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Why Print Media Isn’t Dead Yet

Jeff Jarvis argues, persuasively, that newspapers should get out of the business of printing, distribution, circulation, and ad sales and concentrate on their essential function. And he’s not just saying that they should shut down their print operations and focus on the Web. He figures that Google and others do all that stuff so well that journalism would be far better off if they simply outsourced it all:

Get out of the manufacturing and distribution and technology businesses as soon as possible. Turn off the press. Outsource the computers. Outsource the copyediting to India or to the readers. Collaborate with the reporting public. And then ask what you really are. The answer matters dearly.

It’s an interesting, if radical idea. Many are already shifting to the Web as an equal, if not dominant, part of their business. Politico, for example, is a Web operation that also puts out a newspaper. Indeed, at a conference last year, I asked their managing editor, Bill Nichols, why they even bothered to put out a paper, given the costs and headaches that Jarvis details. He told me that it made good financial sense to do so because they smartly targeted their distribution to subway commuters and key offices in the District and they generated enough ad revenue to make it worthwhile.

Similarly, I recently had an e-mail exchange with a magazine editor who prefers to remain anonymous along the same lines: Why even bother to have a print edition given the ridiculous amount of competition in the space. His answer was much more detailed than I’d expected and he’s allowed me to share it with you:

I think it still makes sense to have a print publication if the goal is influence rather than financial return.

For one thing, you can target recipients of a print journal much more effectively than you can target recipients of an e-zine. That’s important if the media or specific intellectuals are your targets of influence—because such people are very unlikely to open or click-through unsolicited (“spam”) email, but are very likely to open and browse an attractive print publication like ours when it arrives in their mailbox. We’ve had considerable success getting media attention from newspapers and talk show hosts who receive our magazine on a comp basis; but I don’t think they’d have paid the least bit of attention to it if its online publication were announced via email. Nor would most email recipients trouble themselves to click through links to read it. In most cases, spam filters would block us.

Second, there’s still the very widespread perception that a print publication indicates something real and tangible—a real organization or journal, with a real address and employees and an investment—whereas anybody can (and does) go online these days. I believe print therefore adds credibility to a publishing effort. And I think it’s perceived that way by most people. Magazines like Reason, National Review, etc., have built their online credibility on a respectable newsstand presence first. A rather radical magazine like [ours] is taken more seriously when it’s between attractive covers with high production values; online only, I believe it would be ignored.

Third, a successful Web-only journal still requires a hefty investment in interactive bells and whistles, and especially in first-rate writers, to produce daily content. I think of Slate or Huffington Post, both of which had a lot of up-front cash behind them before launch. Sure, you save on paper and ink and postage; but in a viciously competitive marketplace, you still have to spend a lot in order to get talent and do successful marketing.

Fourth, our magazine has moved into publishing [image intensive] features, too—and they look much better with a nifty graphic layout on the printed page than they do on a computer screen, where you have to scroll. While you can do all sorts of neat stuff with Flash and video and sound online, there are still things you can do better on a printed page. It’s a different aesthetic.

Fifth, convenience: Magazines are still more easily transportable. You can browse them in a doctor’s office, read them while hanging on a subway strap, or on a plane, or in the bathroom—places where you either can’t or don’t have to lug around a 5-pound notebook computer, pull it out of its case, power it up, find a Wi-Fi connection, go online, search, scroll and read content, then print out any particularly interesting article by hooking up a printer and paying for very expensive ink cartridges. You just open a mag and read it, and then you can tear out any interesting article. Maybe the Kindle or its kin eventually will become so lightweight and transportable that it will eliminate the advantages of a print mag, but it ain’t there yet.

Finally, the economics issue: Yep, printing and mailing a mag is terribly expensive, but I think a good Web edition can help subsidize the print edition. While no print mag will make money through subscriptions alone, offering advertisers combined rates on both platforms, based on combined circulation figures, seems to me a plausible model. And offering print subscribers privileged access to certain online features would help maintain an incentive to subscribe.

For these reasons, very few publications that have developed a Web presence have simultaneously eliminated their print edition, costly though it may be to maintain. While the economics of print vs. web definitely portend the inevitable, eventual decline of print and the corresponding rise of Web-only, I don’t think we’re there yet. You still invest in print to buy influence, and a combination of print and Web offer the best of both worlds.

That makes sense to me. Thoughts?

UPDATE:  Jeff clarifies: “I’m not saying they shouldn’t have print products. But they shouldn’t be in the printing business.”

Photo credit:  Harry’s Greece Travel Guide

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Jeff Jarvis says:

    I’m not saying they shouldn’t have print products. But they shouldn’t be in the printing business. It’s not an advantage now. It’s a cost.

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  2. […] I’m causing confusion aplenty. James Joyner frets about getting rid of print. I’m not saying they have to. I’m saying they should get out […]

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  3. Michael says:

    I’m not saying they shouldn’t have print products. But they shouldn’t be in the printing business. It’s not an advantage now. It’s a cost.

    That’s true, people buy the stories on paper, not paper with stories on it. If they could get someone else to print and distribute their stories, then their costs are more inline with online publications, but they keep the targeting benefits of print.

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  4. Bithead says:

    Well, one point I don’t notice Jeff mentioning is union printers attached to most dailies.
    Outsourcing that would most certainly be a cost lowering tool.

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