I am delighted to have the opportunity to be the new “print correspondent” for MediaShift. Every two weeks or so I will be reporting, discussing, opining and answering comments about how new print technology can help untangle some of the problems facing newspaper companies and the future of journalism.
Newspaper companies are looking for ways to profit in a new media world. Journalists meanwhile, need to figure out how to educate, entertain, inform and make a living do it. Although largely unnoticed by journalists, advances in print technology might turn out to be key to the new information network delivery system. A closer look at print might help reporters and publishers. In future columns, I will look at some generally under-appreciated properties of print that might prove key to solving both groups’ problems:
1. The best interactive tools for learning are still a page of print and a highlighter.
2. Print is the best search platform in proximate physical space.
3. Print can be seen as a toy, a token or a tool — something that people have and will continue to gladly pay for.
4. Once print is connected to cloud computing, everything will change again.
But only so much can fit in one post. For now, let’s just talk tech.
POD is the tip of the iceberg
New technology is making it easier than ever to produce print. We may soon see something similar to what happened when Adobe introduced Postscript, linking typography to laser printers. Since typography is the real magical mystery, Adobe’s seemingly minor invention led to the tipping point for desktop publishing.
Most people are aware of Print on Demand (POD) book publishing. Lightning Source serves publishing companies, has plants in the U.S. and the U.K. and has produced more that 7 millions titles in just a few years, while Lulu.com serves prosumers and offers “products from a million creators. Books, artwork, CDs and more.” Lulu also makes it possible to sell books from their website, before printing even one copy.
The technology behind this “overnight” transformation started in 1990, when Xerox introduced the DocuTech, which is generally credited with starting the POD industry. It took from 1990 to 2008 to go mainstream because all the pieces have to be in place for a tipping point to occur. Unfortunately, even 98% doesn’t do it.
Other print technologies are now coming online. Consider this story at one my favorite print dweeb websites, Graphic Arts Online: Newsworld Corp. selected an AlphaGraphics franchise (Note: AlphaGraphics is what outsiders to the trade would call a copy shop) to print U.S. copies of the U.K.’s Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday. The publisher will buy a Screen Truepress Jet520 on-demand newsprint solution with a dedicated Standard Hunkeler finishing system to be installed at a Dayton, N.J.-based printer. AlphaGraphics parent company Pindar is based in the U.K.
So some newspapers are realizing that print isn’t so archaic after all.
The right tool for the right job
The Internet is telephone + TV + search + a big filing cabinet + the best way to buy and sell stuff ever invented. It is optimized for speed, access, storage and search. The Internet is a conversational media. Conversation is good, life affirming, and a necessary part of human life. Manuel Castells, in “The Rise of the Network Society,” published in 1996, has it pretty right when he said, “While print favors systematic exposition, TV is best suited to casual conversation.”
The addition of the filing cabinet and search is slowly evolving toward something else. But we still have quite a way to go.
But the Internet, like TV, is not optimized for logical thinking or learning. Ask yourself how many times you’ve done a second read on a blog post. Then consider if that first read gave your brain enough time to make any new connections or did it just lead to the reflexive back and forth we so often see in blog comments.
Print has evolved over 500 years to be the medium that nurtures logical thought and learning. Print is a physical search platform that doesn’t need key words and makes it easy to stumble upon new ideas and facts. In Print, ideas and facts are fixed in time. New patterns in the brain have time to form. The distinction between reading something online and reading it in print might be compared to the difference between simply decoding words and letting the ideas that are represented by those words rumble around the head for a while.
What problems can the Internet solve?
Waves of creative destruction often lead to better organization of intelligence. My sense is that the destroying stage is coming to an end. We are now entering the inventing and growing stage.
It can take years for a communication ecology to get to a phase change. The last couple of years have been confusing and pretty awful. That’s the destructive part. Eventually enough new approaches emerge on the ground. That’s the inventing part. Then all the pieces start falling into place. That’s the growing part. Once the networked pieces start generating income, tipping points occur.
Almost every community in the United States now has numerous e-communities. Some, although not many, of those communities have “town squares” that host an active marketplace of ideas in a civil, intelligent public discourse. Some, although not many, have journalists — either professionals working for a local newspaper or independent prosumers — to moderate and inform those ongoing, self-generated, rambunctious conversations.
Those e-communities are the real Next Big Thing. Thankfully their growth is well under way.
There has been much talk about how newspapers have to start communities. Given the spontaneous growth, my take is that they have to join the communities already in progress. Their real value is to help by informing and moderating so that conversations can more quickly turn into discussions. (Martin Langeveld of Nieman Journalism Lab made a great post last week called a “A cafe shaped conversation” that helps clarify the distinction I’m trying to make between a conversation and a discussion.)
Web Will Not Solve Newspapers’ Problems
What I see happening in the newspaper industry is the destruction of social capital created by the media. These companies’ bad business decisions have eroded the trust between people and the media, while talented, experienced, hard-working people in newspaper companies now have to worry about their jobs.
Some think that print is the root of the problem and that transitioning to the web is a panacea for newspapers’ woes. But last week, newspaper uber-blogger Alan Mutter posted a four part series showing why a purely Internet-based strategy would not make business sense for an established newspaper company. Mutter suggested that newspapers could adopt cost-per-acquisition advertising as part of their business model but noted:
Because the revenues associated with cost-per-acquisition advertising are going to be lower than the print and online rates typically charged by newspapers, publishers will have to sell advertising to far more small and medium advertisers than they historically have done.
And consider David Black, a publisher who has quietly bought up print newspapers just as most are dismissing the medium as dead. In a story in the Seattle Weekly on July 15, 2008, Don Ward gives a good picture of why Black is nicely profitable:
The supposed decline of print media is not in fact an industry-wide phenomenon. Community newspapers have generally been profitable ventures for some time, and over the past decade have attracted the attention of media giants looking for publications that can positively contribute to the parent corporation’s bottom line.
I take from this that the problem at hand is not the decline of print per se, but rather the decline of some newspaper and publishing companies due to poor business decisions. It’s the same as how the decline of companies like GM, Chrysler and Ford does not mean that there is something wrong with the concept of the automobile. It just means that a bunch of companies got into more debt than they could pay back. A difficult problem, no doubt. But it’s not my problem.
The Answer is Print + Digital
At the risk of what might seem like shameless self-promotion, I looked at a snippet of Michael Kinsley’s Feb. 10 New York Times Op-Ed “You Can’t Sell News by the Slice” in my post It’s the Paper, Stupid. The germane part of Kinsley’s piece is:
A more promising idea is the opposite: Give away the content without the paper. In theory, a reader who stops paying for the physical paper but continues to read the content online is doing the publisher a favor. If the only effect of the Internet on newspapers was a drastic reduction in their distribution costs, publishers could probably keep a bit of that savings, rather than passing all of it and more on to the readers.
I propose that the solution is not purely print or digital, but rather both. My three step idea is:
1. Use the web to identify fans.
2.Then use the web to sell them stuff they want to buy.
3. Use print to sell local advertising.
A website can be thought of as a candy store. Using a simple application like StatCounter, it is easy to see how long each visitor stayed at a page and how often they came back. When they enter from a Google search, they are a browser. If they stay for over 15 seconds, they are a customer. If they come back, they are a return customer. If you find yourself on their RSS feed, you are well on your way to having identified a new fan.
And once you’ve located enough fans, you have a fan base. If you can invent the right product to sell them, they will willingly buy it. If they don’t, it just means you have to keep re-inventing the product until you get it right. Then you can use the web for what it’s best at: selling stuff, faster, better, cheaper than ever before.
Meanwhile, until you can find and invent the right product line for your fans, newspapers have the advantage of selling local ads to local businesses for local distribution. And that’s an easy sale because local businesses know that most people don’t use the Internet when strolling through the mall. But they do carry coupons from the local newspaper or shopper…
Michael Josefowicz spent 30 years at Red Ink Productions, a boutique print production brokerage he co-founded which served New York-based design studios and non-profit organizations. He came out of retirement to teach production at Parsons The New School for Design for the next 7 years. He now blogs about print at Print in the Communication Ecology and about the digital printing industry at Tough Love for Xerox.