How Can the Print Media Survive?

As we approach the end of 2009, this question becomes all the more relevant. With a full year of advertising revenues down, subscriptions and renewals declining and staff being laid off to cut costs, there have to be questions as to how the publishing industry can survive.

One thing is certain – the business model of old will have to change. Thanks to technology, people today are relying on instant news – yesterday’s news (as found in the printed newspaper) or last week’s news (as found in weekly magazines) is no longer a saleable commodity, and if the public don’t want to read it, advertisers won’t pay to advertise in it.

Of course, Rupert Murdoch’s recent comments about charging for access to his news online and preventing Google from finding his stories have further fuelled speculation as to the future of the printed word.

However, far from fearing the new technologies, publishers should be embracing them – after all, do the new technologies not extend the potential reach of any publication or broadcast platform to the entire globe?

What’s needed, and what people are looking for, in this info-saturated world is not just more information, but more useful, focused and targeted information. Instead of newspapers all trying to produce the same news for the same geographic audience, focus. That’s how Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, for example, have been able to charge for much of their content – they focus on the news that businessmen need now. If a publisher can provide knowledge, as opposed to just information, people will pay for it.

Just as general broadcast TV has given way to cable/satellite subscription services, providing more focused channel selections, so should publishers look to provide focused services that people will pay for. What’s more, such focused audiences provide a richer platform for advertisers.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that printing is dead – at least not for the foreseeable future. Like just about everyone else I speak with, there’s something about being able to read the printed word on paper that is far too appealing to me. A combination of convenience, feel, smell, I suppose. What I am suggesting is that publishers need to use technology to complement their print editions.

Knowledge has a shelf-life, and can be printed for future reference purposes (witness my stacks of magazines – National Geographic, Fast Company, Fortune, Plane & Pilot, Travel & Leisure, etc.). News, or information, is immediate and best consumed quickly – and this is where the electron should play its part (whether Internet or Broadcast). But, again, there’s no reason electronic media should not drive its audience to print, and vice-versa. I see them as, ideally, complementary rather than simply competing.

News media, rather than cutting journalists, should seek out the best they can find and encourage them to provide knowledge as well as information. Magazines should give tantalizing glimpses of what they offer to an online audience, while encouraging them to subscribe to the printed word (after all, for example, aren’t the images in a National Geographic magazine so much better than those online?). Broadcast media should encourage audiences to seek out more information than they can cover in the broadcast, driving audiences online and to print for this knowledge. And, of course, printed media should not be shy of encouraging readers to enrich their knowledge through broadcast segments, internet updates and the like.

We talk about mankind’s knowledge increasing at an exponential rate, but I suspect that much of this is just the same bits of information being repeated over and over again. We have the tools for a much richer information and knowledge environment and we should use them.

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9 responses to “How Can the Print Media Survive?

  1. A great new article on the FastCompany blog, “Major Print Publishers Gang Up to Pre-Empt Apple, Already Make Mistakes”:

  2. Good stuff here. I especially like how you make the distinction between news and online competing and complementing. I’ve seen a lot of the competing. In my newsroom days, it seems some in the newsroom saw the online product as the enemy.

    You’re right, that won’t work. The niche is here to stay, and will, I think, get “nichier” if that’s a word. In other words, niches will get more specific, not less.

    • Thanks, Gina – I’m pleased we’re “on the same page” here 🙂 Niches will become narrower through mass personalisation, which will encourage advertisers who can then target their offerings…

  3. Print’s not going anywhere, but I think the industry is finally starting to grasp what this particular technological advancement means: a change in the model.

    When radio came into play, newspapers said, “Woe is me! How can we beat the ability to report throughout the day as news happens?”

    When television came into play, newspapers said, “Woe is me! How can we beat the ability to show news in moving pictures?”

    Newspapers have survived both of those, and they’ve even survived CNN — remember getting to watch the first Gulf War live as it happened? How could newspapers even dream of competing?

    I’ve noticed from my days in print that newspapers have this hideous habit of making cuts when times are bad, and hiring interns when things pick back up. It’s an example of each organization rising to its own optimal level of mediocrity.

    I would love to see newspapers give up on the print stories that don’t make sense to put in print. You’re never going to beat TV or radio to house fires, break-ins, grand openings, and other things that happen during the day locally. Put that stuff on your web site, and don’t spend the tons of money it costs to send it through pagination and printing.

    Instead, your print product should be primarily enterprise reporting: the stuff that really matters and the stuff that really affects people. And if it means you only print once a week, so be it. Put all the breaking news on the website, and then throw up a pay wall that includes a subscription to the printed enterprise reporting and additional multimedia components of that enterprise reporting.

    You can’t win a battle running today’s breaking news tomorrow. A new model is necessary.

    • Thanks, Josh. Some good points…

      I agree that the model needs to change – and that print’s not going anywhere.

      It’s going to be interesting to see who first grasps the true power of print+internet+broadcast for a really rich experience…

  4. Hi Guy,

    As a follow up to my aggregation post on twitter…

    What I meant to explain was that clearly the model of selling mass market advertising and using the cash to support the business is coming to an end in the printed news media market.

    An observation from my own newspaper habits: I do not read the whole paper, many sections are disregarded and I always wish there was more of what I wanted in the same document.

    A service that could “aggregate” content from the 200 or so sources that would interest me, formatted into a printable, Ipod “loadable”, and Recorded (so I could listen to it) single document in my inbox each morning is more what I am looking for. For busy weeks I would also like a weekly summary. This would interest me for business books and magazines as well (same document). I think you could charge users for this service and offer a deep discount if they would allow marketers to pitch to them relevant choices based on their segmentation.

    With the amount of content flying at us I believe a trusted aggregator is what everyone will soon need.

    My two (or maybe 3 cents)



    • Thanks, Dan.

      I agree wholeheartedly – certain sections of the paper are routinely put straight into recycling without even being opened. An aggregation (summary) service would be great (some newsletters do this already of course), but you’d want the links to the fuller picture.

      A chap here in Dubai has started a weekly business book summary service (one book a week) that looks quite interesting – I keep meaning to subscribe 🙂 Can send you the contact info if you like.

      Overall – yes, aggregation will be one of the business models that has to be used in future.

      Thanks for your comments!

  5. Thanks, Catarina – I cannot see myself reading from a laptop in bed (or in the sitting room), and the new breed of e-books (Kindle, et al) are not for me, either.

    I love good books and magazines.

  6. My background is in media but even I read “newspapers” online. Like millions, actually billions of people I have got used to getting all the news instantly online. If the Murdochs of this world start charging people most people will just switch to other publications that are for free.

    Advertising has financed media for ages and subscriptions have merely been a service to the reader. But now online newspapers have to get the news online faster than the speed of light and provide the reader more than the competition to get advertising, if even then. And this is a development that is here to stay.

    Also read a lot of printed books and wouldn’t read books online. No way. And that’s where I think the audience for reading off-line is. Who wants to lie in bed reading from a laptop?

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