It’s certainly an interesting time to be in digital publishing. Print circulation and advertising numbers continue to drop like a tonne of bricks. Digital is seen as the solution/saviour but we’re still working out how to actually make the transition from print to digital, particularly from a financial profitability perspective. We’re experimenting with intentionally leaky paywalls and digital-only publications; and we’ve had some success and (quite a lot of) failure.
There is no doubt that this transition to digital and away from print needs to be made. For some time now, Amazon has sold more ebooks than they do hardcopies, a trend also confirmed last week in a recent Pew Research study. Newspapers around the world (with a few exceptions in specific geographical regions) are seeing a dramatic decrease in circulation - but it’s not because people are less interested in consuming content. If anything people are more addicted than ever to the constant stream of news, commentary, pictures and video that they can get to in an instant. The idea of taking a snapshot of the state of the world and packaging it up in some dead trees and ink is getting more and more irrelevant (what I’d like to know is what my nasi lemak will be wrapped in once printed newspapers go the way of the dodo bird).
So, what to do?
I’d say the key paradigm shift that we all need to make is that digital publishing is not print-on-the-web (or print-on-the-iPad, etc). It’s not enough to dump all print content on the web and call it a day. Whether it is via a website or a mobile application, the content needs to be presented in such a way that it takes full advantage of the medium. It has to be fast, searchable, readable - it has to do everything one would expect on a digital device (read: selectable text should be a given and not a ‘feature’). The goal shouldn’t be to fill up as much white space on the front page as possible and indeed, having an e-paper feature on your website is probably a waste of effort. Potential customers should be able to pay for something (like a subscription...?) with a Paypal account or a credit card and a couple of clicks - not by having to print out a form and mailing it in with a cheque.
There is plenty of commentary around the demise of The Daily - News Corporation’s ambitious project to create an iPad-only publication - but the point that stuck out the most to me was the costs of running that operation. Even with over 100,000 subscribers it was losing millions of dollars for the business. Perhaps then, there is some wisdom in moving away from general purpose, big budget productions - that most traditional publications are - which in turn require a large subscription base along with a healthy advertisement order book to be sustainable. Perhaps the future of digital publishing (and perhaps most publishing in the future) would be closer to the smaller, low cost and more focused model as we see in startups like The Magazine, The Brief and Evening Edition.
A revolution could well be upon us. But we need to be willing to change.