Can Publishers Survive the Online Tsunami?

The July online newsletter of Autowriters.com featured yours truly with the following editorial..

Can Automotive Magazines Survive the Online Tsunami?

Publishers’ stress levels are off the charts thanks to sharply reduced ad revenues, higher fulfillment costs, and a mass exodus of readers to online blogs, forums, and shopping services. The iPod generation of car buyers and enthusiasts favor pixels over print, and tree huggers have set their wrath on newsstand waste. Sounds like a perfect storm.

Over 240 domestically-produced titles aimed at car, truck, and motorcycle readers are in the midst of dramatic change. Let’s look at the trends shaping this new information age.

Firs, a few stats’. Between 2002 and 2006, The Fab Four were down a collective 9.2% in paid circ. From 2002 to 2007, AutoWeek was off by a whopping 26% or 93,000 paid subs, 91,000 in one year alone. According to eMarketer, nearly 32% of consumers in the market for a vehicle go online and, get this, check out non-vehicle maker websites. Magazines rank 5th, or 7%, among car buyers. How many new magazine launches have you heard about lately?

Many publishers have adopted a print-centric model for their online channel that, by its nature, forces the consumer to adapt rather than accomplish a simple task. A good example is titles that have taken on a second life as digital magazines, or “eZines,” where print pages are repurposed for the web. A win-win, you might say? Not so fast, eZines had their place during the web’s formative nineties when publishers struggled to identify ways to develop an online presence. Today, content-rich blogs, niche forums, e-commerce, and ubiquitous broadband service have outstripped the ability of an inherently restrictive eZine to be a compelling online resource. Simply put, an eZine is a Web Edsel.

Hemmings Motor News, Trader Publications, Old Cars Weekly, along with “The Fab Four” comprising Car & Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, and Automobile, have devoted much time and dollars to maintaining two overlapping channels with their respective versions of eZines or similar. As a result, their effectiveness in adapting to new opportunities is reduced, and both efforts are likely to take a beating. Veterans of ink and paper are still making the key decisions at the publisher level and are consequently heavily invested in sustaining what they know.

Harsh stuff, you might say? Look no further than the music industry’s ill-conceived response to digital audio. A cheaper “shuffle” world has replaced album structures and physical media like compact discs, resulting in rampant industry downsizing. Magazines, like albums, have a start, middle, an end, but the web is continuous without “chapters” and folios. If my 17-year old is any indication, he’ll buy his next vehicle through Facebook or a Podcast.

Readers have an unprecedented new power on the web nearly equal to writer and publisher. Influential blogs are shaping product launches, and online auctions sites allow buyers and sellers to make deals just minutes after a car or part hits the screen. On any given day, eBay Motors has 40,000 vehicles for sale and their re-launched Winding Road web magazine has shifted from high-profile writers to no-buck reader contributions.

Yup, a perfect storm. Yet from the receding tide comes a wealth of new opportunities. Think of the cost savings without paper, ink, and postage, not to mention costly direct marketing and catalogs. That’s not to say publishers can stop the presses and overnight be profitable online. It takes sticky content delivered in a compelling format in order to monetize reader and advertiser traffic. Nothing new here. As with digital audio, demand for music has not abated; in fact, the web has expanded artists’ reach and consumer appetite. So to with words about automobiles and everything associated with automotive culture.

Writers enjoy the inalienable right to communicate. Good copy will always find an audience. Readers need to make informed decisions, be entertained, or sold a product or service. It’s not the need for information that’s changed, it’s the format in which the information is delivered. With greater sources for news and commerce, comes the expectation of increased depth of content. Upcoming generations of car buyers will seek out your wisdom and advice–provided they are able to find it.

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Eric H. Killorin is a web and publishing consultant living in Middlebury, Vermont. His blog www.carpubinsider.com chronicles the “The Future of Automotive Magazines” and includes a database of 240 vehicle publications with selected circulation figures. Eric has spent 28 years in publishing in both consumer and business audiences, has won the Folio award for direct response, was founder and publisher of Mobilia Magazine, and launched the first automotive specialty website in 1995. He collects and restores vintage cars and judges at national concours.

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