Death of Print for Internet Savvy Niches

Hey, remember when I complained that most of the technology publications these days are full of fail? Apparently, this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, this has been going on for years. Eric Sink talked about the untimely demise of Software Developer Magazines way back in 2006. The situation has only gotten worse since then.

The technology magazines that do stay afloat are usually generic, general interest advertising mills that cater to the lowest common denominator. Serious publication, targeted at serious web developers are slowly dropping out of business one by one. Why is that? Eric thinks it is all about market penetration. It may seem bizarre that publications for our industry are failing, while extreme niche topics such as “Backyard Poultry” are thriving. It makes sense if you think about it though.

Your average software developer spends most of his life in front of a computer screen. He gets his breaking news from Digg or Redit and his pre-broken, semi-stale news from Slashdot. Not only that but he also subscribes to blogs written by awesome people from their own favorite niche of the industry. That mean a Rubyist can have a RSS feed bristling with insightful articles from his fellow Ruby lovers. A Phytonista can read stuff written by brilliant Python developers all day. How many articles targeting their niche they could expect in print?

There is just no competition here. The interwebs win, hands and legs down. Also, I’m pretty sure that “Rubyist” and “Phytonista” are not even actual words, but that’s besides the point. What I’m trying to say here is that our industry may be big, but the interest in print magazines is abysmal, and falling with each year. On the other hand, small niche markets composed of less internet savvy users (eg. amateur chicken farmers) are probably thrilled to have their own official magazine and buy subscriptions in droves.

Print publications for our niche are going to become increasingly scarce as their profit margins continue to shrink. It is a deadly cycle. The less people buy and subscribe to the magazines, the less money they make. If they don’t make money, the quality and volume goes down. If quality and volume is low, less people buy the magazine. I suspect that most of publications targeted at hackers, developers and software engineers will either go under, be absorbed by other publications (just like it happened to Dr. Dobbs) or re-structure themselves as online newsblog type services. In other words, they will follow their target audience.

I’ve seen this happen before to another niche interest group. Here is the exercise for the reader: find a print publication in good standing devoted to Role Playing Games. I’ll make it easier for you! You can start by searching Wikipedia. Let me know how how many you find.

I’ll wait…

Yeah, I think you can clearly see most commercial RPG magazines both started and petered out between late 80′s and mid 90′s. There are currently no professionally edited, monthly publications devoted solely to the RPG hobby that you could actually purchase at a news stand. There are few magazines out there which are still available as paper copies via print-on-demand services, but they are exceedingly rare. I think Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine is one of the more notable titles from that group.

Yeah, but RPG niche is tiny! It doesn’t even compare. Besides, isn’t RPG like dead? No, of course not. It is far from it. It is more common than you may think – you would be surprised how many people actually play these games. Companies still make money printing rule books, expansions, dice miniatures and other game aids and they charge arm and a leg for them. I think they are doing pretty well. It’s just that the market for print RPG magazines has shrunk and disappeared as the hobby splintered into narrow sub-niches and interest groups. Online publishing created a whole new market for independent, experimental games, some of which which gained quite a following and critical acclaim. The most active and creative community shifted away from traditional D&D like games creating whole new interesting genres and developing a mindset and philosophy that is totally different from that of a traditional player. The reader base was fractured and most magazines either went out of business or moved online.

The very successful Dragon Magazine is still publishing D&D related content, albeit in digital format. So is Pyramid that caters to Steve Jackson Games enthusiasts. But these publications are no longer the hubs of community. They can only hope to compete with huge portals (like rpg.net), communities (like The Forge) and literally thousands of high quality blogs (some of which I have linked to in the past). RPG content is abundant and plentiful online. In fact, online publications are doing better than print magazines ever could due to the long tail effect. The multi-faceted, deeply fractured fractured RPG market has hardly any logical common denominator – it is nearly impossible to print something that will appeal to all gamers alike. Other than the fact that they both technically play RPG games, a D&D enthusiast and Dogs in the Vineyard player would probably have very little in common. That’s both the beauty of the hobby, and the reason why print publications that tried to target it eventually failed.

Now think about the field of Software Development. Can you see parallels here? Our field is also deeply fractured, and full of sub-niches of it’s own. Each platform and philosophy has it’s own specific issues, discussion topics and conventions. Think about all these fun flame wars we continue to have every time someone brings up stuff like static vs dynamic typing, memory management, software licensing or even which fucking editor is better (it’s vim, btw). We are bound to see the same thing that happened to RPG magazines to happen in our back yard. It is just a matter of time until our options will dwindle down to a choice between PC Magazine type magazine and Wired type magazine – mainstream publications targeted at technology neophytes that avoid jargon and juicy details like a plague.

Actually, last time I was in a book store these were exactly the kind of magazines I found on the news stands. Perhaps this shift has already happened, and we just didn’t notice it because none of us ever actually read these magazines in the first place.

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4 Responses to Death of Print for Internet Savvy Niches

  1. mcai8sh4 UNITED KINGDOM Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    Whilst you certainly have a valid point across. Due to the different component parts of any interest (including chicken farming, I’d imagine), you can read about the parts that interest you online. I have found though, that only reading the parts that you think will interest you, you can miss alot of other information, that might intrigue. By reading printed mags (on any topic) you can get a more varied understanding on the subject. As your (toilet) reading is focused on the articles in the publication.
    One of the things I like about this blog is the variety. I’m not just reading about python, or linux… but lots of other subjects as well**.
    I’m not a big RPG person, but I learn things about it that I would never actually search for – this is good.
    With this in mind, the demise of good quality printed publications is a great shame.
    ** thinking about it, you’ve covered computing, games, tv, film, irritations… but not music – I don’t mean DRM, or what type of encoding you prefer, I’m thinking more music in general. Maybe not a big part of your life.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @mcai8sh4: Very true on the variety. I was just getting at how the Long Tail is beneficial to the online magazines and potentially detrimental to print. Perhaps this compartmentalization is not as big of an issue as I suspected.

    Re: music – indeed, I do not usually talk about music much. I like a catchy tune just like the next guy, but I actually don’t really think about it much. I pretty much categorize music into two groups: stuff I like, and stuff I don’t care for. And there is usually something that I like in every genre out there which makes the question “what music do you listen too” a moot point.

    I do have a vague idea which stuff I am not supposed to like in public – for example I know that in most cases if a popular pop song comes up on the radio you are supposed to make a frowny face and say something about it being just two beats repeated over and over and how it’s not art. Unless you are amongst people who enjoy this type of music, and then you are supposed to make frowny faces whenever a song with a guitar solo in it comes on. Sigh… It’s hard to keep track of this sometimes.

    There is this whole social ritual involved here which involves stereotypes and personality traits tied to different music genres. Half the time when people ask you about music, they do it so that they can figure out what kind of a person you are.

    The problem is that I don’t really have a favorite genre, band or a song. It is difficult to pick few representative ones when someone asks me. I mean, I could probably figure out a good genre based on the stereotypes attached to it, and then just learn couple factoids about bands from that genre so that my music choices project just the right image of me. But that’s to much effort, and I’d rather just be myself and just have people deal with my weirdness.

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  3. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Magazines can provide something blogs can’t – real journalism. It is rare in tech magazines. Most just reword press releases from tech firms, or run meaningless benchmarks to give pretty graphs. Which is no different than the vast majority of news everywhere – just opinion & prefabbed press releases. However, occasionally you get real journalism.

    Wired is typically just an ad rag, but sometimes you get a total gem. Some examples to prove my point. This article on “sea cowboys” I thought was totally engrossing (despite the queer title). The old article on xanadu was fascinating. There are plenty of others that I thought were very engaging.

    If you want really specific information, there is no beating the internet generally or very narrowly focused publications. But if you want interesting tech journalism, you could do a lot worse than something like Wired.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @jambarama: Ah, yes – journalism! To bad they deprecated that, and they are planning to completely phase it out of all media by 2020.

    Except for blogs of course, since loggers are not journalists by trade or definition and therefore they are free to engage in acts of journalism if they choose too. :)

    Oh, and I was not saying Wired is bad. I was just saying it more of a general interest magazine with a technology profile. It is not targeted at software developers but at general technology enthusiasts. You will still find interesting articles there. It’s just not a developer magazine.

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