The End of Print, As We Know It.

In the year 2009, is this what newspapers SHOULD look like?

In the year 2009, is this what newspapers SHOULD look like?

Newspapers are dying. Magazines are very, very sick and have a very bad prognosis. How bad is it? Mike Elgan of the site Datamation sums up the grim situation in his recent article Media Companies Have Only Themselves to Blame:

The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy Monday. The company publishes the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and other daily newspapers. The New York Times Co. intends to pawn its shiny new Manhattan building to borrow a quarter of a billion dollars just to stop the bleeding. Other major dailies are either for sale, or rumored to be so, including the Rocky Mountain News, the Miami Herald and others. The Cox newspaper group is closing its Washington bureau. Most newspapers have announced layoffs, or will do so soon.

Magazines are faring a little better than newspapers. But the industry is all doom-and-gloom, and everyone is predicting a bloodbath in 2009. Newsweek has reportedly lost between half a million to a million subscribers from its 2.6 million rate base and has announced layoffs. TIME layoffs may total 600. National Geographic, The Economist Group and Doubledown Media are all laying off staffers.

Even books are suffering. Simon & Schuster has laid off 35 people. Random House, Inc. killed its Bantam and Doubleday divisions. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it would not take on any new authors.

How bad is it? Bad. Newspapers and magazines are getting hit especially hard during the economic downturn. But why? How did we get here? I remember the parade of “The End of Print” articles that were written two booms and 10 years ago. Didn’t newspapers and magazines have ample time — and money — to get their collective acts together? Or did the digital revolution, which we ALL knew was coming, sneak up only on them?

After all, there is not declining interest in the NEWS. There is no declining interest in the content that newspapers and magazines specialize in. So as their titanic struggles mount, I find myself asking myself a myriad of questions like:

  1. Why didn’t a People Magazine create a blog like the supremely popular and influential Perez Hilton’s blog? Instead of innovating for a new medium, they’ve essentially repurposed their print mag for the web.
  2. Why didn’t any major newspaper buy — or start for that matter — eBay or Craig’s List? Instead of losing millions as classified ads flocked to the web, they would have created new revenue streams.
  3. Why are there so many magazines that are not even online yet? Two of the biggest graphic design magazines, PRINT and HOW, have sites that only allow you to sign up for the printed versions!

In a recent article by Seth Godin, Watching the Times struggle (and what you can learn), Seth makes a lot of great points but none more relevant, especially following an election cycle that piqued worldwide interest, than the point he made about the huge missed opportunity newspapers made in not leveraging their existing Op-Ed voices:

2. Leverage the op-ed page and spread important ideas:
Sure, Tom Friedman and a handful of other columnists have a large reach and influence. But why doesn’t the Times have 50 columnists? 500? Tom Peters or Jim Leff or Joel Spolsky or Micah Sifry or Pam Slim or Patrick Semmens or Dan Pink would be great columnists. Why not view the endless print space online as an opportunity to leverage their core asset?

What would happen if the huge team of existing Times editors and writers each interviewed an interesting or important person every day? 5,000 or 10,000 really important interviews every year, each waiting for a sponsor, each finding a relevant audience…

Newpapers are in the shape they’re in today because they missed critical opportunities during the last 10-15 years to expand beyond their centuries old business models and stake a claim on the information superhighway. The only good news is, it’s not too late for them! If our nation’s leading newspapers get real about innovation and really look to push the boundaries about digital and how they (a) reach audiences and (b) derive revenues.

The only problem is, at most newspapers and magazines, that type of culture of innovation does not exist.

A few words about when we say “the death of” something

No one realistically thinks that when we say “the death of print”, newspapers will actually cease to exist. Newspapers will continue to exist, just not in the form or level of prominence that we’ve known them. Nothing TRULY disappears. Heck, you can still find someplace where you can send and receive a TELEGRAPH! Radio, once king, wasn’t completely wiped off the face of the Earth once television arrived. But the arrival of television had a profound effect on the future of radio. It marginalized it. To the extent that radio exists today, it exists because it is able to do the things that TV cannot do — be mobile, be very small and allow us to consume its content without needing to see it.

Newspapers won’t completely vanish into thin air. But we should take a nice, long look around. While they won’t vanish, they’ll be far fewer in number and much smaller in influence than they are now. And, unfortunately, they have only themselves to blame for it.


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