For print media to survive—especially in the age of Covid—publishers need to embrace digital platforms and develop a reciprocal relationship with readers
By Catherine Mwitta
Walking down the streets of Vancouver, you used to be able to spot the vendors for Megaphone—a magazine by and for the city’s homeless and low-income populations.
Vendors would sell the monthly magazine for $2, keeping $1.25 from each sale as profit.
But today, thanks to the pandemic, the streets of the city are mostly empty—and distribution of Megaphone has decreased dramatically due to safety concerns from readers and vendors alike.
The harsh reality of Covid has forced Megaphone to pursue a hybrid publishing model over the past year: vendors still exist, but readers are increasingly choosing to purchase a replica of the magazine online.
Julia Aoki is executive director of the Street Corner Media Foundation, which publishes Megaphone, as well as the Voices of the Street literary magazine and “Hope and Shadows” calendar. She says Megaphone made the switch to its hybrid model in March 2020, with its first online issue coming out in June 2020, shortly after the first lockdown.
At the time, the primary concern was around transmission. “Handling of cash was a potential vector for transmission, potentially even the magazine itself would be a vector for transmission,” she says, describing the organization’s earliest concerns.
The digital replica was a way to continue to support customers and vendors who were experiencing a loss of income from diminished print sales. The magazine has introduced grant applications for vendors who are experiencing a decrease in sales, with 100 percent of the proceeds from the digital sales going to vendors.
While Megaphone has returned to selling physical copies of the magazine in early 2021, Aoki sees potential in continuing to foster an audience online—and hopefully providing another stream of revenues going forward.
“Obviously we’re all primed today to buy things digitally and read things digitally,” she says. “We’re starting to think about how we continue to do digital sales or provide digital content without undercutting the vendors.”
Vancouver’s Daily Hive—as an online-only publication from the start—has figured out both how to develop its audience, and build a robust business, ever since launching in 2008. The site covers a wide variety of topics, from news and events to activities, travel and pop culture.
For eight years, Farhan Mohamed served as editor-in-chief and online editor for Daily Hive. “It started out trying to fill the gap in the market between traditional media and blogging,” says Mohamed. “When Daily Hive started, being able to say that you were digital-only was a big thing. ”
Mohamed says that the biggest benefit of being digital-first is the open line of communication that editors and writers have with their audience. “You have to build a community with your readers today, more than ever before,” he says. “There’s so much competition out there today. You can’t just expect to put information out there: You have to listen, you have to talk to [readers] and open up those places of dialogue.”
While living in the digital realm presents many opportunities for online publications like Daily Hive—and even print-first publications, like Megaphone, that are trying to build an online presence—it also presents some problems. First among them: a loss of control.
Ori Tenenboim is an assistant professor at the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media at the University of British Columbia, whose doctoral research has focused on audience engagement, political communication, and media economics. He says that in the digital age, magazines or newspapers are forced to distribute their content on popular platforms like Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, which are controlled by tech companies that have a global reach in audiences and curate content flow.
“Social media platforms have had a major impact on journalism,” says Tenenboim. “News organizations no longer control the distribution of their content, and don’t have a monopoly over the distribution of their content.”
Tenenboim argues that the answer for print publications is not to shun the online world, “but to own their little corner of it.” They should create their own apps, build robust digital channels—but keep a strong print product as an anchor.
“I think it is important for them to still keep their own outlets and try to find ways to engage the community. Not put all their eggs [distribution and advertising resources] in the technology company’s baskets.”