Motivated Self-Interest: Musings on print publishing and the web

Okay, so I haven’t written about Yonder Mountain String Band yet.  I will, eventually, I have some very pertinent things to say about Yonder at some point, when I get the time.  And that’s the crux of my problems at the moment–a sheer lack of time.

Like a lot of folks these days, particularly in the publishing industry, I work two full-time jobs.  I am a Vet Tech at a local clinic and I’m the editor, webmaster, editorial page designer, writer, photographer, etc for The Chesapeake Bay boating magazine, The Mariner.  I have a pretty full schedule.

I do have every intention of getting this off the ground and running in a lot of ways, but, as yet, time has not allowed.  But I have a spare few minutes today, so here goes.  I recently started a blog-style website for The Mariner, not so much to replicate the magazine, but to supplement it.  It’s been an interesting exercise so far (it’s been live for about three and a half weeks) and I’m about to try and tie it in to everything boating related on the Chesapeake Bay.

I’ve been somewhat outspoken in the past with regards to my feelings on the future of publishing, and this is a pretty good opportunity for me to try and cross-promote a print magazine and a website, two things that many people consider to be at cross purposes in a lot of ways.  Can it be done without robbing Peter to pay Paul?  I’ll find out.  A new print issue of The Mariner is getting delivered even as I type, and in there, right on premium page 4, is my editor’s column trumpeting the new site.  I’ve read many an opinion on the net that supports the belief that the audience for print and the web are two distinctly different groups.  I’m going to be very interested to see what, if any, uptick the website gets when the magazine gets out.  I tend not to believe opinions I read, especially expert ones.  They’re good for ideas, insight and occasional guideposts, but I prefer first hand experience every time.

While I do agree to an extent that the audience is different, I believe there is some overlap, probably a significant one.  Well, either way, I’ll find out pretty quickly based on the numbers in the next couple weeks.  I read a lot about the future of journalism and publishing, and one thing I’ve noticed is that many of the experts, as it were, are beginning to trumpet the need to appeal to the audience.  Holy shit, what a revelation!  Why didn’t I think of that?

Unfortunately for the industry, it is actually a revelation.  The audience has been lost in a lot of ways.  In my experience, very few times do the readers even get mentioned when discussing plans for the  future.  It’s sort of like buying a big diamond ring, getting the priest, booking the honeymoon and all the while blowing off the bride.  Without the audience, none of us are going to be making any money.  So, in that sense, it’s a good thing that people on the inside are starting to realize that readers are crucial.  Now, if only they would get the point that talent to produce content for those readers is pretty important, too.

As times have gotten worse for print media, layoffs have abounded.  Unfortunately for people like me, most of those layoffs have been creative people.  If it were me, I would have lopped off a few highly paid executives and management types in favor of keeping skilled talent, but, hey, I’m not an executive and have no desire to be at any point.  One of the problems with this cost-savings approach is that print media, particularly newspapers, have been having trouble competing with so-called citizen journalists and the plethora of local-centric websites that have been springing up.  The party line within the industry has been that these are just fly-by-night amateurs, a fad that will fade away with the next hot trend on the net.  Well, that may have been true at one point, but not anymore.

The industry’s layoffs have actually made this problem far worse.  Where do you think all these out of work professionals have turned?  That’s right, they are starting up their own websites in droves.  And these aren’t fly-by-nighters, these are trained, skilled, experienced pros.  Uh-oh.

Take the example of David Healey.  For years, David worked as an editor at the Cecil Whig before he got the cost-cutting ax a few months back.  Now, he’s sporting a shiny new local website called The Cecil Observer.  Upon seeing the site, my first question was, “why wasn’t he doing some of this when he was employed by the local newspaper?”  Maybe it was lack of motivation by the job or the circumstances therein, management that stifled creativity or just a general lack of interest, I don’t know.   But, whatever the reason, he’s doing it now.  And needless to say, this particular problem for the Whig wouldn’t exist if not for the layoff.  And they are not alone in that.  Laid off creative types are flocking in droves to their own local content websites.

If mainstream print publishing is not careful, they will be left so far behind the eightball by pissed off, highly motivated former employees that there will be no coming back, whatever their resources.  The giant debt-loads they carry create enough of a problem in competing with amateurs not looking to make money.  If they now have to compete with pros who know the industry and have the financial and creative flexibility to experiment, things could get a lot worse.  Fast.

I say all this not to criticize the industry that I have collected a paycheck from for so long, I say it in the hopes that the industry will wise up and continue to exist so I can keep collecting a paycheck.  There’s nothing like motivated self-interest, after all.

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Published in: on July 22, 2009 at 6:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. Thanks for this insightful piece. I enjoyed reading it and agree so much. Take the whig, they could’ve had a much better value proposition for readers and advertisers with a smaller number of well-paid executives, while paying for reporters. Don’t cut the thing that makes the product. In the case of the newspaper, it’s content. As a serious reader of newspapers, the print folks have just about completely turned me away from them. They’ve stopped publishing the content I want and so I go elsewhere for it. And the content they do publish is virtually a commodity product. I can catch the important local police news on the 11 o’clock news tonight or thanks to the AP all over the net. How about some real product, where we dig into the news and don’t just print infomercials or soundbytes for the local politicians. The Whig used to do some of that stuff.


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