The steady decline in print media over the past decade has led many to declare that “print is dead.” Late last year publisher Motor Trend Group shuttered 19 outlets, while mainstay Autoweek moved to a completely digital format. Even mainstream outlets like TIME and Vogue have invested heavily in an online, non-print presence. To survive in today’s digital-first world, nearly every media outlet has a website, social media channels, podcasts and videos.
Is it time to write an obituary for the printed word? Not quite.
While the decline in print and rise in digital content certainly adds fuel to pessimistic fires, it’s only part of the story. There may be fewer print titles to choose from, as well as fewer bookstores, newsstands and magazine racks where you can find them, but print is far from dead. In certain corners of the market, print media is alive and well, with a new look, a renewed focus on readers and a new business model. Here at Kahn Media, we say “long live print!” And here’s why.
The Traditional Magazine Model
For years, magazines sustained themselves on the allure of glossy pages, exclusive content, a captive audience and the high rates advertisers would pay to reach them. Although newsstand sales and subscriptions were an important source of revenue, it’s the advertisers who kept the lights on. Magazines charged discounted rates for subscriptions to keep readers reading, but those rates barely covered the cost of printing and postage. The real value of subscriptions was to boost circulation, because the higher the circulation, the higher the ad rates.
Magazines attracted readers by offering appealing content—interesting, in-depth features, voices of expertise and, especially for automotive and lifestyle magazines, beautiful photos and layouts. There’s nothing quite like holding a high-quality magazine in your hands, flipping through the pages and reading it cover to cover. For decades, it’s how millions of people saw and read about the latest cars, the coolest builds and the trendiest fashions, and they’d go to the newsstand or their mailbox eager to get their hands on the new issue “hot off the press.”
For most of the 20th century, the traditional magazine model gave readers what they wanted, and it drew in advertising dollars. If advertisers wanted to get their products in front of as many interested eyes as possible, paid ads in magazines were often their only option. As gatekeepers to legions of consumers, publishers reaped huge profits for decades. And most advertisers felt the ads they paid for were a good investment because they generated interest and boosted sales.
With the internet boom in the early 2000s, magazines suffered a twofold hit. First, their monopoly on readers was undercut by online competitors that could not only publish around the clock without the three to four week lead times required by magazines, they could also target much smaller audience segments and still be profitable because they didn’t have to worry about the costs of printing, postage and newsstand distribution. Second, advertisers shifted part of their ad spend to websites and social media, leaving a smaller and smaller share of the budget for magazine ads.
David Lillywhite, founder and editorial director of Magneto, recalls that, when the internet became popular two decades ago, traditional publishers “threw their hands up,” not knowing what to do. They cut costs by downgrading paper quality and moving some content from their magazines to the internet, in part because as ads declined so did the number of editorial pages. But the short-sighted changes resulted in a “loss of print readers and a loss of print advertisers,” Lillywhite said, necessitating even more cost cutting in a self-defeating cycle. And, he said, publishers were scared to “invest in their product,” letting what made magazines special go by the wayside.
The same readers that once flipped through the pages of a magazine looking for what’s new now type what they’re looking for into a search engine, finding pages upon pages of content. Over time, digital marketing became more sophisticated so that ads on those pages are now aimed specifically at that reader, and if they want to buy something, they can do it on a dedicated direct-to-consumer platform. The problem with the traditional magazine model is that, by failing to adapt to the digital-first environment and diluting content in an effort to cut costs, magazines became increasingly out of touch with their readers, having less to offer them and less to offer advertisers.
The Coffee-Table Magazine Model
The digitization of content, which led to the downfall of the traditional magazine model, was the catalyst for the emergence of the new one. While many mass-market readers found magazines all but disposable and happily shifted from print to online content, there is a segment of every industry that still places a high value on print. A monitor, tablet or phone can be interactive, but it can’t replace the visceral quality of thick card stock covers, glossy pages, artistic photography and professional art direction. For the advertiser, digital ads are also fleeting—lost as soon as an internet browser is closed. Print is an experience that engages more of the senses, and it has a lasting quality. You can flip through a magazine years later and the ads will still be there.
In recent years there has been a renewed focus on high-end, niche-market publications. These magazines are more like literary, art or photography journals, and are now available for specific segments of the automotive, lifestyle and other markets. They’ve found success by curating content for a discerning subset of readers: those who consider themselves connoisseurs. They’re often published quarterly instead of monthly, and subscriptions can cost upwards of hundreds of dollars per year—a price subscribers are more than happy to pay for access to exclusive content.
Whereas mass-market magazines slashed editorial and photography budgets and cut costs by using thinner, cheaper paper in an effort to compete with the internet, niche publications have flipped the script. Instead of sacrificing quality to save money, they’ve invested in quality because that’s what they’re selling to both readers and advertisers. These high-end publications become status symbols, collectible art objects that stay on coffee tables or bookshelves for years to come—to the point that many outlets even sell protective covers for their issues. Like fine art or medical journals, they become reference material, time capsules that preserve history.
Because subscriptions are more like memberships, they make up a sizable share of revenue and publishers go out of their way to deliver the best possible content to keep readers satisfied. These publications still depend on ad sales, but there is often more of a symbiotic partnership between publishers and advertisers, where they work together to create sponsored content or features in addition to display advertising. And because subscribers are such a discerning and engaged audience, publishers can command higher ad rates than their circulations would typically warrant, but for an advertiser it’s a price worth paying because they provide access to deep-pocketed, influential customers.
One of the longest-running coffee-table-style magazines in the automotive world is Rodder’s Journal, which has been published for more than 20 years. Others include 000, Magneto and Overland Journal. For motorcycle enthusiasts there is Iron & Air and META. Let’s take a closer look at Magneto and 000.
Launched in 2019 and based in the U.K., Magneto is a relatively new publication, but it’s backed by years of editorial and industry experience. Founder and editorial director David Lillywhite spent 14 years as co-founder and editorial director of Octane, and he has worked as editorial director on Vantage (Aston Martin) and Enzo (Ferrari). Lillywhite is well-versed in the traditional magazine model, so when he saw it crumbling, he realized that a pivot was necessary.
Magneto caters to a high-end collector car audience, with issues going directly to the VIP clients of “leading concours events, historic race series, classic rally organizers, insurers and auction houses,” said Lillywhite. Anyone can subscribe, but the magazine tailors its editorial content for a specific audience, with high standards for writing, photography and art direction. Magneto’s readership has a foundational base of knowledge, and the magazine speaks directly to them with an elevated tone and content that meets or exceeds expectations.
This exclusive approach is also expressed through the cohesive aesthetic of the publication. Magneto is printed on the best paper using the best ink, ensuring a look and feel of enduring quality. If advertisements do not align with the magazine’s aesthetic, they’ll be turned down. In other cases, Magneto will work with advertisers to design ads that fit better within the overall look of the magazine. Such a curatorial approach helps advertisers’ products and messaging resonate better with readers. And advertisers are guaranteed to reach a hard-to-reach demographic. For example, Magneto has a partnership with the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, with issues mailed to all entrants from the past five years.
Created for Porsche enthusiasts, quarterly issues of 000 (a reference to Porsche’s three-digit model type numerology) take deep dives into the history and details of Stuttgart’s finest. Co-founders and editors Pete Stout and Alex Palevsky strive to create what they describe as “something similar to art criticism that just happens to be about Porsche.” Like art and literary journals, they create content intended to be “evergreen,” that will stand the test of time when readers refer back to an issue years later.
There are ads in 000, but they’re aren’t many and, like Magneto, they’re curated just like the content. Palevsky told us they avoid “store ads” because they aren’t timeless and take up valuable pages that could be used for editorial content. By charging more for subscriptions—$250 per year for four issues; a special “S” subscription with exclusive benefits costs $999—000 is able to devote just 5% of its pages to ads versus closer to 50% in a more traditional magazine. And the publication is packed with content—there are 250 or more pages per issue, printed on archival-quality 80-lb paper.
Stout said that by devoting more of each issue’s hundreds of pages to editorial content, 000 provides a more enjoyable, more immersive experience for readers. Editors are able to invest in and pursue stories that might otherwise have been lost to time. “The reader gets something special, and even knowledgeable Porsche enthusiasts are learning new things,” said Palevsky. “We are too, which is what we love about doing 000.”
Features in 000 can run anywhere from 20 to 90 pages, redefining the very medium of a magazine. Each issue weighs in at roughly three pounds, which speaks not only to the breadth of content but to the quality of the publication’s construction. Enthusiasts recognize these efforts to create lasting pieces of work—past issues of 000 demand high prices and are true collectors’ items.
Long Live Print
Although coffee-table-style journals are nothing new, they’re enjoying a revival in the automotive industry and other lifestyle-driven segments. Built on a subscription-based business model, these high-end publications have filled the void left by the collapse of most mass-market magazines. This is a quality over quantity approach, one that caters to a select group of readers and advertisers.
Vintage Air, the leading manufacturer of complete performance air conditioning systems for classic cars, trucks and hot rods, has been an advertiser in Rodder’s Journal for two decades. As Rick Love, Vintage Air’s Executive Vice President explained, it’s beneficial for their brand to place ads in niche magazines that reach not just any customers, but the right customers. “Vintage Air has a more mature customer base with the means to own a car with one of our systems,” Love said. “They are of an era that enjoys print—the vivid, artistic images and tactile feel of a magazine. It’s something they can bring with them to the garage, and compare with their own car.”
As Love explained, Vintage Air is a company for enthusiasts, by enthusiasts. By placing ads in magazines that are part of the community they love, they’re supporting that community, investing in it and ensuring its longevity. They are also communicating to readers, who are supporting that community with their own subscription, that Vintage Air is a brand with the same interests and values.
Unlike in the past, Love explained, most of Vintage Air’s climate control systems and other products are sold through distributors. Placing an ad in a magazine like Rodder’s Journal is less about pushing a sale or advertising a specific product—it’s about connecting with customers. A Vintage Air ad in a niche-market, subscription-based magazine is woven into the look and feel of the whole magazine. That means being evergreen like the magazine’s editorial content—although that requires a shift in priorities by the advertiser, it also means ads will generate multiple impressions over time.
Steve Coonan, the publisher of Rodder’s Journal, notes that the magazine is like an “exclusive club” where members buy their way in through a subscription. “Most of our readers aren’t just armchair readers,” he said. “They’re practicing hot rodders.” For Coonan, this means partnering with advertisers, especially companies that are “preeminent in their fields and committed to serving the same audience that reads our magazine.” Coonan puts as much love into Rodder’s Journal as his readers do into their cars. The intimate nature of that relationship—between Rodder’s Journal and its readers—is something considered with every ad placement, because readers take that ad as a recommendation.
The coffee-table magazine model has given new life to the much-loved but often outdated world of print media. These high-quality, collectible publications not only deliver tremendous value to readers, they also provide a different advertising landscape for brands. Magazine publishers are no longer gatekeepers who are just interested in selling ads or requiring “pay to play” for editorial coverage. Publishers and advertisers are now much more likely to be partners because it’s more beneficial for both sides.
Brands can—and should—continue to use digital marketing (forums, search engine marketing and social media) to target audiences inexpensively. But since such impressions are fleeting, brands should consider paid ads with niche publications that reach targeted audiences in a more long-lasting way, in a way that conveys quality and status. Print is far from dead, and we’d argue that it’s more alive and vibrant than ever.