Certain corners of the print market have had a better pandemic than anyone would have predicted, but for every story of screen-weary readers picking up a print subscription, there’s at least one more of a print closure. Peter Houston rounds up the year as part of our report.

Print, the publishing platform that will not die. Not even a global pandemic can finish it off. Covid-19 restrictions chased more than a few titles out of print in 2020, some into a digital only future, others into history.

But the monotony of a screen-heavy work-life imbalance pushed real-world print back into the spotlight and people have been subscribing to (some) print publications in record numbers.

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Publishers kept going with WFH workflows cobbled together from Zoom, Slack and Dropbox, but when the lockdowns hit, print faced the perfect storm.

It’s hard to make a publication if your printing press is locked down; to deliver a publication if your distribution network is locked down; to sell a publication if your retail outlets are locked down. And if your advertisers have locked down their budgets, you’re in for some challenging times.

What happened in 2020?

The media-industry coverage from this year has been focused heavily on ‘trend acceleration’. “In recent weeks, several decades’ worth of disruption and, frankly, obliteration has come to the UK’s newspapers and magazines,” wrote the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan in April. “Covid-19 is accelerating innovation that was long overdue and likely to happen anyway”.

In the first quarter of 2020, magazine newsstand sales were down 8% on 2019, bad but not catastrophic. Then lockdown pushed the year-on-year shortfall to 20-25%.  In newspapers, downward circulation trends were amped up by the cancellation of the commute. Again, starting the year down by 8%, newspaper sales dropped by up to 40% at their worst.

Retail closures, reduced footfall, fears of appearing next to negative stories, it wasn’t hard for advertisers to find an excuse not to spend in print through the first half of 2020. A Nielsen study showed ad spend across the press in the UK down 42% during lockdown, with over $1 billion wiped off total UK advertising expenditure during lockdown.

Subtract advertising revenues from car-crash newsstand returns and several magazines that were already teetering on the brink slipped over the edge. At the beginning of September, the Press Gazette was reporting more than 40 magazine closures from a list of UK publishers that included Immediate Media, Future Publishing, Bauer and DC Thomson.

There have been no high-profile Covid-19 casualties in the UK newspaper market, but then again it would be hard to spot them in a local news sector that has been declining for years; the UK has lost 265 regional titles since 2005.

“It’s frustrating because we were profitable and growing – in January and February we had two of our record months and then March and April fell to zero… £100,000 plus per month to zero. No media business can absorb that.”

Andrew Dent, Founder, Family Traveller Magazine

The subject matter of the titles shuttered covered the broadest range imaginable – from rock music to golf, weddings to computers, cross stitch to boxing – but the messaging around the closures carried a stark similarity that went something like this: 

“The magazine market has been challenged for a number of years. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated declines. Magazines that were marginal six months ago have become commercially unsustainable.”

Even previously healthy magazine operations suffered from the shock of lockdown. Based in Edinburgh, The Skinny is a free monthly arts and entertainment magazine covering Scotland and the North of England that woke up one morning to a world without entertainment. There were no venues open to advertise and nowhere for readers to pick up the publication. The pandemic poleaxed their business model.

Other titles faced with overnight collapse include the quarterly Family Traveller magazine that, despite posting record months in January and February, was forced to close in April, with the company going into liquidation in September.

A reeling US newspaper industry has also been hit hard. National newspaper circulation in the US is down 30% since 2016, the local news market has lost 1,800 papers since 2005 and COVID-19 alone brought the closure of 60 newsrooms.

Predictions of accelerated doom have not been hard to find. Early in the crisis Roy Greenslade wrote: “Coronavirus is destroying newsprint newspapers across Britain, delivering the coup de grace to businesses that were already in the process of dying.”

Looking at Britain’s biggest newspaper publishers, the sell off continues. The UK’s fourth largest newspaper publisher Archant was bought in a private equity deal that wiped out any shareholder value, cut the money creditors would get paid and shifted pension liabilities to the government. JPI Media, formed from the assets of the liquidated Johnson Press Group in 2018, and back on the block after posting a £34.5 million operating loss is a likely target for the newly funded Archant.

Freesheets including the Evening Standard in London and Metro elsewhere were hit hard by the shutdown. The Evening Standard, delivering to people homes for the first time ever, cut its print run in half and Metro dropped its circulation to just 300,000 from 1.4 million at the height of the lockdown. Morning business paper City AM simply stopped printing and as of December was still not back on the streets.

But it would be a truly ill wind that blew no good whatsoever and among the COVID carnage there have been stories of survival and even of thriving. 

The Skinny, like Simon Brew’s Film Stories, survived to fight another day thanks to successful crowdfunding campaigns. Others like the three public sector executive titles published by Manchester’s Cognitive Publishing reinvented themselves online; Publisher Roy Rowlands telling us in September that ‘COVID had ‘stolen his thunder’ and pushed forward existing plans to move to digital editions.

Other magazine publishers completely rejigged their business models. With vendors kept off the streets, The Big Issue and Stylist both reinvented their distribution models, The Big Issue selling through retail outlets for the first time and Stylist distributing through online supermarket Ocado.

And magazine publishers worldwide reported clear subscription growth around, especially in the children’s, home, food, garden and health and wellbeing sectors.

Even newspapers saw some readers, tired of “doomscrolling” take up a newspaper subscription, some for the first time. “I had to find a way to cut back on my screentime and get the information that I needed to feel satiated, informed and on top of what was happening in the world,” wrote first-time subscriber Katy Byron.

And in one of the absolute best print stories of 2020, UK tabloid The Daily Star reinvented itself as the leading critic of the UK government’s shambolic coronavirus response. It’s cut-out-and-keep masks of controversial government advisor Dominic Cummings were a triumph and a stunt made for print.

“I want to use this platform to make these amazing black role models that are not seen a lot. So that children can actually look at what they can achieve in life.”

Serlina Boyd, Founder, Cocoa Girl and Cocoa Boy magazines

Where are we now?

Hopefully, we’ve seen the worst of the closures and layoffs and some semblance of a recovery is appearing late in the year. Many of the big print players in the magazine market have paid back the government funding they received during lockdown and although print launches are at a hen’s-teeth level of frequency, they are there.

More broadly, it’s about survival. Jim Bilton of Wessenden Marketing told us in June that being a good publisher might not be enough. “Who is left standing in 12 months time is actually going to be fairly random,” he said. “It won’t actually be dependent on how good an operator that publisher actually is but their finances… have they got the cash in the bank.”

Hearst UK illustrates the point. The business has managed to avoid closures and has seen a subscriptions uptick, but it’s events and advertising receipts have taken a hammering and the company expects Covid-19 losses to eat up a “large proportion” of its cash resources.

What will happen next year?

Trend acceleration is on the agenda for next year. More marginal magazines and newspapers will go to the wall. More information providers that don’t need a real-world substrate will switch to digital-only.

Print publishers that can spin a ‘differentiation’ angle will double-down on their specific niches and the tangibility of their products. That could mean lux production or banging the ‘screentime-break’ drum really hard, but establishing a ‘different from digital’ position will be crucial.

And pretty much everyone that survives 2020 with some form of print offering will need to go into 2021 with one eye firmly on revenue diversification. From ecommerce to virtual events and a complimentary digital content package – news, newsletters, podcasts, video – cash from digital will matter.

For all the talk around our rediscovery of real world pleasures, the new normal won’t be that different from the old normal and print will continue to be under intense pressure.

This article is an extract from our Media Moments 2020 report. To see the case studies for this chapter and to read the full report, .

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