Monday, January 07, 2008

Print is Dead: Long Live Print

Print is Dead: Long Live Print
By Jonathan Weber
We all know by now that the future of media is online, and I'd be the last person to deny the significance of the changes wrought by the Internet. But I think one of the most interesting things to emerge in the media business this year will be a comeback of sorts for print.

Print, of course, hasn't exactly gone away - magazines and newspapers still account for more then a third of worldwide ad revenues - but the chatter in the industry suggests its death is just around the corner.

In the U.S. especially, the newspaper business appears to be in a free-fall, with many big papers reporting year-over-year revenue and circulation declines of ten per cent or more - shocking numbers indeed for century-old businesses. The big magazine companies, and especially kingpin Time Inc., are under ever-growing financial pressure; nobody would be surprised if the new CEO of Time Warner sold the magazine unit.
Yet the story in the field, especially outside of the big coastal media hubs, is quite different from what the media news websites would lead you to believe. If you want publicity in Anytown, USA, the best way to get it, still, is a story in the local newspaper. And if you're selling advertising to local businesses, a lot of your clients still want to be able to hold that ad in their hands.

At NewWest.Net, we're actually launching a print magazine in a few weeks; print was always part of the plan, and everything we have experienced so far suggests that this is a sound strategy. Even though, as a company, we are "online first" in almost every respect, we still expect the print magazine to generate substantially more ad revenues in its first year than our three-year-old online publication.

Another project that I'm involved with, a local newspaper startup in northwestern Montana called the Flathead Beacon, also illustrates this point emphatically. Even though a strong website was launched concurrently with the print paper last spring, and online is considered central to the strategy in every way, the print accounts for the vast majority of the revenue. I'm sure that will change eventually - but not this year, or next, or even the year after that.

I think a big part of the gap between perception and reality when it comes to print media has to do with a set of expectations that have developed from what were, in retrospect, very specific and unusual circumstances.

Newspapers have been in steep decline for half a century, when measured by the percentage of the population that regularly reads a newspaper. But in the U.S. that decline in readership has been accompanied by consolidation, with most cities being reduced to one newspaper from two or three or four. The surviving ones, not surprisingly, became extremely profitable; the issue for most newspapers today is not that they are not profitable, but that they are much less profitable than they were before.

Similarly, it's not that newspapers today no longer have influence, it's that they have relatively less than they had before. Magazines had a golden age back in the 1960s, when publications like Esquire and Playboy almost defined their era, intellectually and culturally. The fact that they no longer carry the clout they once did doesn't mean they have no future. The success of Felix Dennis' The Week suggests that even the hoary newsmagazine, seemingly the most antiquated species in the entire magazine firmament, can be reinvented and made relevant.

Media consumption is extraordinarily habit-driven, and old habits die hard. Maybe, once the people who grew up on Facebook are running all the local businesses in town, those businesses will lose their affection for the slick, well-produced color print advertising that still dominates many markets. But that time is quite a ways off still. And in the meantime, as the excitement surrounding new forms of media begins to wear off a bit, there will be a renewed appreciation for the power of a highly flexible, portable, shareable, high-definition technology known as print.

Jonathan Weber is the founder and editor in chief of NewWest.Net, a regional news service focused on the Rocky Mountain West in the United States. He was previously the co-founder and editor in chief of the Industry Standard

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