Scott Paton  |  01/29/2009

Is Print Dead?

It’s a whole new world for print media.

If you’ve been paying attention, it’s probably no surprise to many of you that magazines and newspapers are struggling to survive. Daily newspapers are getting smaller and smaller; magazines are getting thinner and thinner. This issue of Quality Digest is the smallest we’ve ever produced. The long-predicted “end of print” seems to have finally materialized. The recession, the high price of fuel last year, and the popularity of the internet have all radically changed the balance sheet for traditional print media.

U.S. News & World Report will cease publication this year and be available only online. The Christian Science Monitor and PC Week will do the same. Even Entertainment Weekly is mulling a move to a strictly online presence. Many daily newspapers, including both Detroit newspapers, are moving to a mostly online presence. The New York Times is rumored to be in serious financial condition and may run out of cash as early as May.

Trade magazines like Quality Digest are in the same boat. Our advertisers are much more interested in our online offerings than they are in our traditional display ads. Because we don’t charge our subscribers for receiving the magazine, we rely primarily on advertising for our revenue. Fortunately, we have a very robust web site, with a great deal of content from the magazine, our e-newsletters, streaming video, directories, and more. And we’ll be adding even more content and enhancements to our site.

Part of the appeal of online media for advertisers is that it’s currently much less expensive because publishers have traditionally viewed their online offerings as a secondary revenue stream, and it’s much less expensive to produce: no paper to buy, no postage to pay. Don’t expect this revenue model to continue. As print disappears, online advertising prices will rise and so will the cost to users to access the content. (Hey, editors have bills to pay, too.) Already the Wall Street Journal and Consumer Reports have very successful pay-to-access content revenue models in place. You might have to start paying to access some of the information that used to be available for free.

There’s another very important aspect to the end of print. Is it also the end of the “fourth estate”? The press has always been the unofficial fourth part of the traditional checks-and-balances form of democracy in the United States. The first three are: executive (i.e., the president and governors), judicial (i.e., the courts), and legislative (i.e., representative government such as the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, state assemblies, etc.).

Obviously, the kind of information that Quality Digest and most other trade magazines bring you is important but usually not life-altering, certainly not the kind of investigative journalism that exposes corrupt politicians, bad investment schemes, or health and safety issues featured in major newspapers or mainstream magazines. These publications rely on hundreds of experienced reporters and editors to discover, vet, and accurately report the news. When the newspapers die, who will the public rely on to expose such issues? If a Watergate-type scandal were to occur again, who would reveal it? Bloggers? Who will vet these kinds of stories? Who will protect the falsely accused? A lot of the popular web sites such as the Drudge Report that have “late-breaking news” get their information from traditional news outlets like The New York Times or the Associated Press. Where will they get their information when the traditional media outlets are gone?

I don’t want to seem like an old fuddy-duddy or a salmon swimming upstream. I know that many media companies will survive, new ones will be born, and new systems and processes will emerge to make such enterprises profitable and credible. It’s going to be a very interesting transition, and I believe that few people, if any, know what the digital publishing model will look like in three to five years.

Quality Digest will make the transition. For now, we’ll continue to print the magazine as long as it’s practical to do so. But I’m sure the day will come when we cease to publish the print version. It’s just a matter of when and how. The day will come, probably sooner than you think, when you will only be able to read Quality Digest (and The New York Times, and every other newspaper and magazine) in a digital format such as on a web page or on a device such as Amazon.com’s Kindle. Whatever the format, we’ll be here to provide you with the most comprehensive coverage of the quality world.

And since we’re on the subject of the digital world, post your thoughts about the future of media at my newly updated blog at www.qualitycurmudgeon.com. I’ll be posting there more frequently so check back often. And if you haven’t been to Quality Digest’s web site recently, check it out. It was completely redesigned this summer and has some very cool new features, including streaming video.

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About The Author

Scott Paton’s picture

Scott Paton

Scott Paton is Quality Digest’s editor at large and president of Paton Professional, a provider of books, videos, webinars, and other resources for quality professionals.