Friday, December 12, 2008

Digital Continues To Grow At Print's Expense

It's amazing how something that seems permanent and immutable can collapse in a very short time-----remember how the Soviet Union evaporated in just a few months back in 1991?

Something similar is happening in the print publishing business. Icons of print publishing are collapsing or staggering under the weight of increased competition and declining revenues.

The Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers, filed for bankruptcy on December 10. Entertainment Weekly is rumored to be phasing out its print version in favor of its on-line edition. Newsweek is drastically cutting back its print edition in an attempt to survive, but some publishing industry observers think it's doomed-----perhaps as soon as 2010----no matter what.

The interesting thing in all this bad news is that its arrival should be no surprise; since the turn of the century, it's been painfully obvious digital was starting to take large bites out of the hide of print publishing. This post from Clay Shirky is a bit self-congratulatory but is also dead on-target------the changes now battering print publishing are the logical culmination of trends clear a decade ago. In a similar fashion, when I say wireless broadband will replace terrestrial radio, or that the huge bulk of technical and profesional publishing will move to digital, or that something like the iPhone will become the eBook reader platform of choice, I'm just extrapolating from trends that are well underway and have clear direction. It takes no special insight to notice these trends; you just have to be open to the notion that change, rather than permanence, is the normal condition of life.

Sadly, I think my beloved book publishing business is no better positioned than newspapers or magazines to adapt to the digital age, as this post illustrates. (Take a good look at some of those comments!) Oh, I know plenty of rank-and-file employees and lower-level managers who are fully aware of what's about to happen, but the executive suites in most larger publishers are filled with people who are convinced things can be just like they were back in 1988 if they just hang tough and wait for this wacky digital fad to run its course.

Most "crises" are entirely predictable and the logical summation of clear, obvious warning signals that are ignored until too late. Take, for example, this article from Business Week titled "What If GM Did Go Bankrupt?" A timely article, you say? Yes, but it was published on December 12, 2005. And GM's executives and employees have done absolutely nothing over the last three years to even begin honestly recognizing their problems, much less solve them. (And that's why I oppose any auto bailout; the Big Three execs and workers have spent years denying they have a problem and are utterly incapable of developing a viable solution in three months. A bailout will only postpone the inevitable reckoning for decades of collective foolishness. If Congress simply has to spend $15 billion, let them spend it instead on something like health care for uninsured children.)

I fear that many in the print publishing industry will, like GM, continue to ignore problems, deny they even have problems, until they crash head-first into fiscal reality. And when that happens, it's too late to change the outcome.

On the bright side, I think some major fortunes are going to be made by those who figure out how to use digital to meet their readers' (that is, their customers') information needs.

We're in for a wild ride. If you're in the publishing business, hang on tight!