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By Thomas Baekdal - September 2015

Everything Will Be Fine, Because People Will Get Older?

I came across a short interview with the editor in chief and executive at one of the largest publishing companies in Denmark. And she illustrates the all too familiar lack of change that I have observed over the years.

First, let me give you a quick summary of the current state of the Danish magazine media. Generally speaking, everyone is in decline, with a drop of about 7-8% per year. And it has dropped to half of what it used to be in just the past 15 years (source: Journalisten).

Mind you, this is not as bad as it should be. The Danish magazine market should be in even heavier decline than it is, but it is saved by language.

Denmark is a small country of only 5.4 million people, who speak Danish. This means that people in Denmark still prefer to read a Danish article about something, even if it isn't as good as an English speaking site.

You can see a perfect example of this in "You Have to Be The Creator", where two great English articles are merely translated and paraphrased in the Danish press. At the same time, the small size of the market means that very few outsiders have been able to challenge the Danish media in any substantial way.

As such, danish media still rules. It is being protected from disruption by the scarcity that the Danish language gives them. A scarcity that has allowed them to stay the same for longer than media in other countries (especially English speaking ones).

Imagine if this scarcity didn't exist. Imagine if people in Denmark spoke English by default, and that the Danish media had to compete with the truly digital native publishers that we see in the global world. It would decimate them.

We see this so clearly when this executive started talking about change:

People love to tease me that our front page of 'Familie Journal' is the same as in 1948, but we have actually changed the layout five times since I joined in 2009.

You have changed the ... layout? Well, let's check. Here is a sample of the front pages over the past five years:

Seriously? This is your definition of change? A slightly reorganized front page that looks exactly the same, with the same type of articles, the same focus and the same style?

She also said:

There's a hole in the bucket right now. But at some point, we will reach a level where the decline will stop. The share of magazine readers increase as people get older, and Danes are getting older and older.

In other words, everything will be fine if we just do the same as always and wait for the age distribution of the population to change.

Oh crap...

There are so many things wrong about this, but I will mention three.

The population trend is already here

The first problem is that, while the population will get older, there is no sign that this would mean that old media will suddenly gain readers.

I have seen media people talk about the population trend before, and people usually refer to this:

 

In other words, we are seeing this trend that we are moving from a population where the youngest audience dominate the market, to one where the older generations grow to equal strength.

This is great, right? This will save the media, right?

Well, no.

You see, the problem is that this is the global population trend, which includes continents like Africa who are currently about 40 years behind the rest of us.

What many media people seem to miss is that this trend is already a reality in the west.

Here is the current population split in Denmark. As you can see, we are already at the point that the Economist predicts the rest of the world will look like in 2060.

The trend that our older generations will be as dominant as our younger generations is already here. The only reason why we don't see it on a global scale yet is because of what is currently happening in Africa.

What this executive hasn't realized is that this future is today. It's here, now! But the magazine market is still declining by 7-8%.

Clearly this isn't going to save you. If it would, it would already have happened.

Note: People are still getting older. In the western world we are generally aging 4 more years per 15 years of time. In other words, if people live to be 78 on average today, they will live to be 82 in 2025. But, from a trend perspective, it has already reached its new level.

Old doesn't mean old

The second problem is that even if she was right about aging, people don't become old, they just grow old. What I mean by this is that, if a 30 year old person today have decided to become a cord-cutter and are now only watching TV via HBO online, Netflix, and YouTube, that person won't suddenly turn back into a cable TV viewer at the age of 60.

Growing older doesn't mean you start to do old things.

What traditional media companies have today is an old print audience, who are used to thinking of media as something you sit down with for 20 minutes of the time, and read as a package. What you will have in the future is an old digital native audience, who will think of media being multi-sourced, mobile, and fully connected.

Thinking that you don't have to change because old people like old media just isn't how the world works. The future old people are going to behave more like how the young people do today.

So, should you focus on younger people? No.

The problem that exists in the media when they talk about 'reaching the younger generations' is that most media executives think that means reaching people when they are young.

That's not what it is about at all. It's about changing who you are and how you do things so that you are ready for the next generation when they enter your market demographics.

Take a gardening magazine. There is little point in trying to make that magazine appeal more to 20 year-olds, because most 20-year olds don't have a garden, nor the time. The target demographics for a gardening magazine is much more relevant for people 45 years old and up.

But, when those 20 year-olds become 40 year-olds, they are not going to have the same media consumption patterns as their parents. They are going to have a different type of 40 year-olds, with different needs, different behaviors and different media habits.

The problem we have in the traditional media industry is that you are already 10 years behind the curve. Both in terms of technology, but also in terms of editorial identity. You are dominated by a print mindset that has become obsolete.

You need to do what young people do today, because your current target demographic is already behaving more like the next generation than the one you are currently focusing on.

The curse of the laggards

The third problem is that she is kind of right that the decline will slow down eventually, although it will probably happen after the volume gets too low. But this is not because of aging. It's because of lagging.

I wrote about this back in 2013, in "Understanding Change And Predicting Trends", in which I illustrate a how a company fails:

What you see here is the usual pattern that happens when a company starts to fail. The first ones to go are the first movers, who no longer feel inspired by what the magazine has to offer. The next group to go are the followers, the steady readers who make the wheels turn and keep the publisher up-to-date.

Once these two groups are gone, all you are left with are the laggards. This group is also slowly going away, but at a much lower rate and over a much longer time.

The laggards, however, hate change, and are a nasty audience to have. They want your publication to cover the same stories as you have always done, and to keep the editorial focus you have always focused on. And every time you change, they will confront you.

We see this all the time in with traditional media. Only a few months ago, I read about a small newspaper in the US, who had exactly this problem.

For years they have been in decline until they got so desperate that they tried to force a change to digital. The result was nasty. Since they had already lost all their early adopters and valuable followers, all they had left were those who wanted things to stay as they always were.

So, after three months of trying to force a change, they announced that it wasn't working (obviously), and that they would turn their focus back on 'what they had always been good at' and their 'core value'.

This is the same that is happening here in Denmark. In the interview, the executive had this to say about their readers:

I've never been at a place with sharper concepts than here. You can wake up any journalist in the middle of the night and get them to describe their readers.

That's good, right? They know their readers.

There is just one problem. They are in decline!

So, either they don't have a clue as to who their readers really are and what they need, or the readers that they think they know are all laggards, who are currently dragging them down with them.

I suspect their problem is a bit of both.

You cannot say you know your readers and be in decline at the same time. Obviously you don't know how to appeal to the right readers.

So what do you do?

You can't do nothing, nor can you hope things will fix itself in the future. You have to change, but you have lost all your valuable audience that would be interested in changing with you.

You are stuck.

I see this all the time with legacy media. Their lack of change has caused a chasm to appear between what you are doing today and the new world. A chasm that has now become so wide that you practically have to start over.

What does this executive plan to do about it?

"I think quality will make the difference", pointing to professional content as recipes, which are big topics with the weeklies.

"If you Google 'tenderloin pot', for example, you will find dishes where the quality is not good enough or where you have missing ingredients. For recipes, and other topics, we produce content of high quality, and I am convinced that it helps us win."

Okay. That sounds nice. You want to be a magazine that focuses on high quality recipes. That's a good plan.

However, this is where we see the final disconnect with legacy media. Your definition of quality ... sucks!

I'm sorry to be so blunt, but legacy media have no idea how to make quality content. You are coming from a world where you have never truly focused on the value of the individual article. Your focus has always been on the package (the magazine) as a whole.

Their definition of a quality recipe is one that has the right ingredients, like this one from their website, or these three from their printed magazine:

All you see here is a list of ingredients followed by a 60-word factual description of how to put them together.

This is their definition of their best content? This is how they hope to fix the decline? Really?

Where is the passion? Where is the connection? Where is the engagement with your readers? Where are all the elements that make people love food, and you with it?

Do you want to see how to truly engage people around food? Here are two examples:

 
 

You see the staggering difference here?

The magazine thinks value is just posting the right ingredients, while the digital natives know that the ingredients are only a small part of the bigger story. They focus on why you should be cooking. They focus on the passion, the energy, the excitement, the memories it brings, the taste, the experiments, and so many other things. They don't just list the ingredients you should use.

The Danish magazine isn't even close to what real quality content is all about.

The recipes the Danish magazine defines as what will make a difference isn't really making any difference at all. It's part of the reason why the magazine as a whole is in decline. It's the type of content their old audience thinks is valuable because that is how recipes have always been published since the old days of print.

They have not actually changed anything. And the only reason they still exist is because they are in Danish. If they have been an English-language magazine, They would have been decimated by now with this editorial focus.

This is why they are in decline.

It's time for legacy media to wake up. Your problem isn't your formats or your layout. Your problem is the very way you are doing things editorially, and the type of content you focus on. That's the part that isn't working.

It's time for you to say: Maybe our editorial focus isn't what people are really looking for? Maybe we are making the wrong product? Maybe what we define as 'quality' isn't actually that valuable compared to what the digital natives are doing? Maybe the readers that we think we know, isn't actually the type of readers that we want to know.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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