Collateral damage on the road to digeracy

Back in the early 1980s, PC Magazine was a welcome arrival at one’s snailmail box. It carried voices of authority on that new animal, the Personal Computer. The voices were knowledgeable without pontificating, expert-like, but never condescending. PCM’s authority came from people like Bill Machrone , the magazine’s mythological editor cum publisher, John C. DvorakMichael J. Miller, Jim Seymour and others. Machrone’s genius manifested itself in a series of innovations he implemented – notably, the first time ever creation of a technology lab, where products were tested and given the thumbs up or down,  free utilities (originally available on diskettes sent through the mail) and, eventually, positioning PCM as a corporate-facing publication – Machrone was one of the first to realise that affluent corporate readership is what advertisers needed.

According to Wikipedia, When PC Magazine was sold to publishing giants Ziff-Davis, it “averaged about 400 pages an issue, with some issues breaking the 500- and even 600-page marks. In the late 1990s, as the computer-magazine field underwent a drastic pruning, the magazine shrank to 300-something and then 200-something pages.” More recent editions were 150-odd pages long. The decrease in advertising, the move from printed resources to digital repositories and, especially, the gap between online immediacy and printed (delay-based) slowness, brought about the magazine’s demise. The Ziff-Davis press-release claims that while the printing version declined dramatically,  “digital assets registered annual audience and revenue growth of 33% and 42% respectively. Today, the PCMag Digital Network, with over seven million unique monthly visitors, reaches in excess of 10 times the circulation of the print publication.”

Some time ago I ToingToinged here and here scathingly about The World Association of Newspapers’ (WAN) assertion that the printing business is alive and well and is confidently future-facing. Of course, WAN’s wishful thinking could not stand the test of time. With huge demand for digitally published media, bolstered by a move away from desktops, laptops and even palmtops on to smartphones and pocket PCs, reading devices like the Kindle and the ever increasing take-up in so-called Web 2.0 applications (social networks are but one example), the writing was on the wall for quite some time now. Last week, Ziff-Davis announced that the final printed edition of PCMag will appear in January 2017. It will continue its online existence under the new name PCMag Digital Network.

On the same day I received the RSS feed announcing the demise of PCMag/Print , the online version of the Wall Street Journal carried an article claiming that Yellow-Pages Publishers face extinction.

“In recent years”, the article lead “as its customers migrated to the Web — flocking to sites like Google — the telephone-directory business followed, hoping the Internet would be its salvation… Now, the economic downturn is sending the already ailing business into a tailspin.”

The telephone-directory industry is based on the need for evergrowing search-traffic and the corresponding increase in number of advetisers (the vast majority of which are small businesses.) Online search facilities are produced at a fraction of the cost it takes to publish the printed versions. They offer lightning-speed searches and incomparable findability (or the number of reasonable close-matches returned for each item searched.)

Information is updated ‘on the fly’ so one does not have to wait for the next edition to find the latest information. Unfortunately, there is much less money to be made in the online telephone-directory business. Adspend on Internet directories is subdued, according to the WSJ – “Internet revenues remain anemic. At less than 10%, online-ad dollars make up only a modest portion of total revenues and aren’t growing fast enough to offset steep declines on the print side.” Small businesses prefer to advertise on large traffic aggregators like Google. The other problem is that an online advert is meaningless without a  website – the common wisdom is that people who advertise online should aso have an online presence, a location, destination, waiting behind their advert. Many media houses offer advertising and web presence in package deals.

Beyond the nostalgic ruminations about days of printed glory, the demise of a venerable print publication and and lingering parting of another can be seen as digital collateral damage tha forms part of the largest human cultural migration since the introduction of the alphabet, from literacy to digeracy.

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