Three Core Needs of Publication

by Dan Walsh

publication tenets

Circulation, Revenue, Content.

The Hearst biography has revealed to me the three core tenets of publication: circulation, revenue, and content. All success in the publication industry hinges on these. Hearst owned dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country, and every time he acquired a new one, he’d follow the same pattern. He’d concentrated on these three areas and see rapid growth. It is possible to focus on a single tenet and produce growth, but it will be lopsided at best. When all three are nurtured, each one will support the growth of the other two.

Circulation is the measure of a publications readership. It could be newspapers sold at newsstands, subscription to a magazine, unique pageviews on a blog, or email signups for a newsletter. It is a volume metric.

Hearst increased the circulation of his college paper by cajoling his mothers friends into subscribing. He increased the circulation of the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Journal by staging elaborate events, advertising prodigiously, and by publishing gossip-worthy articles.

Revenue is the income generated by a publication. This has historically been through advertisements, paid subscriptions, or a combination of both. There are newer business models, like using affiliate links to create revenue, but they all still seem to be a derivative of the advertising / subscription model. Revenue is a value metric, the growth of which comes from increased circulation and a good sales team. More readers make each ad more valuable to the advertiser, which is why circulation growth is important. These high value ad spaces must all be filled and they must all be sold for the highest value, which is the mission of a sales team.

Hearst increased the revenues of his college paper by inducing his mother;s friends (again) to advertise in it. He also negotiated higher fees with local merchants when the circulation and quality of content improved. As an adult, he found ways to pack in more ads, most notably by adopting the giant Sunday paper format which was stuffed full of coupons and other advertisements.

Content is everything contained within the publication. This includes the articles and picture, but also less obviously the design, paper quality, and even the advertisements. Content is a quality metric. Quality content persuades new readers to buy or subscribe to the publication. It also motivates them to maintain their readership, which in turn makes each customer more valuable. By keeping a reader around for two years, instead of only one, the publication has effectively doubled the revenue from that reader. Quality content helps increase circulation, and it creates the opportunity to negotiate for higher advertising fees.

Hearst improved the content of his publications by hiring the best writers, photographers, and illustrators – even if he couldn’t afford them. He constantly poached talent from other publications, and would even hire entire editorial departments away from his competitors. This practice increased the quality of his publications as well as the amount of content within them. It was common for a recently-acquired publication to double in size after Hearst took charge of it. He also invested literal fortunes in new printing presses, better quality paper and fonts, redesigned mastheads, and eye catching layouts. These improvements lent even more authority to the new content, and made his publications eye catching and easy to read.

I can think of a few current circulations that focus on only one or two of these tenets at the exclusion of the third. Shopping magazines like Lucky have a high focus on revenue and circulation and mostly ignore content. Every other page is an ad, and even the articles themselves are product placements. The quality and quantity suffers for this, but they are cheap enough to become an impulse buy at the register which boosts circulation to a high level. Perhaps on the other end of the spectrum are magazines like Monocle which carry a very high price (lower circulation) but ensure they deliver high quality content.

Publications like the New York Times and National Geographic seems to strike an excellent balance between the three tenets. They carry quality content at a reasonable price and manage to keep their circulation numbers high.