I will sound like a native of some isolated tribe where death is celebrated — and I might well be accused of dancing on print’s grave — but I think it is wonderful news that London’s Independent is turning off its presses … yet living on.
On Facebook and Twitter, this news brought the predictable wailing and beating of breasts from journos and print moguls: how sad, how scary, they cry. But not from me. I’m happy for the Independent and for the example it can bring to others. At last, a newspaper has slipped the surly bonds of earth and can fly free online. There is life after the death of print. Hallelujah!
For more than a decade, I’ve been imploring newspaper people to set a date in the future — too close for comfort — when they will shut down the presses because print has become unsustainable. Becoming a sustainable digital enterprise before that day arrives is the definition of digital first.
In the U.S., some papers are now printing a few days a week because those are the days when they distribute coupons and circulars — which is the last good economic justification for producing and distributing a newspaper. But inserts are going away. See newspaper giant McClatchy’s earnings this week with a 22% drop in inserts from last year; another report found department stores’ use of newspaper circulars fell 24%. A confluence of forces — print circulation falling below critical mass; a new generation never coming to replace dying readers; consumer couponing habit shifting to mobile; Amazon (and box stores before it) continuing to kill local retail advertisers; the impending loss of legal advertising; abundant competition for advertising dollars everywhere — join to kill print.
Now the Independent is digital only. It claims its web site is profitable. Yes, print jobs will be lost but the company’s management says it will hire 25 new people to work on the digital future. They aren’t just shutting down the old; they are restructuring the company around the new.
Without a paper to dictate process, organization, culture, and economics, the Independent will be free to be whatever it needs to be to best serve its public. It need no longer always produce 600-word articles to cover any eventuality. I will bet it will take time — perhaps a newsroom generation — to realize this freedom. But someday, the Independent might not look at all like its newspaper forebear.
I’ve been talking with lots of newspaper editors and publishers who are trying to figure out how to make this transition while they still have — and, yes, depend on — print and its mass-media business model. It’s not easy. I believe that we must shift not only from print to digital but also from volume to value, building relationships with people based on relevance. The way we will do that is to listen to the communities we serve — communities of geography, interest, demography, or use case — and then find new ways to help them answer their needs and meet their goals with the tools we now have and the new products we make.
What if you have a newspaper that still makes money? Sure, milk it. But take that cash and reinvest it in the future — in new products and new models. And don’t put print on artificial life support. The New York Times’ pricing model, which makes it cheaper to subscribe to print and digital than digital alone, only props up subscriptions to the legacy product. Of course, I know why that’s beneficial to The Times — print readers are still worth more in advertising than digital readers. But the longer newspaper companies delay the inevitable, the weaker their transition to digital.
While you do keep the print newspaper alive, I’d advise rethinking it, too. Who needs a product conceived a century ago that today tells us what we already know from the web, let alone TV and Twitter? Just as I argue we must rethink news on mobile around use cases — summary, background, alert, engagement, action, collaboration — so should we reconsider the use case of the old newspaper. It could give us a quick view of the world, explanation, engagement (even fiction), photography, surprises: a different experience with different value. The risk of reinventing the paper is that staffs get excited by it again. But by separating the paper product from digital and mobile products, it also helps change the operation and culture of a newsroom, which must learn to regard print as a byproduct, not the end-product. The paper cannot lead the process of journalism if we are to get past it.
The Independent has taken one step — it might seem like a big one but it’s really just a first one — toward reinventing itself by breaking from its legacy means of production and distribution. Now it needs to realize and utilize the freedom it now has and, I hope, show the way for others.