Is digital revenue now the dominent source of income for publishers?

Analysis by Tim Dawson.

Stevie Spring, chief executive of Future Publishing, says we have reached a ‘tipping point’ where digital magazine operations become more important than their paper forbears. 

Clearly, she was trying to put a positive gloss on the publishers’ annual figures – Future’s profits are down from £3m last year to £1.8m this year.
For the first time, digital revenue growth at Future has outstripped the decline in print advertising income. 

But Spring’s sense that we have reached a point where online content is the main game in town has more to it than spin.  Future is now offering 60 magazines in iPad editions, with sales up ‘tenfold’ year-on-year. 

And the Bath-based specialist publisher is by no means the only one who thinks that a year of iPads has changed the landscape beyond recognition. Forbes Media recently announced that more than half of its revenue now comes from digital operations.   

Later this week the Next Issue Media (NIM), will showcase Newsstand, a single digital platform that has been developed by some of America’s biggest publishing houses.  NIM includes Time Warner Inc.’s Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst Corp., Meredith Corp. and News Corp.  The application will allow users to download a single reader application from which they will be able to purchase and read titles such as The New Yorker, Time and Esquire.  Eventually 40 or 50 titles will be available.

There even seems to be a grudging acceptance outside Wapping that News International’s paywall might be at the very least a sustainable business model, even if subscription figures (reported to be around 80,000) have not set the heather alight.  Since NI introduced its paywall, The New York Times has started to charge for content viewed online, albeit they have not imposed a hard-and-fast paywall.

Dramatic as all of this is, however, I am inclined to think that it falls short of a ‘tipping point’.  In every case mentioned above, digital revenue is being used to buttress existing models.  The tipping point will surely come when some publications cease to appear as paper editions at all. Forbes, indeed, has just launched, with some fanfare, a new European edition in print.

We may reach the ‘tipping point’ very soon – when to continue a subscription to an existing publication, you have to go online.  But as I can’t yet think of a single publication where this has happened so far, I suspect that we have a good few years of paper publishing ahead of us yet.