When print met digital: Why publishers are still not facing the digital reality

Its no secret that the print industry is in turmoil. The internet has disrupted all kinds of publishing models.

Newspapers, especially, are feeling the pinch as consumers increasingly turn to digital means to access content and print advertising revenues fall accordingly.

Paywalls

One solution to staunch the revenue loss was to try to get people who had become accustomed to getting free content online to start paying for it. A number of publishers took this road, setting up the first generation of paywalls. Many in the industry consider paywalls to be a success – the case proved, they claim, by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Economist. Others – notably Matthew Ingram in this post at Gigaom – argue that paywalls do little more than slow the inevitable:

Paywalls are a sandbag strategy one that can help keep the rising waters (in this case, the ongoing rapid decline in print advertising revenue) at bay, but not much else.

Sandbags dont solve a rising water problem, just as paywalls wont get rid of a declining revenue problem: You need to figure out how to get the water to stop coming in or find out what is causing it and adapt. Paywalls do neither.

Ingram seems to be advocating big change.

I’ve come across a couple of articles recently that show how the publishing industry is continuing to fail to adapt or innovate, and in doing so highlight how it can start to change.

Subcompact publishing

Firstly, let’s look at ‘design’. I put design in inverted commas because what I’m really talking about here is the very essence of what a publication is.

Craig Mod talks about this better than I will in his great post on subcompact publishing. Mod effectively sets out his path to a new dawn in publishing which involves wiping the slate clean of all of the traditional publishing technologies and techniques that we are used to – forgetting everything we know. Instead, we should start from scratch based on the new reality which requires a focus on digital media and simplicity.

As he says:

“In product design, the simplest thought exercise is to make additions. Its the easiest way to make an old thing feel like a new thing. The more difficult exercise is to reconsider the product in the context of now. A now which may be very different from the then in which the product was originally conceived.”

The Magazine

Mod references Marco Arment, founder and editor of The Magazine, a new app publication on the broad theme of technology. The Magazine (which is excellent, incidentally) doesn’t try to replicate the print paradigm. Nor does it seek even compete with the existing massed ranks of technology blogs and the content that they produce.

Instead, you get four or five high quality articles every couple of weeks in return for a small subscription price. The design is heavily template, delivering a very clean, simple and user-friendly experience.

In the foreword to the app, Marco states:

“I don’t consider The Magazine to be a member of “the magazine industry” any more than blogs are members of “the publishing industry”. Those terms evoke the old and the established, while this is the new and experimental.”

His entire foreword is like a call to arms – it’s worth downloading the app just to read it.

Open publishing

The publishing industry also seems to be shunning the very concept of an ‘open web’. APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, are complex specifications that allow software components to communicate. They sit at the core of Web 2.0, and while you may not know how they work, chances are you’ve benefited from their existence without even knowing it.

Every time one of your tweets is automatically posted to your Facebook wall, or you share a photo from Flickr on MySpace, you have an API to thank. APIs give external developers a way to access the data held on a particular website – whether it be Facebook or SalesForce.

So an API allows publishers to open up the data behind their websites up to external resources and expertise – developers etc – tapping into digital talent lacking within their businesses, and therefore enabling them to innovate faster and distribute better, providing users with a much richer digital experience. A win win, right?

You would think so. Yet only four global news publishers (The Guardian, The New York Times, USA Today and NPR) had an API as of January 2012, and only one magazine, (Nature) seems to be embracing this opportunity.

Publishers’ aversion to APIs and inclination towards content pay-walling is resulting in publishing ‘silos’, cut off from innovation and the benefits it can provide.

The missed opportunity

I owe Neil Perkin over at Only Dead Fish a debt for pointing this out in his original blog post. His surprise at publishers’ refusal to embrace APIs is eloquently put:

This surprises me for a few reasons. It means that publishers are unconvinced by the benefits of opening up their data, despite the fact that a growing list of companies from a broad range of sectors disagree. Embracing the open web makes sense since enterprises rarely move as quickly as the rest of the web, and the tradeoff between adding an external dependency is out-shined by the ability to move faster by building upon external expertise.

The reality of APIs is that they exponentially increase the amount of potential resource you can allocate towards creating new value out of the raw material of innovation within your business. APIs are great in helping develop a digitally focused culture, maintaining good developer relations, and as a platform for good distributed and destination thinking. And publishers are not short on a need for digital talent, continuous innovation, and great digital ideas.

So what’s the take-away message? Well, until the publishing industry gets to grips with the idea that the digital consumer is here to stay and starts to radically rethink the whole model, they’re going to continue to bleed profits and continue to wring their hands about it.

Bravery is called for, yet it seems to be lacking.

Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.

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