The last time I read a magazine was six years ago. It was at the dentist, and I chose not to pick up my phone to pass away time and go through a lifestyle trade. Much of the information in the magazine could have otherwise been found in a blog or website dedicated to the subject. Better yet, for free and up to date. This is the losing battle of the printed word. Not only magazines but also the newspaper.

In the last decade, many newspapers and magazines have gone online, leaving behind the printed form for the glowing screen. The latest in the game is National Geographic. The renowned publication will cease to be in printed form by next year, punctuating this development further with the lay-off of its remaining staff writers. The journal, which has been around since 1888 (134 years), will not be the last to go through this.

Closer to home, the Malay Mail migrated online and left behind its printed form in 2018. Two years later, right before the COVID-19 pandemic, the lifestyle magazine Esquire Malaysia ceased to exist in both print and online. Esquire was not the only one; in the same year, major lifestyle publisher Blu Inc stopped operating and had massive layoffs across its many publications.

Social media and the prevalence of online media have often been blamed for the decline of the printed form. The death of print, however, is one of a thousand cuts and one that’s a long time in the making.

How digital shifted consumption habits

Newspapers and magazines used to enjoy direct traffic from their readers, with a dedicated readership usually purchasing or receiving their reading material directly. At this point, you are familiar with the story: over the last decade, the Internet and smartphone technology changed media consumption habits. Unfettered access to free information, anytime and anywhere, meant purchasing hardcopy publications ceased to be necessary.

Around this time, media organisations migrated online. Some migrated fully. Others continued to publish both in print and online. Some gave different editorial treatments between the two. Malay Mail, up to ceasing its printed form, operated two separate editorial teams for its online and newspaper content.

The internet, or more specifically social media, disrupted that direct link between publications and readership. Now operating as intermediaries, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter offer users a social, personalised, and algorithm-curated feed.

So how did social media disrupt the media’s revenue-generating landscape? In the 2010s, media organisations steadily established their presence on social media, as this was seen as a way to capture the online market; millions of potential audiences were already on social media platforms. However, with social media platforms playing an intermediary role between the audience and media organisations, much of the traffic to these media portals, alongside potential advertising revenue, give social media platforms an advantage in this relationship.

In 2021, this uneasy relationship peaked into a confrontation when the Australian government introduced a code that compelled social media and digital platforms to compensate news organisations for the value these platforms derived from journalism. Facebook responded by removing Australian news content from its site. A year later, news organisations and these tech conglomerates like Facebook and Google settled on opaque compensations, details which were not made available to the public.

Why is this development an important context? While there are various other broader factors underlying the financial health of media organisations, especially news and magazine publications–it cannot be understated how disruptive the introduction of social media platforms has been to the industry. More importantly, media publications have yet to find effective ways to keep the operations floating, short of being funded by deep-pocket businessmen or conglomerates.

How do media organisations generate revenue?

Newspapers and magazines typically rely on advertising as their major revenue source. This could mean dedicated advertising or sponsored content. The latter is designed and written to blend better with the publication’s news features and can sometimes be mistaken for actual news. There are also subscription fees, but those are often insufficient for publications to survive. The charts below show the revenue shares of U.S. magazines and newspapers in 2021, comprising both digital and print. It gives us an idea of what goes into allowing publications to continue operating.

Different publications approach revenue generation in different ways. Malaysiakini, one of Malaysia’s most prolific online media publications, indicates that half (50%) of its revenue comes from subscriptions, the remaining 30% from third-party advertising, 20% from direct advertising and the remaining unspecified 10%. The media organisation also receives grants from foreign agencies and occasionally executes projects for additional funding.

Many media portals settled on the free-access model, where news can be accessed for free. The only trade-off is that readers are subject to advertising and having their data collected. The logic goes that making information accessible increases traffic, allowing more data to be collected and for the advertising net to be cast wider. Other media organisations adopted the subscription model, having users pay a monthly fee to access news and features. The known few are The Star, The Malaysian Insight and most notably, Malaysiakini. Some others, like Sinar Harian, do both, offering general news for free but putting selected content behind a paywall.

However, even among industry practitioners, the consensus on paywalls is that it is a difficult approach. Malaysians aren’t willing to pay for news. This is largely a market problem, as news used to be more exclusive; hence readers were willing to pay for them. But in a landscape where everyone is plugged in and has access to news from a variety of sources. Free, more importantly–why pay? This is the writing on the wall for print publications that traditionally require subscriptions and fees to allow access to their content.

What happens to print publications?

Print is for posterity, novelty, and those from previous generations whose consumption habits still rely on the physical form of the printed word. But for those who grew up on digital–the printed word is dead. Emblematic of this is the decline of the book publishing industry. Since 2018, over 90 bookstores have shuttered and moved their sales online. The latest casualty is Borders Bookstores, which will cease to operate in the country come August. It isn’t that the newer generations of Malaysians aren’t reading books; it’s just that how they consume information is vastly different and unreliant on physical forms.

National Geographic ceasing to publish in printed form reminds me of Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty (2013), one of my favourite films. The story focuses on LIFE magazine’s (fictional but emotionally moving) transition into digital, centering the film on the core values of LIFE in telling the stories of the everyday and exceptional. But it is also a reminder that the shift into digital should not abandon these core values that drove journalism and storytelling. Walter Mitty is the story of many newsrooms and magazines in the past decade.

As a writer and on-off journalist, the decline of the printed word is a sad affair for me. I grew up reading newspapers and magazines. My early career dream to become a journalist was tied to the fact that I fell in love with Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, published in Esquire Magazine in 1966. I continue to appreciate the printed form, as it gives a firm beginning and ending to the experience of consuming information. This finality is absent in the digital form as the boundlessness encourages you to consume more. This isn’t necessarily bad, but this is the reality of this new landscape we currently occupy.

It is just unfortunate that print publications are a casualty of this shift.