Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Print Problems, Pixel Promises

I’ve long been an advocate of the convergence of print and pixel formats. Each has something to learn from the other, and, despite the insistent claims, the online world will not replace print in a clean sweep any time soon.

Despite the obvious limitations of long text pieces online, there’s yet another outbreak of print-death fever going around. Tim O’Reilly has heard whispers that the San Francisco Chronicle is in “serious trouble” and is laying off journalists and staff. Dave Winer wades in with a thoughtful contribution, while Robert Scoble trumpets, “Newpapers are dead”.

The problem with that kind of headline is that this is a complex situation with many variations and possible outcomes. Certainty is not an option here.

Newspapers have been in trouble as long as they have existed. I can name a dozen national titles that went out of business in Britain in the 20th century. It happens — all the time. One failure doesn’t necessarily signal the end of an industry.

Most UK national newspapers now put their whole output openly on websites. They break news online and follow up in later print issues with in-depth analyses and commentary. They also give away DVDs and lottery cards with the print version and have a sizeable magazine-type feature-set aimed at specific demographics. Not many of their customers want to turn their computers on to access all of that when they can buy it in a convenient print bundle for around a dollar while they’re on the move.

As newspapers become more like daily magazines, with retrospective analysis of news already broken on TV and online, urban populations are still buying print products in large quantities. The evening papers, for example, are bought by returning commuters to make their homeward journey a little more bearable and to catch up on the stories of the day. Local papers are increasingly the glue that binds the inhabitants of towns and villages together.

What is actually happening is a convergence, not a replacement. Increasingly print publishers are becoming digital publishers, while maintaining their print operations. Imagine the major titles — the FT, WSJ, NYT, or Times (London) — without their immensely prestigious paper versions. They would lose considerable traction in the marketplace without them.

We forget at our peril that most people like the reassuring feel of a “real world” product in their hands. They go online for certain types of information, but relax with a book or magazine.

Breaking news is covered better on 24-hour news channels than on websites or blogs. Immediacy is the USP here. Fiction is a pain on-screen. Long, complex, nonfiction is easier to handle in book form, and some subjects are presented far better in print than they are on the internet.

What we’re seeing is a weeding out process that will result in rapidly-changing information migrating online — as it already has — while considered analysis will appear in hybrid formats for different audiences. More reflective, longer-term material and fiction will still remain predominantly the province of print formats and subsequent dramatizations.

It’s often forgotten that new technology has transformed the print world too. On-demand book printing, from disc in tiny batches, is already changing the face of book production and will continue to do so.

Can anyone tell me why a wealthy society shouldn’t support many communications formats to their mutual advantage?

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