So we’re a day or so away from heading into a new decade, the second decade of the 21st Century, if you can believe that. It seems like only yesterday that I went camping in front of a big bonfire on the beach for New Year’s Eve, figuring better safe than sorry about the whole Y2K thing. Was that really 10 years ago? If nothing else, that over-hyped moneymaker for software companies should have taught us all that predictions are about as useful as an air conditioner for a polar bear. But 2012’s coming up and, according to the Mayan calendar, we’re all doomed anyway. Again. Of course, my personal wall calendar ends after tomorrow, but I doubt they’ll be making any big-budget movies starring John Cusack about that.
Being the end of the year, especially the end of a decade, routinely brings about reams of predictions for the approaching year. Very rarely are they ever spot on, but that doesn’t stop anyone and everyone with some spare time and a platform from channeling their inner Nostradamus. No matter how things go, I’m looking forward to a much better year in 2010 than I had in 2009. This past year, while being quite possibly the worst year ever for the publishing industry, has taught us a few things. One of those things is that a large number of very-well-paid, highly educated, management class individuals don’t learn obvious lessons that conflict with their belief structure until those lessons smack them upside the head. And sometimes not even then.
We’ve also learned that when faced with a genuine crisis, the industry as a whole will respond with precision quickness to address a short-term problem by selling its long term soul to maintain immediate illusory margins. And we also learned that, when faced with an ample amount of quality content competing with their work for readers freely available online, they will make the problem worse by turning loose tens of thousands of trained professional journalists, many of whom are disgruntled at being laid off, all seeking ways to earn a living online, helping to transition the reputation of the blogger from the stereotype amateur basement dweller with no life to an entrepreneurial professional making things happen. Way to throw gasoline on that fire, guys.
Anyway, here is a link to a fairly comprehensive roundup of predictions for the industry in 2010. And here is a second one. This one is actually linked to in the first, but I just thought it was worth pointing out specifically as it has thoughts from a number of industry pros on what the soon-to-be-future will bring. In addition, here is a brief discussion of some of the concerns facing paywalls, which seem to be on many people’s list of things we’ll see more of in 2010. And just to be thorough, here is a link to some dour predictions on the coming electronic tablet renaissance. Particularly interesting are some of comments to the piece, found here. This is a pretty good example of why the industry has been left in a bit of a hole. The article itself is good, and makes some cogent points, but the audience ended up providing a far greater array of opinions, information and ideas. For an industry that has long underestimated the intelligence of its audience, it’s not really surprising to me that they can’t wrap their heads around how best to take advantage of an informed, expressive audience. It was so much easier back when the only reader response publishers had to worry about were the occasional letters to the editor. Now, the audience is helping to expose the weaknesses in their systems even more every day.
The basic gist of most predictions I’ve seen all have a common theme: The worst is behind us. Many are predicting a halt to the massive revenue declines, although not many are touting growth as yet, with mostly flat revenue for the upcoming year. Pay walls will proliferate, although most people seem to be saying that they won’t be too effective. And the electronic tablets are hit or miss. Some people think there’s great potential (me, for one, if they don’t screw it up with high prices, propreitory devices, intrusive copyright management tools and basically just try to transfer the magazine to the screen instead of designing specifically for the device. Knowing the industry’s history, however, I expect us to go through a period where all of those things happens before they get to be really useful) and some people, like the above mentioned article writer, thinks they are an expensive diversion that will ultimately have no purpose. And at the end of the day, most people expect there to be some sort of progress made toward a sustainable revenue model, although no one can tell you what that’s going to be.
I, for one, am looking forward to trying out some new things in 2010. If 2009 as taught me anything, it’s that’s expecting to earn a living within the corporate publishing structure is a fool’s quest at this point. Even if you are fortunate enough to get your hands on a full-time gig with benefits, chances are it’s not paying much, and you’ll be answering to all sorts of no-nothing bean counters, especially if revenue doesn’t have the expected come back. If you have any creative or professional integrity at all, these types of companies will suck the life right out of you. And the financial “rewards,” if you can call them that, simply aren’t worth the aggrevation. Plus, all these folks out there talking about flat revenue for this year have got there heads in the clouds. 2010, at least the first half of it, is going to be underwater just like 2009 was. Maybe not quite as severely, but the bleeding is far from over.
It still seems to me that most of us are missing the bigger picture here. Publishing made all its money for decades by essentially controlling the distribution. They don’t control that anymore. Plus, for the past year, they’ve engaged in a systematic program of cuts that have further eroded their distribution advantage. The reason I think that losses haven’t stopped yet are that massive cutbacks like the ones they’ve engaged in always lead to revenue declines down the road. We haven’t seen the total affects of those cutbacks yet. The industry as a whole might indeed level out by the end of this year, but I suspect some of the companies who have cut the most have done little to fend off the approaching death spiral. In fact, they may have accelerated it. And one more little sticking point: all of the digital distribution channels we’re talking about to build the future of journalism and content online, advertisers have the exact same access to those distribution channels at the exact same costs. How long do you think it will be before they figure that out on a grand scale? And then talk to me about an advertising rebound.