Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Morning Brief: Fortune editor gets to crow following NYT Pulitzer win; is digital magazine circulation growth soaring or still tiny? it depends where you look for the evidence

I see Philip Elmer-Dewitt is crowing this morning, maybe he should. Back in January the Fortune magazine editor said that the paper's motivation for its series of stories on Apple and labor conditions at its supply chain vendors in China were an attempt to win the journalism award rather than simply good journalism.

The original story – and the headline says it all, Apple in China: The New York Times goes for the Pulitzer – said that the NYT story is "the kind of reporting that wins the New York Times Pulitzers year after year. But one of the things the prize committee looks for in a series like this is evidence that it's had an impact. That something has really changed."

Elmer-Dewitt may have been a bit upset with the Apple story when it was published but his actual criticism of the story is pretty minor. For me the issue of the Pulitzers is how irrelevant they are to readers, how they ignore much of the work done online and in other digital platforms, and how winning them is as much a game as the Oscars. In fact, the Pulitzers are the Oscars for journalists but without a public that cares about them – and without the red carpet, much to the dismay of newspaper journalists.

Is digital circulation at consumer magazines still small, or a quickly growing percentage of overall circulation? Readers would be hard pressed to know based on the coverage of the trade press.

AdAge in February joked that digital circulation "soars... to 2.4% of Total" using Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) data.

Yesterday, the WSJ said that Adobe is claiming its customers are seeing real growth. "Our average publisher is seeing 85% growth in readership in the past six months," said Lynly Schambers-Lenox, marketing manager of Adobe's digital-publishing-suite of software. "We think the proliferation of devices is driving that increase."

Both stories can be true at the same time – and, obviously, both sources have their reasons to reporting the news the way the do. AdAge, and Crain Communications, in general, are hardly leaders in the digital space; and Adobe makes money selling the tools publishers need to make tablet editions.

But the truth of the matter is that much of what is going on in the magazine industry is completely invisible to our trade press. Industry journals, as I've written before, have been claiming a slow down in magazine launches at a time when launches are actually exploding via the Apple Newsstand. The bias against digital-only magazine launches is obvious.

What is happening in tablet publishing is what happened online: the traditional media world has been late to the game, and less than enthusiastic about having to make the investment. As a result, new players are emerging, and pure plays are at an advantage. The difference this time is that many of the big media companies are not completely missing from the new platform, and the absence of venture capital companies investing in pure plays is slowing the emergence of new digital-only publishing companies. Traditional media has caught a break, though I doubt they are aware of this.

The simple fact is that look at AAM data only gives you a peak into what is happening. The vast majority of digital magazines launched are having their circulation measured by Apple and the publisher's digital publishing vendor, not an audit bureau. That is not to say that the new digital-only magazines make up the majority of the new readership – no, I think the popular magazine brands still dominate, or at least are the titles with significant digital circulation.

But there are examples of digital-only publications with significant reach: TRVL is claiming one million app installs, which is an irrelevant number since it doesn't measure readership, but it still can claim a significant, if unaudited, subscriber base.

Then there is the ant hill that is the Apple Newsstand. Kick it open and a giant beast will not emerge, but millions of little ants do add up to something significant. Many of these new digital publications may only have 100 readers, but there are lots of them, and likely some of these new titles will survive and continue to grow – even if they continue to remain invisible to the media trade press and the trade associations and vendors that still see the world as it existed before 2010.