So, lately I’ve been catching up with the state of the publishing industry. I’m currently working on a couple projects that will be appearing shortly after the first of the year. What have I found in the six months or so I’ve been out of the loop? Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. There has been a nice little boost in advertising revenues in the past few months, unless you’re a newspaper, of course. Newspapers are still circling the drain and are about the only type of media not rebounding at the moment. There are numerous reasons for this, the most obvious being that general interest newspapers are an anachronism.
Many places have tried paywalls (2010 was billed as the year of the paywall, after all, rather predictably to virtually no success). The new era of paywalls are ending up much like the previous attempts: that is, they cut readership by over 90%, decimate online ad revenues and what readership numbers they do produce are largely from print subscribers who get free online access. My favorite whipping boy, Rupert Murdoch, has most famously tried this with his major titles and it has been, thus far, an abject failure. Then there’s the iPad. Since its debut in the Spring of this year, publishers have been falling all over themselves to create apps for the device. Unfortunately, those very same apps have had the unintended but again, imminently predictable, consequence of further eroding print readership and revenue while producing relative peanuts in return.
So here is Murdoch again with his own “innovative” iPad app, a daily paper that debuts once a day with no social interaction, little or no incoming or outgoing web links and, at most, one minor update or so. In other words, he’s replicating the static newspaper while almost totally ignoring the realities of the online world. Yeah, that one’s gonna work out. At this point, I’ve been closely following the “transition” of print media online for two years now, and it seems as if almost no one from the old guard has learned anything at all in that time. Meanwhile, the technology keeps improving and the costs of entry into the market keep falling (unless, of course, you’re a legacy company who thinks it’s a good idea to dump $30 million on an app that undermines your core business and doesn’t really include any kind of innovation or anything even remotely useful to savvy internet residents).
Of course, that may be the point. Lock people behind a wall and don’t let them get out. I’ve been an Apple fan for a long time, but Steve Jobs hooking up with Murdoch on this is massively disappointing. Of course, in my opinion, Apple has been losing a lot of its luster over the past few years as its stream of products have gotten more and more successful, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad. Their computers are still the best thing going, but the peripheral stuff is getting a bit tiresome, as well as Apple’s increasingly draconian control mechanisms. Traditional publishers have been trying to lock people in since the internet first exploded on the scene. You’d think, at some point, it might actually sink in that you can’t lock people down in this way anymore because they don’t want to be locked down, and they sure as hell aren’t going to pay you for limiting their options.
So the year of the paywall has largely been a bust. The first nine months of the iPad’s saving the day for publishers has also been largely a bust. Where do they go from here? Out of business. I’m left with much the same opinion I’ve had all along here; the future of publishing does not rest with the legacy companies and those who have been inextricably indoctrinated in a print-first-last-and-always mentality. Much like any disruptive force in any industry since the dawn of industry itself, the future will be led by outsiders. They will find success in ways that the establishment would never have dreamed of, take their rightful places as the next generation of leaders of the industry, then get shunted aside years later as a newer generation with newer ideas once unthinkable to even the disrupters of old come along. It’s all about the cycle of life.
As things (hopefully) improve economically, the new and innovative ones will further take the top rungs of media success. By this time next year, the last of the old guard media may well be resigned to the tiny little nostalgic niche left to them and their loyalists. The Mayans may have been partially right after all; 2012 may not be the end of civilization, but it is quite possibly shaping up to be the end of old media. RIP. And don’t let casket door hit you in the ass on the way down.