Print is dead – in parts

Interesting piece on Journalism.co.uk on the FIPP World Magazine Congress. Condé Nast International chairman (or CEO, depending on which story or paragraph you read) Jonathan Newhouse believes print has a bright future.

“To those who believe that paper and print will disappear, I’ve only one word to pronounce – nonsense,” said Newhouse.

It is true that the whole “print is dead” meme is taken more or less seriously by those in publishing really depending on what type of print they’re involved with. 

Glossy magazine publishers are probably safer in believing it isn’t – the whole experience of the glossies is about the, well, glossiness. It’s difficult for a web site to have that quality, at least yet. 

But in my sector, that doesn’t hold true. Business to business titles are dropping like flies, because they simply don’t have a compelling reason to be distributed on paper. And it’s far cheaper to put them online. Sure, the income drops substantially, but then the costs do too. As they usually rely on free distribution (or rather “controlled circulation”), that’s a lot of saving. 

National newspapers occupy an awkward middle ground. The last journalist who scoffed at my print is dead mantra worked at the Daily Star, but I’m not sure the national news media can afford to be complacent. 

Their main problem is that, while a lot of people still like to have a paper, or some printed matter, to read on the bus or on a tea break, if the numbers fall below a certain point, it just becomes uneconomic to print it. 

We can see the results in London and other cities around the UK. Thousands of people read a paper on their commute – but it’s the Metro or one of the two London evening freesheets rather than the paid-for press these days.

These papers are largely cuttings jobs and must cost a lot less to run than their paid-for counterparts. (UPDATE: Though The London Paper‘s latest financial results show it has a long way to go before it’s profitable. It’s quite possible we’ll see attrition in the consumer freebies before this recession’s out.)

Newhouse does go on to acknowledge the importance of a digital presence for all magazines, and he seems to believe that the transition to digital will work via electronic readers, maybe like the Kindle (which others have cited as a possible saviour for newspapers).

But would you pay £325 for a device to let you read the Daily Star on the train? Even if does eventually become available in the UK. 

And what about the financial model – would people subscribe to a paper on a Kindle? Would they buy individual copies each day?

I suspect that the core problem of print publishing – the ability to publish digitally for free and the unwillingness to pay money to consume it – will affect digital readers as much as, or more than, printed papers, especially as I imagine it’ll be difficult to wall off e-readers from free online content.

As we know, free online content drives out paid-for content whenever it’s available. A bit like bad money driving out good…

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