Print Publishing is Dead…Or is it?

Friday’s post by IDG SVP of online, Colin Crawford, was one that hit my radar and I immediately forward his permalink to my bride (with whom I co-own a small publishing company) as well as several other senior level people in publishing I’m involved or acquainted with so they could see what he revealed…and think about this piece of evidence with respect to their own businesses.

Then Scott Karp posts about Colin’s writing and goes further to discuss the rapid acceleration in the death of print publishing. When I posted back in October about one clear death rattle for the printing industry — namely prepress behemoth Banta closing a big shop four minutes from my offices — it was interesting to me that it had taken roughly eight years for their business to downtrend as prepress activities migrated to the desktop and online increasingly became more important to their customers delivering content.

Though I’m still a consumer of print newspapers (Minneapolis StarTribune, New York Times, Wall Street Journal) I’ve let most of my magazine subscriptions to Forbes, Fast Company, Fortune and others lapse, keeping only BusinessWeek and Wired. Most of the 60+ trade publications I used to receive in print (e.g., Computerworld, eWeek, CIO Insight, Information Week, et al) I now read skim through an RSS reader.

For me, I find that the #1 issue with print publications is cycle time and the inherent inefficiency and time lags this creates. The number of cycles it takes to gather, edit, and decide what should be published in the limited real estate on a printed page means that I’ve already exhausted the topic by the time the print version appears.

Case in point: When Steve Jobs put up his public manifesto entitled, “Thoughts on Music” discussing digital rights management (DRM) in the music industry,  there was an absolute explosion of conversation in the blogosphere which I watched unfold on Techmeme…and read several perspectives from blogger’s I trust. By the time more traditional publications weighed in with their perspectives, I’d already formed my opinion and no longer cared what they thought. Instead I looked online for what reactions might emerge from the music industry which were forthcoming pretty quickly…and the story continued to unfold.

So is print publishing dead or not?

There’s been a lot written on this topic, so I’ll just give you my top reasons why I think that print publishing isn’t dead quite yet…but is clearly dying:

1) Cycle times. When I was involved with Pioneer New Media in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the biggest buzzword was “multimedia” on CD-ROM. Every publisher was seeing this new medium as a disruptor of their businesses since so much content — and rich content like audio, video and animations — could be packed onto this tiny disc. What *I* came to believe was the inherent problem with multimedia: the cycle times of gathering, editing, creating and the sending content off to some CD replication facility was too damn slow and most content was stale by the time the final CD-ROM was in my hands…just like print.

The other problem — though some times it’s an asset — is that print publications are looking backwards at what’s already transpired. Even topical publications (because of their cycle times) in many ways feel like historical documents since stories unfold so quickly and the sources for perspectives and analysis abound.

2) Atoms vs. Bits: Publishing is a fundamental argument over information and knowledge being disseminated in atoms or digitally with bits. Clearly some information *should* be delivered on dead trees like reference works or novels. But with the accelerating availability of machines that allow us to consume text, video, audio and animated content available the second it’s published online, the richness and depth of bit-delivered online content will win out for most uses.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I’m listening to podcasts on a plane, reading news, web pages or listening to streaming audio on my Treo, or using my laptop out of reach of a power outlet, I’m experiencing a low-level anxiety that doesn’t exist with a static, printed piece of content. Will my batteries last? I’m constantly checking which detracts from the absorption in the material. In that case, print wins-out for some uses (like when I purchased the Atlantic Monthly magazine on my plane ride home last week. Its in-depth and long articles were more pleasing than they would’ve been in, say, a PDF on my laptop and it was relaxing).

Then there’s resolution. A printed magazine page is 1,200 dots per inch whereas most computer screens are 96 dpi (even a cheap laser printer outputs at 600dpi). Though photos and graphics in the RGB color space are better than the lower CMYK printed versions, there are lacquers and other techniques the printing industry has learned to make information “pop” off the page through light reflection.

The killer (i.e., disruptor) of the printing and publishing industry is not a question of the delivery medium itself…it’s rather all about the flow of information in bits that can be created, manipulated, re-purposed, shared, learned from, stored/searched and forwarded in countless ways — and with countless numbers of humans — that exponentially accelerates the value of the content itself which is being facilitated by…

3) …the Internet and the Connection of Humanity. This is one of those “Doh!” statements, but the blogosphere, conversation aggregators like Techmeme, social promotion of content like YouTube and Digg, news aggregation with as well as the social networking connections occurring with the myriad of social networking sites that enable the free flow of content and information, this last one is why many print publications are a moot point and are now outside the mainstream connection points the Internet-centric, participation culture has already embraced.

Major newspapers in cities throughout the world are all struggling as their cash cows (e.g., classified advertising) is being disrupted by Internet offerings like Craigslist and by the measurable, efficient, relevant and targeted advertising able to be delivered by the likes of Google.

So what’s the answer? If I had one I wouldn’t be typing this since you’d be reading about me as the savior of publishing and I’d be flying all over the world. What I *do* know is that there are clear problems to be solved — some of which I outlined above with resolution and battery life as well as the ever-present problem of what the hell a business model might look like to monetize content in bits — and alot of smart people are working on it. What do you think?

2 Comments

  1. Christian on February 11, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    Certainly will add this piece to my discussions with the large city newspaper publisher(and his print and web teams) in the coming weeks, Steve. You’ve identified much of what is mission critical if they are to remain a vibrant force in society’s future. Thanks for continuing to push on this topic!

    Cheers,
    Christian



  2. John on June 26, 2008 at 6:39 am

    Dramatic changes in reading habits have hit print readership badly. Online Portals, Blogs, Social Networks, RSS, Mobiles, Podcasts are booming now and readers have addicted to such interactive and rich media. Companies like Pressmart Media can effectively deliver the print content into multiple distribution channels including web, mobile, RSS, podcasts and social media.

    Here’s a useful link on digital publishing / delivery



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