The coming waterfall

READING all the year-end media round-ups and forecasts, I’m thinking it’s probably more fun to write them. It’s been a seething year in the media, with more churn than change. The sudden news that Janet Robinson is out at The New York Times, is a symptom. The fact that she will be gone in two weeks, but no replacement CEO in sight, is another.

Publishers know that they need to do something about their business, they just don’t know what. The big companies are struggling just to get the right CEO. Time Warner, after a nearly year of pondering, last month installed an advertising executive at the helm of Time Inc., Laura Lang from Digitas. A good idea, particularly if publishing is just an adjunct of the ad business, as it often seems.

Time’s previous CEO, Jack Griffin, lasted only six months. His initiatives in the digital arena, like hiring Randall Rothenberg, were abandoned. Rothenberg went back to the IAB. (Another loss on the digital side in this rudderless period was Josh Quittner, a respected, tech-savvy Time editor who left for Flipboard in the summer.) You can expect that the absence of a CEO at the Times will result in more people-who-get-it, getting out.

The newspaper business seems more threatened than the magazine business. Jeffrey I. Cole, a professor at the USC Annenberg J-school and director of the Center for the Digital Future, released a peek a big report he’s been working on, predicting that that this digital future does not include a lot of newspapers. In fact, he says, only four big ones will survive, at least in print: The Times, the WSJ, USA Today and the Washington Post. I’m glad that two of my almus matris made the cut, but sad to see the L.A. Times and the Houston Chronicle go.

In around 1990 David Berlow, speaking at the Poynter Institute, predicted the end of print newspapers in 25 years—2015. It’s wonder he wasn’t lynched. That prediction seems real now. However loud and clear, predictions about industries never seem to be fulfilled in as clear and concrete a way as they are made. Things are too complicated. Newspapers have been working for 16 years trying to adapt to the web, and have been more adventurous than magazines. First stumbling with the 27/7 frequency of the web, the dailies were in a better position than the monthlies.As the web developed into a quick-in-and-out transitional space, and as social media began to seriously disrupt the reporting and distribution of news, they’ve struggled to stay afloat in a cultural stream that’s gathering speed. (It hasn’t help that their old business model deteriorated at the same time.)

It’s human nature to see danger and imagine the worst, that this fast current will at some point go over the falls. “We believe that America is at a major digital turning point,” Cole says. His study also predicts PCs will soon be replaced by tablets. Well, they will, at least for some consumption of news and other content. Remember, though, that Apple so far has sold “only” about 40 million iPads. Not a small number, but even if they were all in the United States, 85 percent of the population would still be iPad-less. When tablets get cheaper and lighter, more people (maybe everyone) will buy them and find how nice they are for consuming media. And we’ll still have PCs for work. (Hint: They have keyboards.) And much media consumption will still be done at work, at least if the boss is not looking.

The Annenberg prediction, like Berlow’s, is based on the assumption that the current momentum will continue unabated, and there is plenty of evidence to support that. Nevertheless, the newspaper business has been trying to change. There have been big efforts to create digital products, including a zillion iPad apps. And the classic management response to a downturn has been applied: massive cost reductions. Starting in 2010, the big newspaper groups began to breathe easier. Magazine groups, like the big ad agencies, also responded with big cuts and consolidation. Titles were shed, and big acquisitions were made. Time Inc. sold its special-interest magazine division, Time4 Media. Hearst bought Hachette. And so on.

This is a digital turning-point, but that doesn’t mean that print will go away. As in Detroit, home delivery may become a weekend play for newspapers. And some magazines are finding that an increase in production values makes readers happy. We’re seeing better paper, bigger trim sizes, and longer feature wells.

Until digital publications can offer the same ease-of-use, the sense of immersion and the compelling digital flow that print publications provide, some readers will still opt for print, if they can get it. And until digital publications can match that connection with readers, advertisers won’t pay as much for online media as for print. In the long tail of print, there are beautiful new magazines that are printed in limited editions, like the typographical journal, Codex, or McSweeney’s, an artisanal quarterly which two years ago published its own prototype of a future newspaper, “The San Francisco Panorama,” with rich narratives, upgraded stock and all-color printing.

Nevertheless, this is not a cyclical downturn, a spring flood. It’s a sea change, and it’s quickened by disruptions in the old print business model, in books as well as magazines and newspapers. The publishers can buy some time, and find ways to save some of the print business, but it won’t be the same print business. The idea that it may not all come crashing down at once (five years hence or whenever) is not very reassuring.

As discussed here previously, the business model for online publishing is yet to be figured out. Annenberg should ask the question: “When will digital revenues pay for the newsroom?” I haven’t heard that one answered. Ten years ago it looked like web site income would exceed costs by, say, 2004. That didn’t happen for the long tail, or even for most big content sites, because unlimited ad space inventory suppressed the rates. Could The New York Times digital products pay for its massive news operation? Not next year, even if they find a CEO. The problem is that the current formula just doesn’t cover the costs for most publishers. Some startups, like Huffington Post, have found a way to make it work, but of course they don’t pay many of their bloggers, and in any case much of its content is aggregated from the old-line print-based publications (which irritated Bill Keller all to hell, another Times executive who retired sooner than expected).

The next big question is: If publishers come up with a new model, like the Times pay wall, will they be able to implement it? The answer to that one may justify the predictions of doom. They don’t have a strategy; they have many strategies.

At a recent meeting at one of the big groups in New York, I saw, again, that the smart techies are bogged down for the lack of a coherent direction. Digital initiatives are moving in different directions, with different apps and sites—and different ad avails, marketing goals and editorial objectives. The platforms aren’t aligned, with the result that at this group there are five different content management systems. This is R&D, not a publishing strategy. It is hard to manage—and, worse, harder to monetize.

There is no consensus at these legacy groups, even where they have a CEO, and they don’t have much time to gel a consensus and make a plan. As one executive said at the meeting, “We can’t keep supporting all these different sites and apps.” He knew the answer is HTML5, and a push to the browser, but he can’t get agreement from his colleagues, or the funds.

At the root of the problem is the truth that the publishers and their editors are stuck in print. It’s still their main revenue, which confirms their reluctance to change. They may fear the predicted waterfall, and promote slogans like, “Digital first,” and “Mobile first,” but they still talk about converting their publications into digital products.

This is also human nature, the feeling that the way things were when we got here are they way they are supposed to be. Of course, the only constant is change. Those of us on the typographical end of the business will attest to that. From metal, to photo, to digital, to web fonts, change hasn’t stopped long enough for us to get used to each new phase.

Letterforms are still letterforms, but they perform differently on screens than printed pages, and they are created and distributed in new ways. News executives recognized early on that a newspaper on the web is a different product. (We need a new word, recognizing there is no paper in news web sites.) The screen size was so much smaller than broadsheet newspapers, that they understood immediately that at least the layout was going to have be different. By 2000 the Times and the other big web sites had become 24/7 offerings, with rapid-fire delivery of news items. But the delivery of the longer stories has never that usable, and has gotten worse over the last 10 years. Clean reader pages like the old International Herald Tribune site disappeared. You have to go to their apps to approximate the immersive experience of reading a newspaper, but it is not the same. In fact I now I find and read different stories on the apps.

With magazines, we have a good, adaptable word. (“Magazine” means storehouse. In French it means department store. In the military it means arsenal. It doesn’t just describe a printed publication.) Maybe because the iPad screen size was close to that of a single magazine page, the publishers thought, hah!, we can put magazines on these things. The result was Zinio, and worse. There are exceptions. For example, at Hearst, Scrollmotion’s innovative Esquire app, now a year old. One wonders what its circulation is. 20,000?

David Carey at Hearst is confident that his group, with 20 magazines, will reach one million digital subscriptions by the end of 2012. This sounded great until I remembered when I was working Hearst in the 90s, they wouldn’t think of launching or buying a single title if it could quickly reach a million circulation.

As good as some digital magazines are, most are artifacts of print magazines. The print is produced first and a team takes the material and extrudes it into a web site or an app. At Time Inc. and Condé Nast those teams have gotten big, trying to produce the apps with the print-based tools like Adobe InDesign. And the cost is still paid by the print edition. Some justify the digital losses, saying the apps help retain subscribers.

When thinking about this stuff, I am always reminded of the famous Harvard Business Review article in 1960, “Marketing Myopia” by Theodore Levitt. It explains the similar predicament faced by executives of the passenger railroads 50 years ago. Levitt asked the question, “What business are you in?”  The wrong answer was “the railroad business.” The right answer was “passenger transport.” And it’s the same now with the print media. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Newspaper web sites may no longer be repurposed newspapers, but there is still a lot of ink in the veins of the editors. And magazine iPad apps are purposefully made to be just like the magazines, produced with the same workflow, with maybe a few videos bolted on. The ads for the Kindle Fire show a few magazines, and they might as well be screen shots from their InDesign layouts.

The question is, can these big groups figure out their core business (telling stories) before they reach the waterfall? Can they reconcile their internal conflicts, and make a series of new products, with consistent branding and friendly user interfaces? Can they set up a new workflow with a central CMS and overlapping teams that create the right content for the right platform? Can they rally around a CEO, if they have one, who knows where the world is going?

The evidence points toward: “Maybe.” But let’s keep in mind, there’s a reason there is no New York Central Airlines.

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