Housty, has Covid-19 changed publishing for better or worse?

Each month we pose a question to the brilliant Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. This month’s question comes from editor of PC Pro, Tim Danton.

Housty, we have a problem

How do you think Covid-19 has changed publishing – and is it for better or worse?

COVID-19 changed publishing in good ways and bad ways.

The biggest bad was that lots of great people lost their jobs – publishers could never be accused of letting a good crisis go to waste and for some magazines, COVID-19 spelled their doom. 

Titles that were overly reliant on advertising, especially in sectors like travel and hospitality, simply went to the wall. But in other instances, publishers took the opportunity to dispatch magazines that they already saw as marginal. In the UK alone, more than 40 magazines were closed between March and September 2020.

The death of a thousand cuts

And although there was a print subscription boom following the first lockdowns, COVID was a catalyst for some long-considered changes. In the US, a study of 50 titles by Women’s Wear Daily found that more than half had a lower print frequency in 2022 than in 2019. Elle went down to 10 issues a year, Cosmopolitan to eight.

It could be argued that those were necessary changes made in difficult economic conditions, and they’ll help with long-term commercial sustainability. But jobs lost rarely come back and it feels sometimes like the publishing industry is suffering the death of a thousand cuts.

Revenue diversification baked in

On the good side, magazine publishers saw some audiences rediscover their love of print during the pandemic, especially in the news, hobbies and specialist interest areas. People who were spending their work and leisure time on Zoom turned to magazines to switch off. I think that ‘sick of screens’ sentiment has endured for some.

The other thing COVID did was reward publishers that had a robust revenue mix. The pandemic pretty much killed off one-trick ponies and everyone that survived now makes money from a variety of channels. Revenue diversification is finally baked in.

For example, as fast as advertising revenues evaporated, virtual events and e-commerce grew. Although ad spend is back and people have gone back to real world events and shops, e-commerce and virtual events are here to stay.

The other obvious change was the realisation that, while offices might be a nice thing, they were 100% not a requirement for publishers to get a product out into the world. Companies that had vehemently resisted any moves to allow people to work from home set up remote working processes virtually overnight.

Resilient and adaptable

If we’re looking for a silver lining, that’s the one. The way magazine publishers hire staff has changed completely. The South East’s stranglehold on magazine employment, while far from over, has been weakened significantly. Publishers are now hiring for hybrid positions that allow people to work from anywhere, so long as they can get to a central location once or twice a month.

One last thing. Lockdowns and home working freed up time for people to experiment. Newsletters and podcasts in particular benefitted from the time saved on commuting and that is now showing up in a much greater variety of formats.

We probably won’t know all the changes that COVID has brought for years to come, but as with everything else, it underlined once again that publishers and publishing people are a resilient, adaptable, bloody-minded bunch.

Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, and a freelance writer.

Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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