Print Advertising and the Future of Stock Photography

Posted on 5/20/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

A large percentage of the still-photo segment of the stock photography business is related to advertising—either licensing images for use in print ads, or licensing them for use in editorial products that are supported to a great extent by ads. The health of the stock photography business is directly related to the health of the print business. To understand what is likely to happen in the still photography business, it is important to have some understanding of advertising trends.

According to Martin Sorrell—chairman of WPP Group, the world’s largest communications group in terms of revenue—first quarter 2010 revenue overall was down 1.8% compared to 2009, which was not a healthy quarter in itself. Revenue for WPP’s digital divisions was up 10%. Together, these numbers mean that revenue for print was down.

Google president of global sales Nikesh Arora thinks that in the next 5 to 8 years, 30% to 50% of all media will be consumed on the Web.

According to Outsell, overall U.S. spending on advertising and marketing in 2010 is expected to be $368 billion, with $111.5 billion in print and $119.6 billion in digital. Digital advertising— including online publications, video, search engine keywords and email—is expected to exceed print for the first time in history.


Ad pages fell 26% to 169,218 in 2009. In the first quarter of 2010, pages were down by more than 9% compared to the same period of last year.

According to Publisher Information Bureau, U.S. magazine publishers posted an 18% decline in advertising revenue in 2009, more than twice as steep as the decline in 2008. Revenue from advertising sales at major magazines plunged to $19.5 billion in 2009 from $23.7 billion in 2008.


Newspaper Association of America reported $4.4 billion in national advertising and $14.2 billion in regional advertising in 2009. This totals of $18.6 billion does not include classified ads, an additional $6.2 billion.

In 2009, newspaper advertising revenue fell 27%, or more than $10 billion, from 2008—which was, at the time, the industry’s worst year since the Great Depression. From its peak in 2005, newspaper ad revenue has dropped 44%, from more than $49.4 billion to less than $27.6 billion last year. The last time advertisers spent less to advertise in newspapers was in 1986.

Online advertising

The Interactive Advertising Bureau said that first-quarter 2010 revenue was $5.9 billion, up 7.5% from 2009. This means that the industry is on track to generate about $24 billion in revenue in 2010.

comScore released data that showed display ad spending at $2.7 billion for the quarter (approximately $10.8 billion annually). This puts display advertising at about 45% of total online advertising spending. In the quarter, the industry served 1.1 trillion ads to U.S. consumers, at an average cost of about $2.48 per thousand impressions ($2,480 per million impressions).

In 2009, Time Magazine’s digital ad revenue totaled an estimated $245 million, 10% of the company’s total earnings. Time generated more from digital advertising than any other U.S. publication. According to Advertising Age, some publications earned as much as 12% to 13% of their revenue from online ads, but from a much smaller base of total sales. The average for most magazines was around 8%.

Given that total magazine revenue for 2009 was $19.5 billion, 8% of that would mean that about $1.6 billion was earned from sales for online uses. Newspapers earned about 13% of their display advertising revenue from online sales—10% of their overall revenue if classified advertising is included. While growth in online ad sales has long been the hope for the troubled publishing industry, revenue actually dropped 11.8% in 2009.

Digital gains vs. print losses

Why isn’t the revenue lost as a result of declining use of print being replaced with revenue from growing online use? Overall, more ads are being seen by more customers, but the cost to reach an online customer is much lower than the cost to reach that same customer with a print product.

Table. Advertising insertion costs
Publication Circulation 1/3 page color rate Rate per million
Average ad 1 million   $2,480
Time 3.4 million $123,190 $36,232
Time Global Business 1.6 million $53,445 $33,403
People 3.6 million $122,300 $33,972
Washingtonian 137,000 $9,235 $67,409
Parent & Child 1,344,908 $39,644 $53,282
Tennessee Magazine 534,568 $7,703 $14,410
M Food & Wine 68,860 $1,270 $18,443
Chicago 160,092 $11,075 $69,179
Forbes 919,742 $37,658 $40,944
The table at left provides an indication of the huge differences in cost between placing an ad online and one in print, using a random sampling of magazines of different circulation levels and extrapolating rates per million for smaller-circulation titles.

It is easy to see that the cost of reaching one person with a print ad is 6 to 40 times higher than if the ad were placed online. Most print publications will argue that multiple people read each copy of their publication, but that is hard to substantiate. We have no idea how many people look at any particular page in a publication. How many readers flip to the cover story and that is all they read? Were they busy and never even opened the magazine or newspaper? Which stories are read most frequently? Do advertisers have a choice as to where their ads will be slotted, or are they randomly placed in the publication?

Given the cost of paper, printing and delivery, it is easy to understand why ads inserted in paper publications cost more. But that is not the advertiser’s problem. The advertiser’s only concern is the most cost effective way to deliver his message to potential customers.

Currently, advertisers are probably reaching more customers with online advertising than they reach with print. Regardless of how the economy recovers, this trend will not change. There is every reason to believe advertisers will continue to expand their use of online advertising and reduce their use of print—and the price paid for online ad placement is unlikely to rise significantly. Online ad prices are unlikely to ever rise to the level of magazine ad prices today.

This means that publications will probably need to learn how to create content for a lot less than they are spending today. Even if we eliminate the cost of paper, printing and distribution, it seems questionable as to whether publications will be able to supply the same content they are supplying today with only 10% of the revenue they are currently earning. 

Rather than hoping that the demand for print uses will recover, those in the stock photography business need to accept that communications in the future will be principally online and embrace all the implications of that change. Many will also need to explore and identify new strategies for compensation.

Copyright © Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Ted Spiegel Posted Jul 26, 2010
    What percentage of the marketing budget for a consumer products company is spent on television and how has that shifted in the last two decades from the major networks to the splintery cable network world? And how has advertising by geographic zone and tight local markets given a boost to print - neightborhood targeted print media seems to be surviving - how can photographers or their licensing agents tap that market for still images? -Ted Spiegel

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