Can magazines survive in the digital age?

Can Magazines Survive in the Digital Age



The word ‘magazine’ comes from the 16th century Arabic term makzin or makzan, which means storehouse – hence its use in military parlance.


A couple of months ago, in Johannesburg, I received the very last printed copy of that iconic pink newspaper, The Financial Times. Why? Because on 24 July, the newspaper closed it’s printing at Caxton’s print site in Johannesburg. I was asked to continue reading the on-line version.


The printed edition sold a mere 1400 copies which is a significant decline during recent years and reflects the decline in circulation experienced by many publications.


The move by the FT is just one in a succession of newspapers and magazines moving to digital. Newsweek, Playboy SA and even Readers Digest have ceased printing and moved to Digital. What are we going to browse in the doctor and dentist’s waiting rooms?


The publishing industry is becoming concerned with low circulation figures and an increased preference for browsing books and magazines online. It’s somewhat of a sore topic but one that has to be faced, at some point or another.


Alarming news for print

Last year, it was reported that up to 85 percent of people with digital subscriptions have never had a print subscription and aren’t aware of what the perks could have been. This spells bad news for publishers who are already lowering costs for subscriptions and including special offers to prompt people to make an off-the-shelf purchase, at the very least.


Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Publishing

While the information available online is staggering, even in our technological age, we cannot forget to mention the fact that not everyone in this day is ready, or in South Africa able, to sit down at a computer screen and read for any great deal of time. Curling up in front of the fire on a cold day with a book in hand can never be replaced by sitting in a cold chair staring at the words on computer screen.



The costs of online desktop publishing are fairly low in consideration to those of print. Granted, one must have access to a networked computer and a decent amount of usable software, but those are things that anyone in the publishing business, print or online, will have to have anyway. The other costs that may come into play are those associated with online access. These will vary depending on your service provider; however, students enrolled in most universities will be provided access (at least while using school computers) free. The other positive about low costs for online publishing comes into play when distribution is considered. The distribution itself is free as well. There are no printing costs, which are usually print publishers’ biggest expense, nor the waste of large amounts of paper that go along with printing. However, there are costs attached to some of the methods of marketing an online publication. Just because your publication is online, doesn’t mean anyone out there knows where it is or who is reading it.



It remains difficult to make any money from online publishing. Most publications online right now are free to readers and are merely charging for ad space. However, some are attempting to require subscriptions. Much still seems up in the air in terms of what standard might come out of online publishing – what will work and what will fail. It’s a new medium and people using it are still in the stages of trial and error.



Although there are no, or few, distribution costs for online publishing, it does take a bit of marketing to get people to your site. You must register your publication with as many search engines as possible and, often, this entails a cost. However, if this isn’t done, no one will be able to find your site. This process needs to be given regular attention as your description or focus changes and as new search engines are introduced. Also, other sites that have agreed to link to yours need to be regularly contacted to make sure that link will remain on their site. So, while marketing and distribution might be cheaper for the online publication, it is not without its costs especially in terms of labour and time.



Editing is another plus involved in online publishing. For the most part, editing should and does occur before the new issue goes online. However, we’ve all come across several typos in print documents of any kind that weren’t caught before the publication was sent off to the printer. In online publishing, there is no ‘final’ product. Errors can be corrected in a matter of minutes (or seconds even).



An online publication also requires constant upkeep even in-between issues. Links need to be tested regularly in order to avoid ‘linkrot’. And, because editing can be done at any time, there’s a responsibility attached to make sure what needs to be fixed, is. Meanwhile, with print, once it’s printed, it’s out of your hands. In addition, deadlines for online publication are merely self-imposed. For print, the editors have to take into consideration that the printing itself takes a certain amount of time as does distribution. Therefore, their deadlines are fairly rigid. However, for online publishing, deadlines are good to get the ball going, but the actual publishing can occur at any time without the dependence on the time-frame of another.



Audience is a category that can be considered both a pro and a con for online publishing. While your audience is not limited to only those who are hit in your distribution efforts, it is also not the dedicated group of readers which most print publications can count on. So while your publication may be more widely available, that doesn’t mean that people are reading it. It’s more difficult to determine your readership in online publications. First, you can’t know the demographics of your readers as easily as you might with print. Some people have attempted to stick with the subscription method to alleviate some of this problem, but then readership often goes down because readers can often get the same information elsewhere for free on the Internet. Counters help to tell you how many have entered your site, but they can’t tell you if that person stayed long enough to read anything. While you might say the same of your subscribers in print publishing, the subscribers paid for your publication for a reason and are most likely continuing to read it as long as they’re subscribed. Online, it’s difficult to determine not just who your audience is, but how many readers you have.



Due to the fact that online desktop publishing is a fairly new field, there are no set standards deemed a quality layout format. This can be seen as both a pro and a con. As an advantage, we can understand this to mean that there’s more room for experimentation. However, as a disadvantage, there’s been very little usability testing done on what readers like and dislike, what keeps them there and what chases them away. So, while your content might be great, your layout could chase the readers away, and vice versa. It’s still a volatile situation without any standards to rely on.



Submissions are another tough area to tackle in online publishing. For example, from a literary journal standpoint, many authors are afraid to put their material online for fear of plagiarism, as well as copyright problems that may arise later when attempting to publish their work elsewhere. Copyright laws for the Internet have not been firmly established yet, and because the Internet was created with the intention of sharing free information, they appear difficult not just to enact but, to get users to abide by. Plagiarism, however, is a threat for publishing in any medium, print or otherwise. Authors seem to be slow to realise this. However, because of this wide-spread fear, many have deemed the work on the Internet to be poor and the authors published there to be unworthy of higher esteemed print publications. This stereotype also keeps submissions low.


Check out a great example

The GAPP Magazine is a wonderful example of the combination of print and on-line. As I take my holiday in Mauritius this summer, I can still read my favourite mag by simply clicking on


Have a great year in 2014 and remember to always be on the look-out for ways in which digital technology is changing the print industry landscape.