Several years ago, watching the state of my chosen field crumble around me, I made a statement about the future of paper journalism: Print is the new vinyl.
The analogy, made during a presentation to association publishers, compared the hard-copy print medium — newspapers, magazines, books — to the struggling music industry. At the time, despite the decline of CD sales and the rise of easily acquired, easily disposable digital music, vinyl albums were making a comeback as a niche product. Today, they’re the fastest growing segment in the music industry, commanding premium prices that are twice as much as mp3s and CDs.
According to a mid-2014 report from Nielsen Soundscan, which tracks music sales, more than 4 million vinyl albums were sold in the U.S. in the first six months of the year. Last year’s total — 6 million for all of 2013 — was the most since 1991, and year-to-year trends show no signs of slowing.
Admittedly, 6 million units are limited in the grand scheme. But if you still like to read on paper rather than a computer screen or smart phone, heed the lessons of the vinyl comeback. If your work involves making money in the business of publishing, especially in the arena of associations and nonprofits, I firmly believe learning those lessons now can save you a lot of heartache in the future.
From the 1960s to the late 1980s, vinyl records fended off challengers such as 8-tracks and cassette tapes because those media — while offering the always-desired portability — were fragile and faulty. CDs effectively killed vinyl sales because they offered a replica of the album in smaller, neater packaging, they didn’t cost as much to manufacture, and they seemed bulletproof.
Then came mp3s, which cut CDs and the music industry off at the knees. Digital offered portability, permanence, and — depending on your levels of honesty — an inexpensive or free way to access material. The Internet has done the same to print.
Some association executives are surprised when readers don't react to publications reducing frequency. But, interestingly, almost everyone I've spoken to who has ditched print (not modified or reduced frequency) has immediately regretted the decision. Members are not happy, and say so in surveys. The revenue you expect to make up by cutting costs is not what you thought.
And the list goes on.
Print, for all of its faults, represents a guaranteed delivery opportunity for your organization and its messages. Despite declines, it continues to command a premium price — several times more than online advertising — from companies that want to affiliate with your organization. Research shows print readers also spend longer viewing ads than in the click-and-go environment that characterizes digital reading.
The key is recognizing that those companies expect something in return for their investment, not just the satisfaction of knowing they’ve helped you deliver your product to a grateful membership. Instead of thinking of your print magazine or newsletter as your flagship publication, think of it as one slice — albeit a significant one — in a series of offerings designed to help your business partners and your members come together.
Print is by no means dead. One glance at the magazines in your local Barnes and Noble or grocery store will tell you that. The key for associations is turning it into a premium product that, like vinyl, commands the attention of a segment of the public that values it and is willing to pay for it.
It can be done. I’m sure of that.
Glenn Cook (email@example.com) is an award-winning writer, editor, photographer and communications consultant whose work has been featured in numerous national publications. He was a member of the Association Media and Publishing board of directors from 2009 to 2012. To see more of his work, visit http://glenncook.virb.com.