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An open letter to the printed press

Last weekend, I was talking to a friend who works for a moderately-sized regional newspaper. We were talking about distribution. The guys upstairs, he told me, feel very comfortable, complacent even, with their position. They’re not worried about their future because, as they say, “Hey, we’re not the New York Times, we’re not going to have those kind of distribution problems, because we cover regional news, and there’s still a need for good regional coverage.” I guess they think that people in their region don’t read local news on the internet or their mobile devices?

This is so incredibly wrong-headed it boggles the mind. This complacency will kill a perfectly good regional news source, all because the folks in charge are so blinkered that they cannot see that distribution is about to undergo a disruption not seen since…hell, I don’t know when.

I am a great believer in quality. There will always be a place for good writing, good editing, and solid reportage. We need organizations to employ journalists to investigate goings-on and report on them. There needs to be fact-checking, copy editing, compelling photography and illustration, and most of all, people who are willing to dig, to dig up the truth and tell stories that inform us, challenge us, and yes, entertain us.

Now, tell me, where in this characterization do you see any mention of forests of paper, barrels of inks, and warehouses of printing presses?

The printed press has struggled with the change to internet distribution over the last 15 years with very good reason: It’s difficult to make money. It didn’t help that so many of them gave away their content. But that change is nothing compared to the revolution that is the tablet computer, and especially the new iPad. This is a device you can take anywhere, and unlike your phone, is a pleasure to read. It’s as easy to take with you as a newspaper or magazine, but offers so much more. It’s here to stay. And it’s going to kill the printing press.1

Some disagree. An iPad does not offer the same pleasures as a newspaper: the texture of the pages, the scanability of the front page, the smell of the ink and the smudges it leaves on your fingers. No, there is nothing like a Sunday Times, a bagel, and a cup of coffee to laze away the morning. And when you’re done with the paper, the way it’s strewn about, the poorly refolded pages and crumpled edges of the most interesting sections offer satisfying remains of the experience. And then you recycle it.

Try that with your iPad. Don’t want to get cream cheese on it, or spill your coffee. Its scent does not bring back the memory of lazy Sundays, it doesn’t smudge your fingers, it doesn’t get crumpled or leave behind any of the detritus indicating a satisfying read. Just a smudged up screen, which won’t be nostalgic to anyone.

At the same time, you can’t perform a full text search of your newspaper. You can’t go back and read the article from last week because the recycling has been picked up. You can’t zoom in to a newspaper photo to look at things in greater detail. You can’t make text larger to relieve your aging eyes, or dig deeper to find out the story behind the photograph on the front page.

Look here, periodicals companies. This is important. It’s time realized that you are not in the printing business. You are in either the content business or the advertising business. You either sell your content to consumers in ways that are easy or enjoyable for them to access, or get your ads in front of as many eyeballs as possible (or both). The way to do that is not to run printing presses. Nor is it to squeeze the disadvantages of the printed page on devices. The way to do it is to provide the best experience possible. Decide what methods of distribution you want to use—print, web, tablet—and take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of each to make things people want.

So yeah, keep printing, for now, to satisfy the aging population that needs it. Make the experience the best you can within the constraints of the printed page. But don’t force those same constraints into another distribution channel. You don’t try to make the printed page look and feel like a scrolling screen, do you? Nor should you make the iPad experience feel like the printed page. No, I can’t smell the ink in your iPad app, but if you took proper advantage of the device, tried to work within the confines of its limitations while exploiting is unique strengths, you could provide a compelling, unique experience.

Because if you don’t, someone else will. The iPad in particular represents a gaping opportunity for disruption of your business, mainly because you fail to recognize that you are in the content business, not the distribution business. And upstart companies will start delivering well researched, edited, and fact-checked stories in a compelling format, with new approaches to interaction and engagement, in a way that people want. And they will be extremely successful. And profitable.

  1. Okay, not kill it, exactly, but turn printing into a niche business, suitable for coffee table books, wedding invitations and book arts. ↩︎

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