From Disruption to Experimentation: The Power of Magazines
IDEAlliance PRIMEX EAST Conference Keynote

Malcolm Netburn, Chairman, CDS Global

I had the pleasure of speaking at the IDEAlliance PRIMEX EAST Conference on June 19, 2014, where I shared my passionate view on print magazines, digital content and the bright future of the media industry. Below are my collected remarks from that keynote.

Mark Twain once said, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Who would guess that, 117 years later, we would still be using that phrase? For years, print has been touted as a dying medium – a relic of the past stubbornly holding on naively in hopes of a resurgence. And through it all, we have too often taken the bait. Media professionals lamenting that fate publicly. And even more glaring, lamenting in the very products where great brands have been forged, where great relationships with audiences were created.

For many, that train of thought still holds true today: that print is dead – or at least dwindling – like a wounded caribou on the African savanna. But before we call it time for print to quit, we need to take a rational, unbiased look at its role in the larger content ecosystem.

We need to look at the facts and not conventional wisdom. Print works. The reality is: print still plays a major role in content distribution and consumption. The top 25 print magazines reach more adults and teens than the top 25 regularly scheduled primetime TV shows.[i] Readership is consistent across generations[ii], seeing less fluctuation among age groups than TV, Internet and radio. And consumers are spending a significant amount of time – 40 minutes on average – reading each print issue.[iii] Its values can’t be overlooked.

Even in this age of disruption, print maintains a powerful place in the ecosystem of content distribution. The moment we forget that, we endanger the power of content everywhere. While it would be naive to not recognize the decline in print as new channels have expanded our ability to reach our audiences, it would be equally negligent to discount it completely.

Digital has an insatiable appetite for content. That is both its strength and its weakness. In its limitlessness, there is risk of degrading the value of content. Consider other media. How many times have you clicked through 400 television channels only to realize that there is really nothing on? There isn’t a lack of channels or programming. There is a lack of great content, of great quality. In this context, it may be of no surprise that more than 150 print magazine titles have thrived for more than 50 years; only nine TV programs can say the same.[iv]

While I am not arguing for print dominance, I am evangelizing the belief that print holds a critical position in the content ecosystem. It is the nurturer – the basis of many brands, of many voices. Of experience and trustworthiness and accountability. And it elegantly coexists with current and emerging digital channels that serve their own purposes of brand extension and consumer interaction.

Magazine brands are respected sources of content, and the magazine itself – ink on paper – has been and is still the pulsing heart of those brands. That heartbeat, that creative energy, powers digital as well, creating a healthy ecosystem of interconnectivity. Today, it is also true that a brand must continue to nurture and change its print format or run the risk of creating an unhealthy, unstable ecosystem – like an ocean starved for oxygen. Removing or giving up on that printed word, however, runs the risk of pulling the rug out from underneath the brand itself.

We must ask the question, given the power of brands and the respect that print has garnered for quality and trustworthiness, would online content be as valuable without it? In many cases, no. We can’t underestimate the power of print, metrics, circulation and brand power. Of course, we see early-stage adoption of digital only. Quartz from Atlantic Media is a great example. As a thought leader in news and political information, Quartz is doing incredibly well in digital. But a good deal of that success derives from the credibility and discipline that comes from an organization that has been successfully building its brand value over more than 150 years with The Atlantic Monthly.

The strong, early move toward digital can partially be attributed to the fact that magazine readers, in general, have proven to be early adopters of technology and new content distribution channels.[v] Because of early adoption, though, we are now seeing some declines in digital as consumers have recognized the value of print within the ecosystem. Digital revenue growth rates slowed slightly in the past year to 12.6 percent (from 13.7 percent)[vi], and digital subscription levels are just starting to rise again after a strong start followed by a quick decline.[vii] While this could change in the future – I don’t think any of us would claim that print will always and forever be the prevailing medium – it is hard to picture many valued magazine brands that could exist without the printed magazine.

In the future, digital will be much better and print will be very different (and there will most definitely be less of it), but I don’t see that in our short-term future. For all the buzz of a digital-only world, print delivers both the content and financial goods that power the best and largest magazine brand companies today. And that’s important because it dictates how we charge forward through the disruption of the past several years and prepare ourselves for a strong, healthy future.

Moving from Disruption to Experimentation and Beyond

Disruption is a term that we have been hearing constantly in our business. Let me be the first to declare this age of disruption over. You can stick a fork in it – it’s done.

In the age of disruption, common wisdom declared the magazine dead. Specifically, we were told consumers weren’t reading print magazines anymore. They were obsolete because of their fixed, non-interactive format. So, the age of disruption has been our Dark Age. And it is now giving way to become the age of our Renaissance. If I may be so bold, I would like to label it the age of experimentation. Experimenting in creation of a full content ecosystem, replete with print, Web, mobile, apps and more – more that are emerging and more that we haven’t yet even conceived. And if we are bold, if we seize the moment, this is our time. This could be our golden age.

In this age of experimentation, content is delivered in flexible, mixed distribution networks that actually address the many differing and changing needs of our consumers. Our audiences can seamlessly digest content from one format to another, with technology and tools that help lead them to more of the content they are interested in. We call that distribution agnostic.

Throughout this magazine revolution, we will also be experimenting with the virtues of the printed magazine and how we shape content. We are able to do that because we are much more in touch with how consumers are digesting that content. Magazines are still very influential and serve as a critical source of the content consumers crave. They continue to be one of the most powerful mediums for advertising. In fact, print magazines are the most preferred media to look at ads, and they rank No. 1 in advertising engagement and acceptance.[viii]

Above all, they can be trusted. Print is more researched, edited and digested, having cooled from the heat of the moment, presenting details without the stream-of-consciousness chatter that bombards us on the Web. In most cases, print drives the brand. Like the Ralph Lauren polo shirt, one of the first pieces of clothing that defined the Ralph Lauren brand, print is the constant, the staple. The print magazine will remain vital, powerful and valuable. And value always generates money over time.

But, of course, the age of experimentation is not only about print. It is about the collaboration of print and digital. To create an accurate map of the magazine experience, we need to drop the “versus.” It is not print versus digital. Print and digital do not exist at the expense of each other; they enhance each other. Of all American adults, 91 percent read print or digital magazines[ix], and the share of total revenue from digital and e-commerce has climbed from 12 percent in 2011 to 24 percent today.[x] It goes without saying that this is great news for the content ecosystem and is a testament to the combined power of print and digital.

Print and digital sit well together. In a balanced ecosystem of content, we enjoy and need to receive content in multiple channels. It is a balance of mediums where each serves a purpose and helps to enhance the consumer experience. We don’t need to re-create magazines in digital – the mediums support one another. So the pendulum, having swung way off into the land of digital, finds itself looking for the sweet spot. A place where different mediums support, rather than cannibalize, each other.


Making Sense of Experimentation: The Need for Standards

But, as publishers, how do we make sense of it all? And how do we provide a consistent experience for consumers across all of these channels? In the age of experimentation, it is even more critical to introduce and adhere to standards and processes that focus on providing the best experience possible and help us understand success. Even some of the most experimental communications tools have guidelines to give them structure. Take Twitter, for example, which maintains its 140-character limitation and incorporates hashtags to create worldwide conversations. Twitter has liberated, but it has done so with very specific rules and standards.

CDS Global, the company I work for as chairman, understands the importance of standards and processes. In fact, one of our major technology initiatives this past year, a product we call eEditions, was created to make sense out of the chaos that is digital newsstand sales data. Publishers adopted digital models quickly but had no way to measure success. They came to us for a way to normalize all of the disparate data they were receiving. eEditions does just that – it creates consistency and provides measurements for success.

And that is also why it is important to have our colleagues here at IDEAlliance providing standards for print and production. While some may think that we need to do away with standards in order to be more innovative, I believe there is great truth in the adage that you must know the rules in order to break them. The importance of organizations like IDEAlliance is not minimized by changes in print or the drive for new innovations. Without industry standards, things could quickly devolve into chaos. The more we experiment, the more we need guidelines. The consumer’s appetite for content is very powerfully driven by predictable patterns. Consistency in look, feel, size, quality and touch of the paper is important. Otherwise, it feels uncomfortable or chaotic. These same principles hold for digital expressions of content. The standards outlined by IDEAlliance address these issues for us, and allow us to experiment successfully – with a higher likelihood that our experiments will be accepted by the consumer, and by advertisers and sponsors.

The age of experimentation, with its promise of openness and innovation, will be successful because of sound measurements and a keen focus on the user experience across channels. And all of those channels need to work together to keep brands healthy, content flowing and consumers engaged.

Creating a Healthy Content Ecosystem

In the end, it is about coexistence. We need to recognize the vitality of print – the fact that it offers consumers a trusted experience, and an interactive one at that. We need to recognize that print is the brand nurturer and an integral part of our content ecosystem.

We need to welcome this age of experimentation – the innovation that it breeds and the rise of digital that allows us to interact with audiences on new levels. How print and digital can work together to build strong brands and create unsurpassed content experiences. This is the challenge – and the hope – of our age. And we need to recognize how we can use standards and process to add structure to innovation, effectively reaching consumers and measuring success. Really, it is all of these things together that make for a healthy, vibrant ecosystem.

But where do we go from here? If we are entering the age of experimentation – our Renaissance – what’s next on the horizon?

I believe we will see a golden era of communications. There is a need for consumers to get greater access to information, and we now have a much more democratic way of obtaining it. In this golden age, consumers will have much more access, choice and interaction, and that will come in various channels across the print and digital spectrum.

Where disruption found us lost and pessimistic, questioning our own existence and future, we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. The age of experimentation is our opportunity to solidify our efforts and to engage consumers through a content ecosystem that gives them the information they want and need across any number of channels and formats. That is why I implore us to go big, to go bold.

And as we gain ground, we will experience the richness of the new golden age of communications.

[i]MPA 2013/2014 Magazine Media Factbook,, 12.

[ii]Magazine Media Factbook, 8.

[iii]Magazine Media Factbook, 13.

[iv]Magazine Media Factbook, 84.

[v]Magazine Media Factbook, 20.

[vi]FOLIO: & CDS Global, State of the Media Industry: Benchmarks & Trending Study Fourth Edition, available July 2014 at, 7.

[vii]CDS Global, Aggregate Client Data.

[viii]Magazine Media Factbook, 16.

[ix]Magazine Media Factbook, 7.

[x]State of the Media Industry, 11.

[1]MPA 2013/2014 Magazine Media Factbook,, 12.

[1]Magazine Media Factbook, 8.

[1]Magazine Media Factbook, 13.

[1]Magazine Media Factbook, 84.

[1]Magazine Media Factbook, 20.

[1]FOLIO: & CDS Global, State of the Media Industry: Benchmarks & Trending Study Fourth Edition, available July 2014 at, 7.

[1]CDS Global, Aggregate Client Data.

[1]Magazine Media Factbook, 16.

[1]Magazine Media Factbook, 7.

[1]State of the Media Industry, 11.