘we’re no longer a magazine company’ line is how casually it devalues a central plank of the publisher’s product portfolio and the work of so many of their staff. There are 70 million people reading your magazines but you’re not a magazine company anymore? I genuinely struggle to think of any other industry that would talk about a major product line like that.

Would it be too much to ask the leaders of major magazine companies to think harder about how they frame their businesses? Say, ‘We’re not just a magazine company anymore’. That wasn’t so hard was it?

It’s not either-or

I actually don’t care if Condé Nast doesn’t want to be a magazine company anymore. They can describe what they do any way they want. It might even be better for the industry if the bigger players do come to be seen as separate. Then companies committed to magazine publishing won’t get caught up in this digital-or-die posturing.

The implication that digital is better than print because 450 million people are doom scrolling your social feeds is just depressing. I’ve been railing against this either-or narrative for easily a decade, probably more and it’s getting boring.

Print is changing. I refer you to my opening statement. Paper costs. Print costs. Distribution costs. All are up at a time when audience attention has never been more fragmented. Mass market magazine economics are difficult.

But, too often, the only reason the ‘print is dying’ narrative is rolled out is to forward a digital agenda that generally leads to cost cutting. Just ask the people laid off at Dotdash Meredith.

Using flawed audience arithmetic as the rationale to abandon your magazine-publishing past, present and future won’t help anyone in the long run. We need a different way to talk about the print-digital dynamic in magazine publishing. A way that doesn’t undervalue print and overvalue digital. A way that’s not based on beancounter bullsh*t.

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