What PC Mag’s Print Departure Means for Car Pubs

Ziff Davis today announced that it will cease publishing the print version of its 27-year old PC Magazine effective with the January 2009 issue. The title will be limited to online distribution.

According to Ziff Davis’ chief executive Jason Young:

“The viability for us to continue to publish in print just isn’t there anymore.”

Its tech-savvy audience may be ahead of the average car magazine reader, but there’s no doubt Ziff has already seen what many in the auto press are about to deal with. More on that later.

Ziff’s Young went on to suggest the print magazine would start to show a loss in 2009 due to increase costs and reduced paid advertising. Print circulation for the magazine has dropped to about half from its 1990s peak of 1.2M.

Advertising pages for the December issues of monthly magazines are down more than 17 percent from the December issues of 2007, according to the Media Industry Newsletter, and that is leading to layoffs and the closing of titles.

“If you look at the list of the magazines that have gone to online, almost all of them have been magazines in trouble,” said John Fennell, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “Magazines in general are going to be dependent on print advertising for a long time into the future.”

What does PC Magazine’s shift to exclusive online content have to do with automotive titles? Everything, though one must appreciate the distinction between the nature of the respective industry’s readerships and target markets. And therein lies the basis of automotive publishers’ future strategy taken on a case-by-case basis.

For starters, the high tech readership of PC Magazine were among the first to embrace web content and their age group has not seen a newsstand since their parent’s dragged them to Barnes & Noble for holiday shopping. When a publication covers the very hardware used to surf the web, it’s no wonder that market will be online first. Together with rising fulfillment costs along with sharp drops in readership and paid advertising effecting just about every title in print, the Ziff announcement should come as no surprise.

Perhaps the best comp in the car mag space are the Fab Four, high circ consumer titles aimed at car buyers and enthusiasts: Automobile, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Car & Driver. Yet I’m not seeing much innovative progress from these venerable titles. Zinio-based digital editions are at best a stop gap. Their editorial content denies the reality of the crumbling auto sector, and the market for new cars is about as healthy as buyers’ 401Ks. Come on guys, write what’s relevant! Niche titles aimed at collectors and specific segments will have more time to fully adjust to the inevitable transition to pure web given the rabid and, in many cases, aged, demographics of their readerships. The rusty lining for the latter means continued support for an obsolete format serving a diminishing percentage of the market.

It was time to end the game at PC Magazine. While it continues to be profitable, the publication’s future was preordained and Ziff took a bold move to preserve capital abefore conditions got worse. Automotive publishers seem to be loath to take the path least traveled, opting instead to take the path of least resistance. With each new day online content becomes further entrenched to daily life and I don’t know of too many car nuts or even episodic car buyers curling up by the fire with a good car book. The former dusty road is now the main path to the future.

I believe it was Andy Grove of Intel who once stated: “If you don’t cannibalize your own business, others will do it for you.”

An apt perspective from a high tech visionary that many in the automotive press would do well to embrace.

PC Magazine Ceases Print, Press Release Ziff Davis

PC Magazine Ceases Print, New York Times

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