Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
One of the best-proven characteristics of our system of business is its contagiousness. Generation after generation, entrepreneurs have invented new enterprises across hundreds of nations and myriad cultures. The system has proven itself repeatable and contagious across both time and space, across centuries of time and every continent.
For better and for worse, some cultures have proven themselves more adept than others at the pursuit of capitalist success. Those less adept have been exploited and sometimes erased by the more successful.
Nonetheless there is hardly a corner of the world where money is not changing hands right now, or where someone isn’t socking some of it away for a rainy day or some future investment opportunity.
Our particular business was built mostly on the practice of publishing magazines – printing stories and photographs on glossy papers, selling subscriptions to readers, and selling advertisements to businesses who wish to put their products in front of those readers. The capital with which we started the businesses and expanded was provided by a family whose seminal business was publishing newspapers – printing stories and photographs on inexpensive paper daily for local audiences. As I write this the media are full of speculation about the future of these two businesses – magazine publishing and newspaper publishing – or the lack of a future. Some experts believe the digital media will completely replace newspapers and magazines. Readership and revenue are falling. Cooler heads predict a realignment but not an extinction.
My colleagues and I see it as neither. We believe our core business – building audience around content – is merely shifting its emphasis from one medium to another. It’s true that today about 80 percent of our publishing revenue is generated, one way or another, through the printed products. About 20 percent is generated online. But just five years ago our online revenues were less than 4 percent of the total, and total revenues have grown by about the amount of the digital business. So in one way of looking at it, our printed business has been static, but it has provided a platform for a growing digital media business.
Strategically, we try to look at the business in abstract terms. We’d rather not describe it as a publishing business or an advertising business. We say we’re in the audience aggregation and content generation businesses. The core of our enterprise is built around audiences. Readers come to Mother Earth News for information on a specific set of topics: self-reliance, sustainable lifestyles and rural lifestyles. For 40 years the magazine – as well as its books, radio shows, newsletters and websites – has been fascinated with that specific set of topics. It has shared that sense of fascination with millions of people. Likewise, GRIT has shared stories of rural American life and attracted rural American audiences since 1882. Farm Collector shares its fascination with agricultural machinery.
How long will we print our stories on paper and distribute our magazines through the mail? Who knows? Technology and consumer preference are difficult to predict. Will we be able to run businesses based on the distribution of engaging content to passionate audiences? We think the answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes!” It seems likely that we should be able to continue attracting audiences with our stories – if we tell them well – regardless of whether we deliver those stories at the campfire, in a printed magazine or on an electronic reading device. And if we hold readers’ attention, it seems equally likely that we, and our advertisers, will find ways of selling valuable things to those audiences.
And, in fact, over the past couple of years our audiences – both print and electronic, have grown nicely.
In business, contagiousness is one of the critical indicators of success. Businesses aspire to expand and grow. The day our enterprise is not contagious is the day we admit failure.
It is repeated in nearly every country, so let’s call our free-enterprise model contagious across time and across space.
Could it be more contagious?Well, every stage of commercial success is a step toward greater contagiousness. If we grow and become more profitable, we can do more of the things we do. We can promote to larger audiences. We can proliferate our messages across new media. So we are working all the time toward greater commercial contagiousness.