Columbia Journalism Review, July/August, 2000
In the last few years the conventional wisdom has been that the advent of the new media will hasten the demise of print.
That newspapers will die as readers get more information from the Internet; magazines will be overwhelmed by the proliferation of inexpensively– produced, niche-oriented sites and Webzines; bound books will be replaced by digitalized e-books. That the culture of print, in short, will soon be a thing of the past.
But I wonder whether this confuses the content with the attachment we have to a particular kind of container. In fact, a number of recent developments suggest that new media may actually be the salvation of old media; that online newspapers, Webzines, and e-books could preserve and extend the best aspects of the print culture while augmenting it with their various technological advantages. If this is true, then the future of old media is in embracing the new – a development we see most clearly with newspapers.
Newspapers have been spurred by a simple economic fact: more than a third of their revenue comes from classified advertising, which readily lends itself to searchable online listings. In a defensive move, newspapers quickly and heavily invested in such online sites as CareerPath.com, PowerAdz.com, AdOne, and Classified Ventures, and also use those companies for added exposure for national ads. Most have also put their own local classifieds online.
The Web sites, meanwhile, become a way to broaden and deepen the content base – newspapers are good at content as well as a potential source of revenue, as home pages attract new advertisers and subscribers. Knight Bidder’s Real Cities network (RealCities.com) is a good example. The portal site gets news from the chain’s thirty-one dailies, as well as from Belo and Central newspapers, who are partners in the operation. And it features directories of community resources and businesses, classifieds, entertainment, shopping, free e-mail, community publishing, and search capability. Real Cities brought Knight Bidder $31.4 million in revenue in 1999.
The New York Times is another. The paper’s robust Web site has attracted 11.4 million registered non-paying readers (as of April, up 61.9 percent from a year earlier). In order to get access to the site, readers must offer up some basic personal data, which will eventually be used for direct marketing. By 1999 nearly half of those registered readers reported that they had never purchased a paper copy of the Times, which means that the online version was introducing the brand to an entirely new group. The Web presence also helps the Times’s print circulation; the paper gained some 12,000 new subscribers via the site in the first half of 1999.
Other papers have gone further afield. The Record, in Hackensack, New Jersey, has created some 2,000 community-group Web pages on its NJCommunity.com site, which are linked to the paper itself. The site has helped local groups build home pages to disseminate information and create conversations about everything from Cub Scouts to carpools.
As they embrace the Internet, the newspapers are beginning to blur the line between old and new media. With the introduction of so-called “inkless paper,” the line will eventually become even harder to discern. E-Ink, a consortium funded by Hearst and Motorola, is developing a technology that manipulates a grid of microcapsules filled with blue ink and white paint chips enclosed between two sheets of rubbery plastic. When hit by an electric charge the chips float into place, creating words on a “page.” With this, the daily paper would be downloaded from a computer or phone line. The consortium predicts that newspapers will start experimenting with these inkless, electronic papers in three years. If the aesthetics prove acceptable to newspaper readers, many trees could live fuller lives, and a lot of newspaper-company money will be saved.
MAGAZINES While most magazines have developed some online presence – reproducing the print version and adding searchable archives – few have taken full advantage of the Internet’s capability to strengthen their brand. Conde Nast> for example, has decided to do very little with the river of editorial content it pours out every month.
By coming so slowly to the Web, magazines have ceded ground to Webzines. But there are exceptions. Smart Money, the joint effort of Dow Jones and Hearst, boasts an extremely rich and popular interactive financial site. The Atlantic Monthly created Atlantic Unbound, a stand-alone Webzine with an active reader’s forum, its own lengthy interviews, features, and reviews, as well as the entire print magazine. Online since November 1993, Atlantic Unbound (theatlantic.com) has done a lot to rejuvenate the reputation of a magazine that is sometimes perceived as fusty. Among political journals of opinion, National Review has developed an excellent site (nationalreview.com) that is updated constantly and frequently breaks news that the print magazine’s bi-weekly schedule makes difficult.
One intriguing development among Webzines took place this past April when Nerve, “the magazine of literate smut,” started a paper counterpart, one of the first such “reverse launches.” The idea for an offline version grew out of research that found that nearly twothirds of the Webzine’s 2.8 million users said they were interested in a print edition as well. Produced inexpensively inhouse and distributed only through bookstores, the 50,000 paper copies of Nerve sold well, and may have set a precedent for an economic method for launching new magazines.
BOOKS Of all the varieties of print culture, book publishing is surely the least efficient and most outdated. Despite advances in management, roughly 30 percent of the books are still returned to publishers, for a full discount, by bookstores. With rising paper and storage costs, publishers are extremely eager to embrace technology that will transform their industry from a “heavy gravity” to a “zero gravity” business. The answer is digitized books – whether distributed as “e-books” or published in small runs by print-on-demand (POD) machines, and the race is now on among major publishing houses to invest in such technology. St. Martin’s Press has already said it will eventually release every title in both print and digital form.
Aside from enriching the culture, the economic opportunities created by POD are enormous. In the future, there may be no such thing as an “out of print” book. About 90,000 books go out of print every year, and if even a small number of these titles were stored digitally in order to be printed as needed, publishers could recover a significant stream of lost revenue.
Although it is too early to predict precisely what will emerge from the collision of new and old media, there are several indications that the encounter will be far more beneficial than was once thought. In the future, most magazines and newspapers will probably lead double lives: the paper product driving readers to the Internet site, and vice versa. And the lines between these media will blur, with each form functioning according to its strengths. A Web site might handle short, quick news, for example, with longer features left for the newspaper or magazine. In the future, lengthy nonfiction journalism might be distributed by Web sites in digitalized form, then printed using POD technology.
Old media has an advantage it must nourish: credibility. In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal the worry among many journalists was that the likes of Matt Drudge would set the standard in the future. But although newspapers have embraced Drudge’s Internet, they seem to have realized that their strength is in sticking to old values – distinguishing fact from rumor, acting as elite authenticators of information.
Now that new media has provided a level field, old media has a unique opportunity to play on it.