Dear BackpackingLight.com Reader,
Over the course of the past several weeks, BPL Premium Members have expressed some confusion and concern about the role of the online vs. print format of Backpacking Light. The confusion is completely warranted. There exists no other publication in any industry that we know of, that follows this publication model, so we certainly don’t expect everyone to completely understand the rationale behind something that seems to fly into the face of conventional expectations.
Thus, the purpose of this letter is to clarify some of these issues, and provide a response to some excellent feedback from our subscribers.
First, some definitions. Generally, BackpackingLight.com and more specifically, the BackpackingLight.com Premium Membership, are referred to herein as the “online magazine”, while Backpacking Light Magazine (the print quarterly) is referred to as the print magazine. When the term “Backpacking Light” or “BPL” is used, we are generally referring to the publishing company as a whole.
About the Online Magazine Subscription
In 2001, BPL launched the website BackpackingLight.com, and in 2003, it became a subscription-based online magazine (“Premium Membership”). The core value of the online subscription is tied to the following primary benefits for Premium Members:
- Access to all article content at BackpackingLight.com
- Discounts on gear sold in the BackpackingLight.com gear shop
Visitors to the site who are not subscribers to the online magazine still retain access to free content, which includes Gear Guides, Forums, Reader Reviews, public (unrestricted) article content, and gear shop purchasing at MSRP.
About the Print Magazine Subscription
In 2004, in response to a growing number of reader requests for a print magazine, we launched a pilot issue of Backpacking Light Magazine. After much deliberation about content, we made the decision that if we were going to launch a print magazine, it would have its own unique identity and thus, its own unique content, separate from that of the online magazine.
The quantity of magazines that are thrown away each year, or otherwise filled with “junk” content and irrelevant advertising, is incredible, and we want to minimize our contribution to that pile. Therefore, one of the most important features that we want to maintain with the print magazine is that it be an archival quality, journal-like mini-book that will occupy space on a bookshelf in a home library. The downside to this is the higher cost involved in producing that type of quality.
Because of the high cost of producing an archival-quality print magazine, financial sustainability is achieved primarily through economies of scale. This doesn’t mean we intend to turn the magazine into a typical letter-format rag one might find in a supermarket, but it does mean that we need to scale its distribution in a meaningful way. In short, we’d like to see the magazine on the shelves of fine bookstores and outdoor specialty retailers nationwide so that (1) sufficient economies of scale can be achieved to ensure long-term sustainability and (2) the message of lightweight backpacking is delivered to others not reached through the BackpackingLight.com channel.
In 2005, Backpacking Light Magazine (print) became available as a subscription based magazine. Issue 4 just went to press, Matt Colon has been appointed as the Editor-in-Chief for Issue 5 and beyond, and we are beginning to understand, as a staff, the very real need to communicate to you about how the individual identities of online and print are going to be maintained, and perhaps more importantly, the rationale behind it all.
The need to maintain different editorial directions for BPL’s print and online magazines is better understood in light of a review of existing print magazine models in the outdoor industry.
Magazine Publishing Model #1: A Superficial (Free) Web Presence and a Subscription-Based Print Magazine
The typical scenario is this. A publisher will produce a high quality print magazine that realizes revenue through subscriptions, single copy newsstand sales, and advertising. The breakdown between the three revenue streams is different for every magazine, but the objective of all mass-market print magazines is to increase revenue primarily through advertising. As such, the focus of the publisher’s marketing strategy is necessarily placed on growing the subscriber base and otherwise increasing magazine distribution. That’s where their website comes in. Their websites serve to promote the print magazine and drive Website visitors to subscribe to the print magazine. The end result is more print magazine subscribers, which leads to a higher distribution, which commands higher advertising rates, which leads to more revenue.
We have made it very clear since day one that we desire to produce an excellent product first, with increased distribution driven by demand for that product. Advertising is not a significant revenue stream for us. We are striving for long-term financial health and sustainability through subscription revenue, not advertising revenue. It gives us more editorial flexibility, more editorial freedom, and keeps us accountable to our subscribers for developing a fine product, and not to our advertisers for superficially growing a distribution base.
Magazine Publishing Model #2: One Content Set, Two Modes of Distribution: Subscription-Based Electronic and Print Versions
Some magazines maintain equivalent content sets but deliver them in two mediums. The typical revenue model for this is based on either (1) the option to subscribe to one or the other, or (2) the option to subscribe to both at a discounted rate, so that you have a choice of medium. This is the model most commonly used by major premium newspapers to provide article access via the Web, and by magazine publishers that publish their print magazines in PDF format for online distribution.
BPL’s model closely, but not exactly, resembles this model. While we offer two medium types (print and online), they are not replicates of each other and thus two distinct products. However, both products are available as a combined option at a discount (i.e., online subscribers can purchase a discounted print subscription).
The BPL Publishing Model
And so, BPL has taken a slightly different road, in part out of necessity of growing a company organically, and in part out of a desire to focus on product (content) quality first, instead of maximizing distribution of a mediocre product.
Consequently, our model consists of the online membership being our core product. We feel, and have had reader feedback confirming this, that online membership has been and will continue to be our core product with the most value to the most serious practitioners of ultralight backpacking.
Obviously, we want to improve the product quality of our online magazine. Reader feedback on our forums in recent weeks indicates a sense of reader stress about the quality of the online magazine going down. We’ve been listening, and we respond with a new editorial calendar for the online magazine that incorporates your suggestions. View it here:
Because the online magazine contains such a wide variety of content types (articles, gear guides, forums, reader reviews, gear review summaries, etc.), and because the online magazine contains such a prodigious quantity of content, there are financial limitations to (1) preparing that content for print publication, and (2) printing that content.
|1We do recognize that our article publication breakdown indicates a review-heavy editorial calendar over the last 12 months. Much of this was due to the backlog of product reviews that our Section Editors were mandated to complete as part of their training and commitments made to manufacturers, both of which result as the outfall of growing pains of our organization. Now, with a full corps of experienced and talented Section Editors, and a gear review selection policy that is more disciplined and restrictive (so we can focus on reviewing gear that has the highest amount of interest to our readership), we are able to unleash our staff to do what they do best, in addition to writing reviews: comprehensive review summaries, technique articles, and lightweight backpacking features. See the Editorial Calendar (link above) to see what’s in store for the rest of 2006 and beyond!|
In the 12-month period ending April 17, 2006, more than 330,000 words of content in 221 articles1 were released at BackpackingLight.com (333,562 to be exact). The content can be broken down as follows:
- 9 Editorials
- 21 Features
- 10 Techniques
- 122 Reviews
- 54 SpotLites
- 5 Review Summaries
It is worth noting that this content does not include the dozens of articles and several thousand more words of content released as dispatches from the Outdoor Retailer Summer and Winter Markets, nor does it include any of the print magazine features published in Issues 2-4 of 2005-2006.
Thus, in our current print size format, we would have to publish 14 issues of the print magazine per year, just to deliver this content in both online and print formats. And this does not consider the new content that we published in the print magazine last year.
Then the question arises: “Why not just take the ‘best stuff’ from the online magazine and publish it as a print magazine; that way, online subscribers get it all, and print subscribers get the best stuff”. Because the ‘best stuff’ from the online magazine is more technical in nature and focused on more time-sensitive content such as gear reviews, a quarterly print publication intended for archival and reference purposes is a poor medium for publishing this type of content. The result would be a dilution in the quality of the print magazine and its inability to serve its primary target markets, which include, but are not necessarily limited to, retailers, bookstores, and subscribers seeking a more literary tactile experience than what is available on the Internet. Ultimately, distribution of the magazine would be limited by scope and cannibalization of print subscribers by an online version, and long-term sustainability of the print magazine would be at risk.
The next question then, is: “OK, so you have two distinct magazines: one online, one print. Why not just give online subscribers full access to digitized articles that appear in the print magazine?” The answer to this question is more complicated.
First, retailers of the magazine have expressed concerns about stocking a print magazine that makes its content available in other channels.
The rationale for this concern is that once a print magazine reader finds out they can acquire the content online or through another otherwise competitive channel, the retailer will lose revenue. We have no desire to cannibalize revenue from the retailers that stock the print magazine. Thus, we intend to support their sales efforts with content that is exclusive to print magazine readers.
Second, the print magazine is largely staffed and financially supported by separate means than the online magazine (due to personal investments made by selected members of the staff to launch the print magazine).
The online editorial staff and budget is not sufficient in and of itself to provide the editorial and financial support to launch a print magazine. Thus, to make the print magazine successful, a new staff with a new budget supported by investment capital was required. Because of this separation between the print and online magazines (a necessary objective consistent with our own internal goals of growing BPL organically without debt to insure maximum long term health and sustainability), it’s not possible – at this early phase of print magazine “start-up” – to leverage the efforts and financial risks of the print magazine staff and investors to add value to the online magazine.
Third, in spite of all this, we really do have a desire to give our core customers (online premium members) lower barriers in accessing print magazine content.
Because print magazine content is produced above and beyond online content (with different staff, different budgets, and different financial models), those barriers cannot be zero or financial sustainability of both online and print subscriptions would be at risk. Currently, benefits to online subscribers come as discounted PDF reprints of articles published in the print magazine, and as discounted subscriptions for premium members. Currently, premium members can purchase print subscriptions at our cost of producing the print magazine. Ideally, we expect to lower these barriers of entry to access print content by online subscribers by reducing the costs of PDF reprints and print subscriptions to online subscribers. In fact, we’ve already done that, in the short time that the print subscription has been available. Initially, print subscriptions were available to online subscribers for $19.99 (print subscription list price to the general public is $24.99). Now, they are available to online subscribers for $14.99. Likewise, PDF reprints (MSRP $4.99) have reduced in price for online subscribers from $3.99 to $2.99 to $1.99 (current) in the past several months.
There are undoubtedly online subscribers who would like to read the print magazine content, but who do not want it in a print format. Currently, PDF reprints are the only mechanism of delivering that content to online subscribers or other online-only readers. We are evaluating options for delivering a print magazine subscription online, and will probably provide that access to print subscribers, so that the print subscription fee buys access to both print and electronic versions of the print magazine.
We are continuing to brainstorm ideas about ways to integrate the print experience to online readers in a more meaningful way, so please stay tuned and look for more progress on this topic.
Content and Structure: Online vs. Print
The final, and perhaps the most important question, is: “What are the real differences between the online and print magazines, and how will these differences affect me as a lightweight backpacking enthusiast?”
Overview of the Online Magazine
The online magazine BackpackingLight.com was founded on the premise that consumers could become highly educated with technical information that would allow them to (1) make better gear buying decisions, and (2) be safe and comfortable with ultralight backpacking techniques. We intend to continue those online roots and make education the driver behind its editorial strategy.
And so, the first objective of the online magazine is an ambitious one: to provide meaningful education for its subscribers about gear and technique.
The second objective exists to take advantage of the online medium. Unlike print, online publications can be multi-media, interactive, more timely, and without space limitations. Consequently, audio and video content, interactive features, news reporting, time-sensitive content that changes frequently, and data-intensive content will be delivered through the online subscription channel.
Summary of Content in the Online Magazine*
The online magazine focuses on providing education and information about lightweight backpacking techniques and gear.
- Research & Testing
- Comprehensive Product Reviews
- In-Depth Techniques
- Review Summaries
- Field Notes
- Outdoor Retailer News
- Community Forums
- Reader Reviews
- Interactive Gear Guides
* This is not a comprehensive list, but rather, the characteristic types of content that are “generally” found in the online magazine and not “generally” found in the print magazine.
In addition, there will be the case from time to time where submissions for the print magazine are of exceptional quality but there is no page space in the print magazine to publish them in a timely manner. In this situation, there may be articles that fit better into the print format (see below), but will be published online in lieu of not publishing them at all.
Overview of the Print Magazine
The print magazine Backpacking Light Magazine was founded on the premise that readers wanted a more readable, less technical, and more tactile experience that invoked the more emotive responses available in a hard copy format (color photographs, well-written stories and prose) than in an online format. In addition, because the potential distribution of information through a print magazine channel can reach a much wider audience of beginning and intermediate hikers than an online channel (due primarily to newsstand, bookstore, and specialty retailer distribution), the print magazine is well-suited for publishing information about the style, philosophy, and general techniques of ultralight backpacking. Finally, because the print magazine is designed to be an archival quality publication, its content will be comprised primarily of features that are less time sensitive (such as news and reviews).
Summary of Content in the Print Magazine*
The print magazine focuses on providing a more tactile and emotive experience about lightweight backpacking style, philosophy, and applications.
- Commentary (Land Stewardship, Environmental Policy, and Humor)
- Destination Features
- Applications of Lightweight Backcountry Travel
- Lightweight Philosophy
- Travel Narratives
- Photo Essays
- Technical Abstracts of Comprehensive Online Features
- Lightweight Backpacking Technique (Shorts & Tips)
- Review Summaries: Annotated
- Gear Guides: Annotated
- Market Relevant & Cottage Industry Advertising
* This is not a comprehensive list, but rather, the characteristic types of content that are “generally” found in the print magazine and not “generally” found in the online magazine.
Common Content in Print and Online Magazines
Although individual gear reviews will generally be published only online, selected (e.g., four per year, or one per print issue) review summaries (in-depth performance comparisons of related gear) and gear guides (in-depth statistical comparisons of related gear) will be available in both online (full review summary) and print (annotated review summary) formats.
The advantage of a print version is off-line portability, better at-a-glance visual presentation, and consolidation of the salient features of the review category for those that do not subscribe to the online magazine. The advantage of the online version is more in-depth gear guides with interactive features for product comparison and selection, the availability of detailed individual product reviews, and the full text of the review summary.
So, while some content will be reproduced in both print and online formats, that amount is small, strategically selected and edited to optimize the strengths of both mediums for those that subscribe to both online and print magazines, and valuable enough as standalone products for subscribers to only one or the other.
We certainly don’t claim to do everything the “right” way, whatever that means – let’s explain what we mean by this. Throughout this process, we’ve realized that “right” for somebody is “wrong” for others. A more appropriate disclaimer would be this one: “We certainly don’t claim to be able to please all of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, or even some of the people all of the time. We just want to make sure that we are preserving for and enhancing your passion for the outdoors in general, and lightweight backpacking in particular.”
But we do know some things to be right for everyone all of the time. In this regard, what we do strive for is (1) involvement of our subscriber base in developing and executing our vision, (2) creating and maintaining publication products with outstanding quality, and (3) upholding the highest ethical standards of communications, customer service, and public relations in the industry.
To that end, the print vs. online strategy outlined in this letter has been motivated more by direct feedback from our most vocal and loyal subscribers than by any other singular factor. And for that, we offer you the utmost thanks.
We sincerely hope this letter clarifies some of the issues that have been brought up in recent months. More important, we hope that it gives you a vision for the future of where BPL is going as we continue to strive to provide quality publications for the lightweight backpacking community.
And whether you decide to subscribe to the print magazine, the online magazine, or both, we’ll do our very best to make sure your reader experience is a good one that is worth the subscription fee.
The BPL Editorial Board
- Ryan Jordan, Publisher
- Carol Crooker, Online Editor-in-Chief
- Matt Colon, Print Editor-in-Chief
- Vic Lipsey, Director of Marketing
- Alan Dixon, Senior Technical Editor