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Friday, April 4, 2008

The Future of Publishing

I think some publishers have got it right and others terribly wrong when it comes to the future of magazines and newspapers. Isn't that always the case with future predictors?

Mary Tyler "Molly" Ivins, the first woman police reporter for our StarTribune said before she died in 2007, and I paraphrase, that it wasn't so much the impact of the internet on newspapers that is devastating to the industry as the response of newspaper publishers to the rise of the internet.

Newspapers downsized staff writers and got rid of much of the perspective that made them an unique experience to online media. These daily sources for news, like Ivins former employer the StarTribune, redesigned themselves to be unreadable and pushed most of us to the internet for our daily bread.

The most successful (although it has yet to prove itself out completely) were those newspapers like the New York Times and San Jose Mercury who leaped forward onto the internet but branded their image and internet pages with their distinctive imprimatur on this new medium. The Times still looks incredibly similar on the web as it did at the turn of the last century in print. Both publications succeeded in taking their brand to a wider national audience and I'd say younger demographic than their print versions. That's boldface confidence and smart positioning of the brand. And they understand it is about brand and not instant face-lifts and shallow make-overs at the last minute. The NYT's was quick to get its content positioned for the iPhone and the other smart phones with web browsing capabilities coming to the market.

Many other newspapers made huge strategic errors in repurposing themselves for the internet. Case-in-point, again, the StarTribune that locked its content beyond registration barriers and timed their content to a pay-to-read scheme that violates most internet readers the sense of freedom the net provides. That's what is termed, not understanding your audience.

When I search and get down to the level of a StarTribune article from 2003 or an obituary, when the site asks me to register, sign in, or pay to read I am gone in a New York minute. It is almost as if publishers wanted to punish internet surfers out of a resentment for change the new medium represents. Punishment, however, will never win hearts or build readership.

The other ones who have it wrong are the Kindle "electronic book" advocates (see my March 3rd blog about Kindle when it came out), like Graydon Carter from Vanity Fair, believe we will all be carrying around an electronic gadget and get their pages, picture, and movie content we will pay to download off the internet. Nobody wants to haul around yet another electronic device or reader like Kindle especially with its retro-tech rice button keyboard across the bottom of the screen (Did Amazon miss the memo that touch screen technology is going to change the face of all our tech-devices?). We have our phones, our laptop computers, and some even have a PDA or Blackberry. Add a device just for reading news and magazines and news? No way.

Breaking daily news content has to flow to our mobile devices where people do seek electronic convergence. Yes, I believe the instant news will no longer find its home on the multiple edition inky cheap newsprint of my youth. However, the high quality magazine with a distinct perspective will not evaporate off the pages any time soon. The experience of reading a magazine for leisure, relaxation, and entertainment will not be replicated in digital form on the internet or with Kindle. And ultimately, publishers need to see what the use scenario is and fulfill the readers experience in rewarding ways.

In the 70s and 80s, we'd rush to the comic store and could not wait to get our hands on MAD Magazine, National Lampoon and later British Spy (political satire magazine) or the New York Review of Books simply because there was nothing like these publications in terms of the content, comedy or intellectual standards they set. These magazines became icons in their day, not because of the quality of the paper they were printed on. I have very little sympathy for those who preach that we must buy newspapers when those who run them make terrible decisions that drive me away from their pages.

It is still all about the quality of the content and the internet can't change that fact.

image provided by Uh... Bob

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