The Absurdity of Print Subscription Prices

I received an email offer for a print subscription discount, but then I noticed something about the cost of another option that made no sense.

It’s worth my noting, up front, that though I work in broadcast media, I do not root for the demise of print media. I believe it plays a critical role in our society.

The issue is that many print publications are bleeding money because of the production costs associated a print publication. A couple of years ago, I attended a talk on print journalism in which a publisher predicted that within about 10 years, newspapers would no longer be printed on newspapers, but would exist exclusively in the online world.

I agree that this will happen, though 10 years — I guess it’d be 8 or so now, according to his timetable — seems a bit too soon a guess to me. The issue is folks like my parents and their siblings, that generation, that likes the feel of a newspaper (even with the shrinking size of an actual printed paper) but does not like having to go to a computer or device every time they want to read the news. I have an uncle who checks the obituary column every morning. But he doesn’t have a computer, a tablet or a smartphone. So that newspaper is the only link he has to that information.

The other day, I received an email offering me a discount for subscribing to a magazine I’ve read over the years, but mostly via its website. I’ve had a print subscription before, but print magazines pile up fast. My goal is to declutter my space, not add to the clutter with magazines I feel guilty about throwing away.

But I looked at the offer to see what the digital-only price was.

My choice was an annual print subscription, which apparently consists of only four magazines, plus an additional magazine as a bonus, plus the tablet version of the magazine, plus “premium digital content,” all for just $6.

Well, that does sound like a bargain. Except for that pesky problem of having to deal with those print copies.

So then I glance over to option two: the tablet-only option costs $9.99. I’d have to pay 40% more for them to not have to print a copy of the magazine and mail it to me.

I realize their website costs them money to host and there’s a labor cost associated with producing content that has been optimized for tablets (which includes additional graphics and animation that, for obvious reasons, can’t be realized on a printed page).

But if the cost of designing such animation that will apply to a tablet version costs substantially more than the production costs associated with printing and distributing a printed magazine, something’s very wrong with this picture.

If either of the two options should be cheaper, it should be the option that frees the publisher from printing and distributing the print copies. That, at least to me, makes financial sense.

Maybe there’s something I’m missing because I don’t work in print. But my broadcast background has involved a limited degree of print materials, and it’s from that very limited experience in the realm of print production that assures me that it’s cheaper to host online content on an online platform you already have than to have to print the content and then get it to everywhere it needs to go so the consumer has it.

I checked out subscription rates for my local newspaper: a 7-day subscription (print and digital) costs $22 per month. An online-only subscription costs $10 per month. Less than half. That makes perfect sense.

Maybe part of the cost associated with higher prices for printed versions involves trying to protect guaranteed print quotas for magazines. Maybe the magazine has to pay more per printed copy as the total number of printed copies drops.

But a print quota isn’t the consumer’s responsibility: the consumer never agreed to do his part to help a magazine satisfy a specific number of printed copies per month. The consumer is only responsible for the consumption experience he prefers to have. And given the option to pay more for a print subscription, something that should cost less, that consumer may well turn to a different source altogether.

Do you prefer reading a magazine in print form or online? Would you be willing to pay more for an online-only option?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.