Several long-running specialty magazines are ending their print runs next month and switching entirely to digital, raising the question whether Canada's publishing industry is reaching a tipping point.
As of July 1, Trader Corp., an outfit that publishes a variety of popular automotive classifieds with the "Trader" suffix, including AutoTrader, will no longer be putting out print editions of its main car and truck publications in most regions.
Jaime Blundell, vice-president of operations at Trader Corp., told CBC News that the switchover is a "response to a marketplace that has already changed.
"When we see that we're no longer providing value for readers and advertisers, it makes sense to discontinue publication," says Blundell. "We've taken the best of the magazine and incorporated that into our website."
It's a sensible decision given the fact that the internet has become the go-to place for looking up information, according to Jeff Hayward, the editor of trade publication Mastheadmagazine.
"If you're going to lookup something, the first place you go to is the internet, not down the street to find an AutoTrader magazine in a box there," says Hayward. "If I'm looking for a car, the first place people are going to look at is the internet."
What the advertisers want
IT World Canada (ITWC) is another company shuttering its print magazines – including such standbys as CDN, Computerworld, CIO Canada and Direction Informatique – in July, attributing its shift to digital as the result of several factors.
For IT World Canada, the primary issue is the changing expectations of its advertisers and their demand for more sophisticated metrics with which to determine how effective their ads are.
"Print just can't come up with the kind of solid proof of audience reach that online can provide," says Fawn Annan, president and group publisher of ITWC.
Showing advertisers the return on their ad dollar "is the basic reason and the biggest reason we decided to change our business model," she said. "However, we felt that being a digital provider was where we wanted to be; we wanted to show full digital engagement on all of our products."
According to Blundell, AutoTrader's problems also stemmed from an unsustainable business model. The print editions of AutoTrader do well in areas of low internet coverage, but in cities, "85 per cent of car buying and selling research is now done" over the internet.
"For us, it's about investing in the future, and that's online and mobile."
No more federal subsidy
Another reason behind the online shift for magazines may be the 2010 decision that changed the federal subsidy supporting print publications in Canada.
The Publication Assistance Program covered part of the mailing costs of certain magazines and non-daily newspapers. Its replacement, the Canadian Periodical Fund, consists of a lump sum provided to publishers that can be distributed in any way they wish.
Experts say that the change put a greater financial burden on publishers, encouraging them to change business models from the traditional paper-and-subscription-based format to digital distribution.
Larger and heavier publications that weigh more than 200 grams, such as AutoTrader, pay even higher mailing costs.
In the case of strong brands like AutoTrader and IT World, switching to online allows them to lower costs and hopefully improve quality of service while ostensibly bringing market authority and loyal readership along with them.
Annan says IT World's shift also provides a much wider creative platform than was possible in print.
"We can now do syndicated content better since we're not limited in pages," she points out. "We can add things that were impossible in print like videos, live polling that never stops, and we can also do special supplements at a greater speed to market than ever before."
Not the end for print
Despite these changes, Masthead's Hayward doesn't foresee a mass exodus to digital in the near future. In fact, he says, sometimes it works the other way around.
"Publications are going digital, yes, but keep in mind some digital publications are going to print as well," says Hayward. "It's not a sweeping trend across the industry.
"One good example would be The Kit, an online magazine that then went to print. The Toronto Star picked it up as a regular addition to their paper."
Print editions can provide a sense of establishment and brand recognition that many nascent online-only publications have difficulty achieving.
A print edition is still widely seen as a mark of legitimacy for some publications. This is mostly limited to magazines, says Hayward, or publications that have original content. The legitimacy is strongest when "you're reading stories and taking the time to absorb" the information.
For these kinds of publications, he says, "print is still the king, in my opinion."
The future of print periodicals
Nowadays, magazines, whether online or off, are still something of a gamble.
Online publications are mirroring the last few years' weak establishment rate of print, with both showing annual launches hovering in the teens, according to Masthead figures. Annual closures are only a little less than the launch rate.
However, despite bottoming out at 13 new magazine launches in 2010, way down from a high of 139 in 2004, the print sector may be once again showing signs of growth, with 19 launches in 2011.
Annan says that most print publications will have an online element in the next few years as the introduction of mobile and lightweight wireless devices like tablets become more ubiquitous.
The question is how much of an online element it will be.
"Maybe, in seven or eight years from now, a publisher will say 'we need to incorporate [online]' as a primary vs. a secondary publication," she says. "But everyone will have to have it as a secondary by then, no matter what."
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