Longing for Simpler Days…
I have a passion for news, history, current events and information in general. And, I’m also an old soul who yearns for things that remind me of simpler times when the world didn’t move nearly as fast as it does today. I like things like baseball cards (before kids and adults started collecting them because they might be ‘valuable’), making my own food from scratch, listening to LP’s on a turntable, and watching cartoons that don’t look like they are going to jump out of my TV. I also like picking up a newspaper and reading it. There’s something about the time it takes, the tactile nature of holding it, the ritual of reading it with a cup of coffee and the connection to a mix of local, national, and international news all in one tidy package that is appealing to me. All that being said – I’m in the minority as a dying breed when it comes to my desire to pick up an old fashioned newspaper and read it from cover to cover.
Fast Forward to the Digital Age
In this ‘Digital Age’, many anachronistic industries are evolving and being replaced by better technological solutions driven by consumer demand. We see this time and time again with simple, familiar themes such as the evolution of music media from Vinyl to Tape to CD to .MP3 in a relatively short time span – especially on the back end of that evolution. We’re also seeing an analogous transition in publishing with books and other print media which are rapidly moving from the ‘old-school’ handheld books being replaced by pod casts and digital devices such as the Kindle, iPad, Nook and Smartphones and Tablets. It only stands to reason that print media, such as magazines and newspapers, will rapidly follow suit.
My Immersion into Print Media
Recently, I was fortunate enough to have had the experience of working with a real-life print-focused news print media company. It was enlightening on many levels and I enjoyed learning new things about what goes into producing the newspaper that I so liked to read. The passion of the people that worked at the company also impressed me a great deal. They truly believed in what they were doing – providing a public service for the community. However, the fault in this commendable but flawed approach was that no one seemed concerned about the revenue side of the business other than a select few. It reminded me of walking into a non-profit that had a mission to do good and a focus to establish a donor base to justify their ’cause’. In the case of newspapers – subscribers and advertisers were the ‘donors’ and producing journalistic content is the ’cause’. The problem was/is that however noble their cause may have been, you can be assured that the Publisher was quite interested in turning a profit. Or at least breaking even. And the employees didn’t seem to care much about this small but important facet of the business. I observed a pervasive feeling of hopelessness among the group. Ideas and potential solutions to stem and reverse rapid declines in advertising and subscription revenue were not readily available. Nobody knew what to do. Nor did they have the means to do it.
The Music Industry as a Precursor to Change in Print Media
I believe that the music industry struggles in the late 90’s/early 2000’s can serve as a forewarning of the future of print media. Remember the time when there were file sharing platforms like Napster? While these were easy to use and not yet illegal, they were eroding revenue and royalties for artists and music labels. People freely shared .mp3 files and were able to easily access music without paying for it. The band Metallica famously fought the inevitable transition to digital music and filed a lawsuit vs. Napster in 2000 trying to stem the tides of transition and public desire. The eventual ubiquity of platforms such as iTunes and Amazon as ‘go-to’ distribution centers for music and digital media in general was unforeseen and principally hated by the band. That said, after years of struggle, lost revenue, and even being lampooned on South Park; the band acquiesced and joined the digital fray realizing as many do that money beats romantic longings for the good old days. The good old days being the romantic notion that people want to consume music in album format vs. purchasing singles.
We now see that this is far from the truth as singles revenue iTunes have significantly increased but the adverse impact on the music industry as a whole has been devastating. In this excellent graphic from RIAA via CNN Money; we can see that units of singles sold via digital platforms makes up ~80% of the total while album units lags far behind.
In the next graphic, we can see the devastating effect that the digital model has had on the music industry based on pure sales numbers. While volume of units has increased drastically over the past 35+ years, the revenue generated based on these sales has decreased by ~20% from 1973 sales figures and by a whopping ~65% since 1999 alone. It’s incredible to fathom that the music industry as a whole generates less revenue now than nearly 40 years ago despite a near 4x jump in unit sales and the improvements in quality, distribution capability, availability and ability to consume product in a growing world population!
So what does this have to do with News Print Media companies? Well, I think there are significant parallels to be drawn here. One being that the public in general has already moved rapidly towards consuming information digitally whether that be via television, smartphone or tablet. Many of the traditional U.S based Print News Media companies have covered the basics by building an ‘app’ or putting content online – some even have put up paywalls to attempt to generate revenue. But the fact is, few have any real R&D going on to give them the ability to innovate and get ahead of the curve. The New York Times being a notable exception with its substantial investment in R&D as outlined on their site. Most are already struggling for survival and considering options such as reducing print circulation either by cutting home delivery to 4 days/week like the Cleveland Plain Dealer or by reducing the number of days they print newspapers altogether like the New Orleans Times-Picayune, The Birmingham News, and the Portland Oregonian have all done among others.
Where is the Print Media industry going?
My brief experience in the traditional news print media arena struck me in such a way that I wanted to learn more and understand where the industry is headed and what the potential outcomes may be. In five years will we even be able to buy a newspaper? Or will it take a side trip to a special newsstand that carries a few select print publications? Will my old vinyl collection become akin to my yearning desire to hold the weight of a Sunday New York Times in my hands? And will that very paper cost me 5x what the ‘online edition’ costs me?
To answer these questions and more; I’ll be writing a Five part series on the current state of publications in print media. My intent is to understand and dig into what the drivers may be that influence the evolution of the industry in the next 3-5 years. And to find out what, if anything, can be done to keep it alive in something relative to its current form.
The five key areas I believe are currently spelling doom for the print media industry are:
Part 4 – Give me Data or Give me Death! Limited Business Intelligence capabilities are a handcuff
Part 5 – Going Old School – under evolved labor, operations, facilities and technology hinder the ability to compete
Stay tuned for next post when I start to delve into the significant impacts that the migration of advertisers are having on print media as they move their dollars into the digital realm.