In honor of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday yesterday, I’d like to talk about survival of the fittest and the evolution of the media landscape.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called The Magazine as Metaphor. I talked about the three segments of magazines that added the most new titles in 2008, with Regional magazines in second place with  24 new titles.

Well, MediaFinder.com (as reported here on Marketing Charts.com), the place where I got my data, just reported that regional magazines also lost the most titles last year, losing 33 titles. Overall, 525 titles folded in 2008.

The Theory of Evolution says that the species best adapted to its environment is more likely to survive than those that are less well-adapted. In nature, this happens through natural selection and genetic mutation.

In marketing, it does too. You see, environment is a combination of factors, and sometimes the most obvious ones are not the most important ones, evolutionarily speaking.

Let’s look at Domino, the most recent home furnishings magazine to get thrown out with the trash. And thrown out it was, by Conde Nast.

You see, Domino seemed to be doing everything right. It had growing paid readership, newsstand sales were increasing, it had an integrated online presence, a thriving fan base that built blogs, social networks and even real-world social groups around it.

Domino appealed to the vast majority of Americans who shop in Target and want to live with style without selling our souls to afford it.  (For the whole story, see this great NY Times piece by Penelope Green called “A girl world closes, and fans mourn” here.)

One would think that Domino was perfectly suited to survive and thrive in the changing media environment.

But alas, it wasn’t Domino that was unfit to survive. It was its prehistoric business model that depended on ad pages to survive. And ad pages were down 26%. More importantly, it pulled in only half the advertising dollars that Architectural Digest gets.

For those of you who don’t know, now that House & Garden and Domino are gone, Architectural Digest is Conde Nast’s only remaining shelter book. If you didn’t know that, it’s forgivable. AD has a median readership age of 50, and if you can afford to emulate the lifestyles in that publication, you’re a bit above me and my friends on the socio-economic scale.

Just a few months ago, before the announcement to close Domino, Conde Nast was telling the world how successful the publication was. It was, to all appearances, healthy, on top of the world, the masters of their environment. Just like the dinosaurs may have seemed just before they all died.

It seems wrong that an otherwise healthy and thriving publication was brought down by dropping ad sales, especially in this era when ad dollars are plunging across the board.

But that’s the point. Evolution is heartless. Survival of the fittest is frequently determined after the fact. The advertising supported publishing model is dying, and while some dinosaurs may last longer than others, they are all doomed, in the end.

Maybe it’s size that is the defining factor. In this era where we’re discovering that “too big too fail” applies to more than just dinosaurs, banks, airlines and auto manufacturers, is small the new key to success?

Or are blogs the tiny, furry upstart mammals that will become the next dominant species in the media environment? Aren’t the best of them also dependent on advertising dollars to survive? Is media always destined to be chasing ad dollars, and it’s not the media that is at the top of the food chain, it’s the almighty ad dollar?

Even ad dollars are subservient to a greater force: the consumer. Ad dollars are spent chasing one thing: consumers. And consumers are finally beginning to realize how much power they really have.

They’ve saved television shows that were slated to be canceled. They’ve killed movies and products that were supposed to be the next big thing. They’ve put Hulu on the map. They’ve been the building force behind Google and Facebook and Twitter.

And they’re why even though Domino is gone, it’s spirit will live on online in blogs like Apartment Therapy.com, the 3,196th most popular site on the web with over 900,000 monthly unique visitors according to Quantcast. Which, by the way, is higher than Domino’s paid circ of 850,000.

But still, it’s sad that Domino is gone. It is possible that it could have been saved if Conde Nast hadn’t thrown the baby (Domino) out with the bath water (ad sales).Magazines and newspapers are going extinct all across the land even when they have loyal fans who want to devour their content.

So can someone please explain to me how many more otherwise healthy content providers must die before prehistoric publishers realize that it’s the ad sales based model that’s killing them and that it’s the publishers, not the magazines, that must evolve or die?

Comments
  1. Eleanor haas says:

    Publishers really do know this, and they’re searching for alternatives but haven’t found one as yet. What would you suggest?

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks for the comment, Eleanor. Maybe some know it, and maybe some just pay lip service to it while hoping that the current model will outlast their careers. One thing they could try is a true subscription model where people actually bear the cost of content they want. It works for cable television. If it were online, this could easily be based on micropayments for access. iTunes is basically a micropayment system for music.

      In Domino’s case, what do you think might have happened if Conde Nast said to it’s readers, “We want to keep Domino alive but we need your help.” They acted unilaterally, as most publishers do, because they don’t actually know that their salvation lies with their audiences, not their advertisers, so they never even thought to ask them. Would they have voluntarily paid more for their subscriptions? For each issue on newsstands? Did they even consider sharing the challenge with their other stakeholders, the readers and the advertisers, in the pages of their magazine and online? They could throw up a donation site with each month’s advertising shortfall, and ask readers to donate to meet the difference. The online assistance of 850,000 readers can add up. They could create a marketing partnership with all those blogs out there and some of the larger advertisers that did stick with Domino to add value to all ends of the process.

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