Print Editions as a Vital Niche

Hallelujah! I’m witnessing indications of overdue changes in two of the four publishing sectors.

In chronological order, publishing’s four sectors are books, newspapers, magazines, and newsletters. The newsletter industry has been the quickest to adapt to online technologies, changing much of its production from print to PDF and other electronic formats. The magazine industry has been somewhat slow to do so. Meanwhile, newspapers are arguably the most affected by new media and books are the least affected. Yet both are where I’m witnessing sudden but overdue changes.

Newspapers: Print No Longer Sacrosanct

Last week, I was at a seminar for print newspaper editors and their chiefs of online. The seminar itself, run by a nonprofit foundation, was about change. As one of the seminar’s facilitators, I was asked to critique a number of newspapers’ plans to adapt to change. Most of these papers were among the 100 largest of the U.S.’s 1,439 dailies.

The print edition has always been sacrosanct to the newspaper industry. During the past 20 years, which includes the proprietary online services era before the Internet was opened to the public, online has been a sideshow to newspaper executives. That’s now changed.

Newsroom staffs are the root of the newspaper industry’s core product: the print edition. A year or two ago, newspaper executives would be loathe to transfer print newsroom staff to online. Print editions still earn 90 to 98 percent of most newspapers’ gross revenues. But last week I heard the editors of several major papers readily plan to transfer staff to the online newsroom later this year.

Perhaps desperation motivated some of their attitude change. Print readerships, circulations, and advertising revenues are steadily declining, in many cases actually plummeting. Yet online usage and advertising revenues are steadily rising. Many newspaper editors and publishers have realized that online is the future of their industry, newsprint its history. I’m witnessing the newspaper industry reach an inflection point.

The most striking indication was a phrase the editor of one of the U.S.’s 100 largest newspapers used when presenting his plan to deal with changing times: “while maintaining the print edition as a vital niche.”

Despite having worked with newspaper executives for more than 30 years, I never thought I’d hear any of them say that.

Books: Shedding Both Hard and Soft Covers

When was the last time you were stuck in an airport lounge or doctor’s waiting room or on an overnight stay at an in-law’s home and you wished you had one or more of the books you were reading? How often or prominently do you display your copy of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “Be a Real Estate Millionaire: Secret Strategies to Lifetime Wealth Today,” or “The Oprah Phenomenon” in your home? Have you ever not been able to fit your carryon bag under the airline seat because the 700-page historical tome inside the bag was too large?

Leather-bound books in bookcases make wonderful décor, the jacket covers of your hardcover copies of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Ulysses” in your bookcase give you an intellectual air, and handling a finely bound book and turning its pages can be a tactile experience (minus any paper cuts).

However, most people’s books aren’t classics, leather-bound, or meant for display. Nor is it easy for people to have a number of their books readily at hand whenever they’re away from their bookcases.

That’s why the Amazon Kindle, iRex iLiad, and Sony Digital Book Reader are interesting devices.

Before anyone points out that these aren’t perfect devices, let me say I agree. The experience of reading a book via a Kindle isn’t any better than reading a book via the Gemstar eBook from eight years ago. The devices’ limit of a single column of text and viewing pictures and maps only in black and white doesn’t make reading magazines and newspapers via them very satisfactory. But the Kindle certainly passes the good-enough standard, and its sales have surprised the experts.

Kindle’s advantages are its free wireless connectivity to the 130,000-title Amazon bookstore; the ability to sample a chapter of books for free from that store; the store’s discounted prices of books for the Kindle — $9.99 versus $25 to $30 in print (albeit, after you’ve purchased the $359 device); and its automatic delivery of each new newspaper or magazine to subscribers.

The Kindle and its siblings are darn convenient if you are traveling, are stuck in a waiting lounge, need ready access to any number of business books or novels, are tired of carrying piles of books when traveling, or don’t want to clutter up your home or office with romance novels, thrillers, self-help, or craft books.

Sales of the Kindle and e-books have surprised experts, who now estimate the figures are a magnitude higher than initial projections. Citigroup estimates Amazon has sold 189,000 Kindles this year and will sell 2.2 million in the first two years, generating Kindle title sales of between $400 million and $750 million. “Time” magazine reports that Kindle title sales have doubled in the past two months. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says Kindles have already generated 12 percent of his company’s overall book sales. Analysts at Pacific Crest expect that Kindle titles will generate $2.4 billion in book sales by 2012. “Wired” magazine reports that a second-generation Kindle, reportedly with an 8.5 in. x 11 in. screen, will go on sale at the end of this year.

We’re witnessing overdue changes in two of publishing’s biggest sectors. The newspaper industry and the book industry are realizing that print editions may be not the future of their businesses. They’re an illustrious but vital niche.

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