Preparing for AI’s impact on print: How China’s Natural History Magazine is keeping its values (while growing its audience)

It is widely accepted that generative AI will have impacts far and wide across our societies. And yet, at least one publisher is relatively sanguine about this latest wave of disruption to the long-standing print magazine media industry: Xu Qiuhan, editor-in-chief at Beijing-based Natural History Magazine.

Speaking during a FIPP Congress pre-recorded session, Xu highlighted how print media should not lose confidence in its unique offering and methods for delivering quality content.

“Natural history is a view of the world to me,” said Xu. “We see too many kids addicted to the digital world … and thus not enjoying the innate wonders of their lives.”

A monthly print magazine founded in 2004, Natural History is affiliated to the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Aimed at children, it publishes content from across classical natural history, including geography, biology, astronomy, anthropology, and issues hundreds of thousands of copies every month.

Originally designed to serve youngsters aged 9-16, it was subsequently found that many subscribers were reading from the magazine with their much younger children, using it as a story book.

“Many readers who have subscribed for a long time still subscribe after they reach high school, college or even after they begin working,” said Xu. “Some retired and elderly people also love the magazine.”

In this sense, he compared it to the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings books, in that a world originally created for children is enjoyed by adults, too. For Xu, publishing stories about natural history is a way of maintaining such wonder about the world.

Print values in a digital world

The internet emerged in China around the turn of the millennium, with Weibo launched in 2009 and smartphones becoming common around 2013. Social apps like WeChat and Douyin, as well as the rise of short-form video platforms.

As with much of the rest of the world, therefore, printed magazines in China have been in decline, suffering in that disrupted media landscape. Sales have plummeted; formerly thriving newsstands almost completely disappeared, and many viable media businesses either had to shift their business model or close down entirely, explained Xu.

Amidst all this, Natural History has continued to grow. The magazine has maintained a steady growth of around five per cent per year, with overall growth in the previous three years reaching 45 per cent. In sheer numbers of copies issued, it exceeds most magazines about fashion, finance, news and popular science.

Why? On the surface, it might seem paradoxical, and yet, for Xu, printed magazine media has an advantage when it comes to teenage readers because it provides an alternative to screen time, while remaining educational and fun: “Parents and schools both set limits for computers, tablets and cellphones, not wishing juveniles to use electronic devices too much.”

What’s more, while popular science magazines seem to lose their edge against the instant availability, and shareability, of fresh research, Natural History is able to offer original takes on topics of perennial interest in addition to these newer stories.

“For almost 20 years, we have stuck to the conventional professional ethics of a magazine,” explained Xu. “By persisting in this, I believe we are being rewarded by readers.”

From social media to advanced AI and beyond

Natural History has not shunned “new media”, though. Using the microblogging site Weibo, the magazine launched a channel with Bowu Jun (博物君), or “the Natural History Boy”, to whom users can ask questions about the natural world, or send images of plants and animals they want identified. Such is the encyclopedic knowledge and popularity of Bowu Jun, he has amassed over 10m fans in just a few years.

Based on its brand influence and the success of Bowu Jun, Natural History Magazine has thus diversified its revenue options. For example, it has a presence on the WeChat instant messaging and social media app, as well as having expanded into advertising, exhibitions, tourism, and other commercial fields.

As for AI, Xu says: “I assume that AI will undoubtedly have a further impact on the magazine industry. But from the point of view of Natural History, I am not really worried.”

This is because AI essentially runs on the basis of a huge database of already acquired human knowledge. “We are contributing to this database, not needing AI to produce any content. As long as Natural History follows the principle of persisting with the original, we will always be upstream of AI,” he added.

In a recent example, Natural History reported the discovery of five new species of midge from China, dinosaur footprints in a restaurant in Sichuan, and a record of nest-building behaviour of barn swallows over many years. “Although our content is not published fastest compared with the information on the internet and new media, it has its own value as reading material, and this cannot be produced by artificial intelligence.”

More from the FIPP Congress:

Video (won’t kill) the magazine star

The decline in paper magazines may be an irreversible trend, but Xu thinks they are unlikely to disappear for good. Compared with short form video content and other emerging media, he emphasised that magazines still have some irreplaceable advantages.

Xu pointed to the fact that video-based products tend to convey information in a linear fashion, with viewers following more or less passively. Paper magazines, meanwhile, provide a wealth of images and stories more like a compact library that can be browsed, meaning readers can “enjoy its contents more freely and deeply”.

In this, Xu said, we are looking at something similar to what TV did (or didn’t do) to cinema. “Many people thought cinemas would no longer be visited after the appearance of TV. But that hasn’t been the case,” he said.

Natural History’s mission is to try to lead readers out of the digitalised world of electronics, away from the world of high-tech and online oversocialisation, and into the natural world: “back to a world teeming with actual lives.”

“As long as we keep a sense of wonder like children, the world will be infinite to discover,” he said.


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