The Future of Print and Other Ponderous Questions

I recently spoke with a senior editor at a top business magazine that is just now co-locating digital and print editorial staff. (Something the NYT found to be of great value several years ago.) He commented that he did not find this integration necessary, digital is for daily news reporting, and magazines are for deeper analysis and insight. He explained that writers should work their way up from digital to print in the same way they graduate from news reporting to feature stories.

Steeped in tradition as that sounds, I think that online writers should learn to be more insightful in their writing, bringing something more to the medium than reporting, which makes their site easily substitutable. The challenge becomes how to offer added value online without “stepping on” the deeper, more sophisticated content of the magazine. After all, we do want a reason for people to continue buying magazines. It’s good to have a stronghold in both media; at the very least, this allows for multiple touch points and mutual cross-promotion.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of “The Daily Beast” and an industry veteran who has made a stupendous transition from print to digital. Tina spoke with me recently about the importance of preventing magazine content from leaking before the publications hit newsstands – and the difficulty of accomplishing this. This is an important consideration for magazines that invest heavily in newsbreaking stories. I think, for example about Vanity Fair’s unveiling of “Deep Throat.” This is challenging because of the extraordinary lead time of magazines, one element of which includes the week or so it takes to print and distribute the “books.” I recall a controversy a few years ago in which a woman gained access to BusinessWeek stock picks before they became public and made quite a bit of money leveraging this information.

So, how do we protect the unique value of the printed journal – recall Conde Nast’s positioning of “Portfolio Magazine,” a daring introduction to the Business Magazine space a few years ago – while also providing differentiated online content – differentiated from the magazine and from other online news sources? This remains one of several “ultimate” questions that face us in the 21st century:

“How will we turn the tremendous value of the Internet into tangible value for its (initial) creators?”
“Do we need professional journalists – of the kind that win Pulitzer prizes – and, if so, how will we be able to afford them?”
“What is the meaning of life?”
“What is the right media mix for an advertiser?” – hmmm… I digress

Returning to one of my earlier posts, the question is currently facing us regarding the possibility of consumer-supported content. iTunes has succeeded with “micro-payments.” However, will people be willing to pay for “disposable” content? They might pay for a song or musical collection (formerly called “CDs”) that will bring them continued enjoyment, often for decades. And they will pay (at least up until now…) for books, which offer hours of enjoyment and may be written in, passed along and reread. Will they pay for an article they might prefer skimming and that has an ephemeral value?

Publishers like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Advertising Age have demonstrated that it is possible. As have information providers like Hoover’s, Consumer Reports, eMarketer, Forrester, Lexis Nexis, etc. What differentiates these publishers from The New York Times, which has struggled with this question for years? The answer is, indeed, differentiation – at least part of the answer. The Wall Street Journal and The Economist have differentiated themselves enough that if they put the content behind a walled garden, their readers will feel a loss that can not be substituted for by another publisher.

This is similar to the loss I have felt since Cynthia Turner discontinued her daily digital news podcasts. I have attempted to replace this news source with Shelly Palmer’s broadcasts, with NYT podcasts, with Ad Age Three Minute reports, but I continue to be less informed and less satisfied than I was. It seems that Cynthia tried to support this content/investment through an advertising model but was not successful. Personally, I would have paid for it. But are there enough Karen Levines to have supported it. Perhaps not. Perhaps the content is too targeted. Perhaps it was not promoted to enough people that share my need for it.

In any case, the WSJ, the Financial Times (I believe) and The Economist offer something to a loyal reader base that they cannot find elsewhere. Another factor that comes into play here is the relative investment required. I believe that all three of these come for free with a print subscription. Perhaps the subscription line of revenue for these publications is larger than newsstand. I would certainly find this easy to believe for The Economist as all the Economist subscribers I know watch their mailboxes longingly a day or few before the magazine is scheduled to arrive. (One actually bought an issue at newsstand on an occasion when it was available there first.)

So, in those cases, there is no incremental cost to those who subscribe. And those who pay the money to subscribe do so because the relative expenditure is low given the value. For example, many of these readers are affluent or are able to expense or write off this expenditure.

Now the New York Times does not have this luxury. If it puts its massive amount of content behind a wall, readers will find substitutes. And although some elements of the paper cannot be substituted for, e.g., Frank Rich’s column, which can often be accessed via unauthorized sources such as blogs – something pointed out to me by Frank Rich. (Of course, this can be addresses via the right technology, a lengthy and expensive investment that accounts for the success of some of the publishers mentioned above.)

And there you have my thoughts for the day on just one aspect of the ponderous question of the ages: “How will print publishers adapt and survive?”

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