The Role of the Trade Press in a Media Rich World

June 21, 2013

A guest post by Graham Pitcher, Group Editor, New Electronics

Editors of a certain vintage will remember the ‘good old days’ of the printed press release. Every day, we’d see – and open – hundreds of press releases.

The quality of the press release varied. Some were many pages long and it took dedication to find out what the story actually was. Others took the opposite approach – telling you nothing in a poorly written paragraph. In others, the US location and dateline was replaced with something more prosaic like Walsall and the PR sent on without any further changes, despite the fact the UK press had completely different information needs to their US colleagues. And perhaps 50% of the releases we received had nothing to do with the magazine you were running.

But the press release was our life blood. In the days when product books and product pages swayed the placement of advertising revenue, we needed them.

Alongside the mail torrent, there was always the press briefing. In my early days in the electronics world, I would sometimes do three in a day in London. As a result, editorial content was determined very much by what was happening.

Times change. In the 1990s, trade magazines were almost the only route from manufacturer to potential customer, but the rise of the web finished that. Today, it sometimes seems as though companies are looking to reach customers by any route other than B2B magazines. And the press briefing is an increasingly rare event.

If that wasn’t enough, the industry is moving rapidly away from buying display advertising to using other, often lower cost, channels. For controlled circulation magazines, that is bad news and the closures of respected print publications – The Engineer and EETimes are just two examples – shows just how devastating this has been.

This radical change in only a few short years poses a number of questions for ‘our industry’. How long might paper stick around? What now is the role of a trade magazine?

Paper is a substantial investment for any publisher and you can understand, to a point, why they pull the plug. Without cracking out the spreadsheet, it costs around £1 to print and mail an issue. For the sake of argument, printing and mailing 20,000 issues a month means you’re £360k ‘in the hole’ before you’ve done a thing and it’s the reason why display advertising rates are relatively high. Stop printing and that £360k goes straight to the bottom line. But can your operation maintain similar coverage of your industry from an online basis?

Here’s a great reason for paper. Modern Machine Shop is a North American magazine aimed at the metal machining market and comes in the North American equivalent of A5. I met its publisher many years ago and asked why that was. “It fits in the pocket of the reader’s overall,” he said. It still appears in that format and it’s still the market leader.

There is also a significant difference between how readers use paper and digital publications. Some of that difference dates back to the days when recruitment advertising used to rule – readers started from the back.

But there’s one more – and I believe critical – difference. You use a paper publication in a completely different way to how you interact with your screen. Although tablets are beginning to bring paper like functionality, you pick magazines up and put them down again. That’s not something you do on screen and there’s a very good reason why things like Google are called ‘search engines’ – you use them to find out particular things. Paper publications, by contrast, allow you to discover things by accident; things you weren’t looking for.

We have a saying in Findlay Media which goes like this: “The web is where you go to find out what you know you need. Magazines are where you go to find out what you need to know.”

But reader sentiment remains with paper and for a good reason – it’s a convenient and intuitive way for engineers to get information. A recent New Electronics survey showed 59% of respondents still want paper – only down a tad from the 64% in the previous survey. Will paper disappear? Not just yet: I think there is quite a bit of life left in trade magazines.

new-electronics-reader-surv

And that leads quite neatly on to what should the role of a trade magazine be. In the case of Modern Machine Shop, it’s intended to be right there – all the time. While I wouldn’t pretend that New Electronics is in a similar position, that is our objective – to be a valuable and reliable source of technology information to our readers.

Back in the mid 90s, when the focus was on products and case studies, the majority of publications were quite a way back from the leading edge. Today, New Electronics is much closer to that leading edge. By taking that position, it can as far as possible, tell its readers about what’s coming.

In New Electronics’ case, we do this by imposing a strict discipline on ourselves. Each year, we map out a rigorous editorial programme; there are around 120 slots to be filled. The names on those slots are the technologies that readers need to know about – some aren’t the sexiest topics you’ll research, but that’s part of the job. And, because we know readers are at different points in the design cycle, we look at those technologies from different perspectives.

It’s our way of maintaining high levels of quality. But it’s not easy. Not only are we covering a range of technologies, we’re doing so in a constrained format. Even when we had the luxury of big issues, no technical article went longer than two pages – research has told us that’s the attention span of the reader. And it’s then a further challenge to convey technical information within that space. When we get comments such as ‘perfect; just technical enough to enjoy’ from our readers, it feels good.

Other magazines, of course, are available.


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