On his blog “Reflections of a Newsosaur,” newspaper-industry vet Alan D. Mutter looks at a Scribd e-book by University of Texas journalism professor Iris Chyi. Chyi posits that traditional newspapers are just plain lousy at creating digital versions of their publications—so they should just give up digital altogether and concentrate all their effort on their print version instead. (It seems to be a “build the boats” rather than a “burn the boats” strategy.)
She urges publishers to “acknowledge that digital is not your forte” and abandon the “digital first, print last” strategy that has been widely adopted in the business.
“That is not to say that you don’t need to offer any digital product,” she adds, but “one may conclude that it is easier for newspapers to preserve the print edition than to sell digital products.”
While granting that print currently is more profitable than digital, Mutter notes that trying to hold onto the paper medium is fraught with problems. The effectiveness of a print-first strategy is going to continue to decline, Mutter notes, and there’s a limit to how well you can hold onto it. The biggest problems he sees are that paper circulation is continuing to erode, the readership is aging (with the death of the majority of print’s most ardent customers only a generation or so away at most), ad sales are contracting, and economies of scale are dwindling as audiences get smaller and it becomes more expensive per copy to print a given paper.
Chyi’s suggestion seems to me to be yet another face to the familiar old “digital is dying, long live print” argument that some are marshaling after the apparent decline in publisher e-book sales. To a certain extent, it seems the industries have similar problems—neither is really especially good at digital, because their expertise grew out of the print medium and they’ve still been trying to catch up. This means that independents—self-publishers and small presses for e-books, and blogs and other indie news sources for newspapers—have been eating their lunch.
And I would tend to agree with Mutter. Imagining that either book publishers or newspaper publishers can prosper by focusing all their attention on print strikes me as wishful thinking in this digital era. Sooner or later, it will become clear that, given a couple more decades, print will be at best a niche market. Publishers who want to prosper need to be figuring out some kind of long-term strategy that will take that into account. Sure, squeeze every bit of juice you can out of those wood-pulp lemons, but sooner or later people will decide they’d rather have something other than lemonade, so you’d better start diversifying.