The article and the future of print

This week, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger declared that the paper would go “digital first,” following John Paton‘s lead and stopping a step short of his strategy at Journal Register: “digital first … print last.”

My Guardian friends are getting a bit tetchy about folks trying to tell them how to fix the institution, but given that it lost £34.4m last year, I’d say the intervention is warranted and should be seen only as loving care: chicken soup for the strategy. So I will join in.

My thoughts about the Guardian have something to do with my thoughts on the article. That’s a logical connection because the means of production and distribution of print are what mandated the invention of the article. So it is fitting that we consider its fate in that context.

But first let’s examine what it means to be digital first. It does not mean just putting one’s stories online before the presses roll. In that case, print still dictates the form and rhythm of news: everything in the process of a newsroom is still aimed at fitting round stories into squared holes on pages. That, as Jay Rosen says, is the key skill newsroom residents think they have (and the skill journalism schools prepare them for): the production cycle of print.

Digital first, aggressively implemented, means that digital drives all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that as soon as a journalist knows something, she is prepared to share it with her public. It means that she may share what she knows before she knows everything (there’s a vestige of the old culture, which held that we could know everything … and by deadline to boot) so she can get help from her public to fill in what she doesn’t know. That resets the journalistic relationship to the community, making the news organization a platform first, enabling a community to share its information and inviting the journalist to add value to that process. It means using the most appropriate media to impart information because we are no longer held captive to only one: text. We now use data, audio, video, graphics, search, applications, and wonders not yet imagined. Digital first is the realization that news happens with or without us — it mimics the architecture of the internet, end-to-end — and we must use all the tools available to add value where we can.

Digital first, from a business perspective, means driving the strategy to a digital future, no longer depending on the print crutch. That means creating a likely smaller and more efficient enterprise that can survive, then prosper post-monopoly, post-scarcity in an abundance-based media economy. It means serving the commercial needs of businesses in our communities in new ways: not just by selling space but by providing services (helping them with their own online strategies — including Google, Facebook, Groupon, craigslist, et al; training them; perhaps holding events with them). It means finding new efficiencies in the collaborative link economy. It means outrunning the grim reaper and getting past risky dependency on free-standing inserts (the coupons and circulars that will one day, sooner than we know — zap! — disappear) and retail advertising (which continues to implode) and the last vestiges of classified (how quaint) and circulation revenue (sorry!). It means getting rid of the cost of the analog business (“iron and real estate,” as Paton says).

Print last. Note that none of us — no, not even I — is saying print dead. Print, at least for a time, still has a place in serving content and advertising. But let’s re-examine that place even as we re-examine the role of the article, the journalist, and the advertisement in digital.

Since I spoke about this with Rusbridger last time he was in New York to herald the coming of Guardian for Yanks, I’ve refined my thinking. As I understand the well-known business of the Guardian — unlike many US papers and unlike at least one of its UK competitors, the Times — its Sunday paper, the Observer, is an economic burden. My thought earlier had been to give it up, just as many American papers are contemplating giving up other days of the week but keeping Sunday (and Thursdays and perhaps another … because they are still useful to wrap around those free-standing inserts). No, they won’t keep publishing on those days for journalistic purposes but because they have distribution value. Cynical, perhaps, but true.

But all this talk about the article has made me contemplate a new future: What if the Guardian became an online-only and international brand of news, multimedia, and comment and the Observer became a once-a-week (who cares what day of the week?) print brand of analysis, context, comment, and narrative? The Guardian has 37 million users, two-thirds of them outside the UK. Going online-only would enable it to become a truly international brand. The Observer could compete with the master of the article, the one publication that adds great value through the form: the Economist. As a newspaper of depth, this Observer could mimic Die Zeit in Germany, an amazing journal of reporting and commentary that is still growing in circulation. The print Observer could be printed in America, competing with weak-tea Sunday newspapers in markets across the country. Prior efforts to consider a print Guardian in the U.S. have stopped short. Could this succeed? Dunno.

The point is that the article as a high form of journalistic practice could succeed in a high-value print form while the Guardian could become a journal of news and comment in text, photo, video, audio, graphics, data….

What also makes me wonder about this is The New York Times’ proud announcement that it will remake its Week in Review into the Sunday Review next week. Truth be told, I haven’t read the Sunday Times in ages. I used to hang on its arrival at newsstands on Saturday nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but now I find it to be day-old bread, yeasty but stiff. Could The Times turn its plans for Sunday Review into an American Economist? I’m less sanguine about its chances than the Guardian’s. In either case, the winner would be the one that finds the greatest value in the old form of the article.

See, it’s not dead. It just needs a savior.

: MORE: I meant to add a few thoughts on the form the article takes in these media. In digital, articles are still valuable to synthesize a story, to summarize a complex day’s news, to add context, and so on. Again, not all stories need such articles, but many will. In this vision of print, the article takes on a different raison d’etre and a higher calling: It needs to add perspective. Bill Keller says it this way in his preview of the new Review:

Jonathan Landman, who took over the section from Dan Lewis, put it this way: The news sections’ job is to inform. (The desired reader reaction: “I didn’t know that!”) The opinion section’s job is to persuade. (“Yes, I see the light!”) The job of the Review is to help people see things in unexpected ways. (“I never thought of it that way!”)

I’d say The Economist presents the model for that kind of article. It is a high, a very high bar to reach. Can the Guardian attain that? Yes. The New York Times? Yes. The workaday local paper?

: Related: Charlie Beckett on Wikileaks and the threat of new news. Terry Heaton on news and the story.