Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Beginning of the End: Storefront Print Media Outlets Disappearing? [UPDATED]

I usually take the train to New York from our suburban town's train station, but bypass the street across from the station itself on my way to and from the parking lot. This weekend I cruised past the corner across from the station and noticed that it appeared that newsstand there had closed. Turns out upon further investigation [UPDATE - thanks to a tip from a reader] that it was still open, just renting out its window space to local realtors. However, down the highway a bit another venerable newsstand in Westport closed recently, in spite of its being on a busy corner next to a donut shop near where Martha Stewart used to live.  Now, it's just plain gone.

You can see also when you go into outlets like the local supermarket and "big box" bookstores that newspapers and magazines are taking up far less shelf space in just the past several months. In our local Barnes and Noble, there is now a large area in the front of the store set aside for sales of its Nook ebook readers, usually manned by well-trained sales reps who are all to eager to tell you how to consume digital content on these devices. By contrast, the information desk for finding books in print is tucked comfortably back in the middle of the store.

If there is going to be a significant story for mainstream media in 2011, it is likely to be that this is the year in which print sales shriveled far more quickly than many in the publishing industry would have anticipated or hoped. That's not all a bad thing, of course. Many publishers are well on the way to becoming successful ebook distributors, though magazines are making a more slow transition to digital equivalents of their print publications on tablet and mobile devices. Newspaper publishers, while well ahead of magazine and book publishers in their experience with online publishing, are perhaps further behind in finding digital business models that are likely to float their operations in the next twelve months, with a few sparkling exceptions.

In short, if you're a publisher and you had bet on a graceful transition from print to digital revenues, in most markets you bet wrong. With mobile devices of many sizes equipped with high-resolution touch screens swamping global markets in the past year, people with discretionary income to spend on print media not only will spend less on it but will have far fewer places in which to find it. While magazine racks in local drugstores still take up more space than racks for buying gift cards for services like iTunes, that may not be the case for long.

Big-box book retailer Borders, which took a late and weak stab at entering ebook markets, is also feeling the heat. They have reported delays in payments to some of their suppliers, triggering at least one major supplier to cut off shipments of books to the chain. This is an especially alarming turn of events given that the holiday season overall saw good sales in Barnes and Noble outlets where Nooks were flying off the shelves both in stores and online. Why Borders thought that they might be in a position to acquire B&N is beyond me, but I suppose big dreams die hard, sometimes.

One or two of these sorts of things you can dismiss as cyclical trends, but the canary in the coal mine for me remains the disappearance of newsstands. In a prosperous town with well-educated people, there should be no reason for an institution like a newsstand with no local competition to die unless there is something fundamentally wrong with the industry. If you're thinking that less prosperous people could be the salvation of print, think again; percentage-wise, according to recent data from the Pew Internet project, less affluent people in the U.S. are using mobile media more than their affluent counterparts. In other words, if you're in that checkout line at the supermarket, you're already looking at TMZ on your phone instead of the cover of US.

I honestly don't think that print media is dead. I do believe that custom and on-demand printing has a solid future, especially when Near-Field Communications devices begin to get embedded in print publications and direct people to related digital materials. But print media as we have known it is about to leave town. What will take its place in magazine racks and newsstands will be far more targeted than traditional print publications, materials that are more focused on the operations of the store that you're in and developed either by those stores or by publishers closely targeted towards their markets. As the merchandising of print shifts, so will the publications themselves. Why settle for a found-anywhere copy of Gourmet magazine when you can get one tailored for your local delicatessen? This kind of highly targeted customization more targeted to personal and in-store merchandizing will be the future of print media.

In the meantime, apply your mental tape measure to the magazine racks in your local stores and newsstands over the next few months. Shelf space for merchandise that moves is at a premium as it is, and mass market print media is losing rapidly its sure-fire appeal in stores near you. Let's hope for the sake of struggling publishers that a rising economy buffers this trend, but it may just accelerate more digital devices flying off the shelves. Unless print publishers can re-invent their wares rapidly in the months ahead, there's a lose-lose battle looming.
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