Everyone seems to notice that time passes much too quickly – once time has passed. For those engaged in the rapid-paced news “industry,” time flies extremely fast. On the one hand, you have to track down news developments; on the other hand, you have to keep up with new technology. Keeping pace with technological innovations turns traditional methods of media management upside down and requires that those methods be updated time and again as you go along.
It has been two years now since the Tabula team launched a weekly newsmagazine and set out to make it a profitable business venture.
This plan was met with skepticism by many in our milieu. They thought that Georgian society was not interested in serious media and that our magazine would never become financially sustainable. They reminded us of the practice-proven stratagem that if you want to sell a magazine, the cover has to excite readers with a sexy shot of a celebrity (if not entirely naked then, at least, displaying deep décolleté and a cross on bare neck) or else incite the masses with attention-grabbing lurid headlines (usually bigoted and xenophobic).
That opinion is not at all unfounded. In early 2010, Tabula commissioned a media market survey by BCG Research, a Georgian polling company. A total of 3,500 respondents were questioned. As expected, the survey showed that Kviris Palitra was the most popular newspaper, followed by Asaval-Dasavali. Among magazines, Sarke was in the lead with Tbiliselebi trailing far behind.
Nothing is surprising about the existence or the popularity of such press. The era of scandalously fake headlines started in the United States at the end of the Nineteenth Century when print media turned both yellow and profitable. The advent of yellow journalism triggered hot debates in publishing circles with some even demanding that “brazen” newspapers be reined in by the law. Yet, at the end of the day, “unmannered media” not only persisted as a societal irritant, but also provided the impetus for positive change. The yellow press stayed in business, but freedom of expression remained intact and professional standards also emerged. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post all chose to win over irritated readers by promising to deliver quality content, objective news coverage and fact-checked information – and since then they have delivered on their promise.
The process of developing print media into a business did not start in Georgia until a century later, in the 1990s. The result is a domestic form of yellow journalism with fundamentalist inclinations and nothing in common with Western tabloids except for one thing – some of them are profitable, which, in itself, is a positive development for Georgian media. As for respectable press, this niche is so far still uncrowded with only a few small-print-run editions, including Tabula, surviving on grants and private contributions.
Skeptics never fail to cite developments affecting global media. The Internet and international economic downturn have each pushed print media – already suffering an identity crisis brought about by emerging TV platforms – into a critical phase.
Even though many refuse to believe that many print editions will actually pass away in the near future, one cannot ignore facts. In 2010, the popular American weekly Newsweek magazine, with a history spanning seventy-seven years, barely escaped demise; its life was only prolonged by merging with the popular Web-based Daily Beast. Abandoned by renowned authors, Newsweek’s survival is still uncertain. Rival Time Magazine is also suffering; its sales, subscriptions and advertising revenues have all plummeted.
In contrast to the high-circulation American weekly newsmagazines, the British weekly The Economist appears to be thriving. Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian, explains this by the reality that Internet-era readers expect news contextualization. Readers do not just want to be told what has happened in the past seven days – they can learn that electronically any day. In Preston’s view, readers prefer for a weekly newsmagazine to tell them how those events of the past seven days affect their daily life, their country’s future and the international order. That is what The Economist, in contrast to its American rivals, offers its audience – fact-based quality analysis and contextualization.
Many consider The Economist to be a right-wing edition. That is not quite accurate. True, advocacy of free market, free trade and globalization is the trademark of The Economist. It is also true that the magazine’s editorial policy has in the past shown support for U.S. military action in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but it has supported Bill Clinton too. The Economist also favors state involvement in health care and education, fights against global warming, and advocates for legalization of prostitution and narcotics.
It is assumed today that The Economist is a “must read” for anyone who wants to keep abreast of current affairs. Some in the United States have dubbed this phenomenon as “the Burberry-raincoat factor” – an analogous reference to the famous British brand’s plaid-lined raincoat, which, for a time, was the uniform de rigueur of image-conscious upper-middle-class businesspeople.
For itself, Tabula chose the strategy of The Economist – a clear and consistent editorial policy, high professional standards and fact-based analysis of concrete issues. Tabula advocates for individual freedom, free market, small government, secular state, and integration into the West to guarantee the country’s independence. In that regard, our magazine most closely approximates, out of existing political forces, the vision of the ruling party. At the same time, Tabula does not like the government’s expenditure policy, is skeptical about recent changes in the education system, does not agree with steps taken in the agriculture sector, and is unhappy about the degree of communication between the government and the population.
In response to the skeptics, it must be said that Georgian print media are less endangered by the Internet than are Western print media. First, the Internet space in Georgia is still very poor in terms of its content. Also, for Georgians who do not know any foreign language, Georgian-language content on the Internet space does not alone provide any comprehensive information. Moreover, despite a high growth rate in Georgia, the Internet has a very low penetration rate – only 26.9 percent, according to ITU data last updated in December 2011.
Today, print media are needed in Georgia to ensure monetization of content. Internet advertising revenues here cannot cover even a small portion of the funds needed to operate a Webpage (especially if quality content needs to be developed to attract readers and advertisers) or even to collect clicks.
Those who claim that people are only interested in poor-quality media products draw a very superficial conclusion. There are certainly 46,000 people in Georgia who want to read quality analysis and content in Georgian. Our objective is to target that one percent of the 4.6-million Georgian population and to start reaching others through them. Of course, we realize that is not an easy task.
As Chicago School of Sociology founder Robert Park once said: “The struggle for existence, in the case of the newspaper, has been a struggle for circulation. The newspaper that is not read ceases to be an influence in the community. The power of the press may be roughly measured by the number of people who read it.”
Georgian newspapers and magazines reach readers through a distribution network, but that distribution network cannot meet even a minimum standard – as Tabula’s own experience has shown and as proved by Georgian media and advertising business surveys conducted within the IREX G-MEDIA program.
The print media distribution market in Georgia, both subscription and retail sale, is largely controlled by one media company, Media Palitra. Media Palitra itself also issues a number of newspapers and magazines and uses its dominant market position to benefit its own products. That ensures, inter alia, a high print-run of Media Palitra editions.
IREX G-MEDIA surveys also identify another problem: today, companies that advertise cannot reach targeted audiences via print media because newspapers and magazines, as a rule, do not have demographical information on readers’ financial status, social standing or personal interests. Hence, advertisers find it difficult to measure the impact of advertisement placed in print media and opt to advertise on television because it is “watched by everyone.”
The sustainability of any major print edition in the world rests first on advertising revenues, then on subscriptions and, after that, on retail sales. A survey on the price elasticity of advertisement, commissioned by Tabula and conducted by ACT, reveals that in Georgia, like anywhere else, advertisers are influenced by print-run and readership. That same survey shows that current advertisers in Tabula are motivated not by the magazine print-run, but by its readership – Tabula is read by opinion makers. The survey further indicates that Tabula advertising revenue has a significant potential to rise if the Tabula print-run increases.
Based on those survey findings and existing circumstances, Tabula has chosen a path – one untried in Georgia, but well-tested in the West - to increase advertising revenues and, at the same time, its influence. This path allows us to increase the print-run of the magazine to 20,000 and bypass the poor-quality domestic distribution network. Toward that end, we approached several companies whose clientele represent a concrete social group to offer free distribution of our magazine to those clients. It was not difficult to arouse interest in our offer – the companies we approached discerned in our proposal the possibility of direct marketing with clients. At this stage, we have chosen Silk TV.
How will our readers benefit from an increased circulation of Tabula magazine? They will continue to receive what they have always received – quality analysis and a clear-cut stance on everything that happens around them. What about the society? The society will benefit from a more pluralistic media market.
The future will show whether or not our Tabula venture proves to be a financial success. Preliminary estimates provide grounds for optimism, but we are well aware that many things can happen. “One thing problematic for all of us is that we are managing through ambiguity. So what might seem to be a good business plan today, may turn out in six month or a year to not be such a good business plan because things are moving so fast,” International Herald Tribune publisher Stephen Dunbar-Johnson told me several months ago.
One of the things that gives us hope in this fast-moving era is the fact that technological progress does not sway the Georgian media market as strongly as it sways the Western media market. We will let you, our readers, know about the results of our innovative strategy in a year’s time – at the end of 2012.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issues #84 , December 26, 2011 - January 23, 2012.