As the traditional media industry continues to struggle with the disruption caused by the web, some sceptics argue that a “digital first” approach isn’t the answer — but the reality is that focusing on digital is the only hope the industry has.

floating paper

Everywhere you look in the traditional media industry, you can see signs of turmoil and disruption: to take just a few recent examples, the New York Times is fighting with its union over cutbacks to benefits, The Guardian is looking at forced layoffs to cut costs, and the Journal Register Co. recently filed for bankruptcy for the second time. And yet, there are still some industry leaders who question whether newspapers and other outlets should be focusing on “digital first,” something that journalism professor Paul Bradshaw argues is a waste of both time and energy, at a time when the industry needs those things the most. He is right — the question isn’t whether digital should be first, it’s whether those who aren’t focusing on “digital first” will even be around to participate in the debate for much longer.

The bankruptcy filing by the Journal Register Co. seems to have sparked a lot of the recent dissent over the issue, if only because the chain of daily and weekly papers had been the poster child for digital initiatives at parent company Digital First Media — including a restructuring of management to focus on the web and innovative projects such as an open “community newsroom.” To some, the financial failure of the chain looks like a failure of the entire digital-first philosophy, despite the fact that Digital First CEO John Paton has explained the Journal-Register’s troubles are based more on legacy costs such as printing contracts and pension obligations for past employees.

A misunderstanding of what’s at stake

To take just one example, Bradshaw notes that industry magazine Editor & Publisher carried an editorial on Monday that questioned whether focusing on digital first is the right road to success, since even the Journal Register Co. couldn’t seem to make it work:

“[F]or all the hype about embracing digital platforms, the constant drum beat of new projects, and the relentless self-promotion, digital first wasn’t enough to keep JRC from sinking back into bankruptcy, leaving other publishers wondering, ‘If digital first won’t work, what will?'”

This kind of attitude shows a profound misunderstanding of where the newspaper industry is, and how it needs to move forward. Like virtually every other mainstream paper and magazine publisher — many of whom are likely fighting desperately to stave off a similar filing — the Journal Register’s biggest problem is that while its print business is still producing the lion’s share of its revenue, that figure is shrinking rapidly. And even though most executives in the industry seem to appreciate that digital has to come first, the revenue from that business isn’t picking up the slack. This is the “digital pennies for analog dimes” problem.

New York Times media writer David Carr had an enlightening and apt metaphor for this situation, which he described to me after a recent event in Toronto: there are two rooms, Carr said — the print room and the digital or web room — and newspapers know that they have to get from one to the other. But they can’t just turn the lights off in one room and move to the other, and so they are currently trapped in the long dark hallway between the two, groping around trying to find a handhold. And it isn’t clear when they bump into someone (like Twitter or Facebook) whether they are friend or foe.

Does that sound like a recipe for unqualified success? Hardly. And yet the transformation must be made, either slowly or quickly. As Bradshaw points out, there are plenty of reasons why that is the case, and we get further evidence of them every day — including Pew surveys that show news consumption is becoming increasingly mobile and multi-platform, for example, and research that shows the industry’s addiction to print is becoming more and more of a liability rather than an asset.

The future may not be obvious, but ignoring it isn’t an option

Is there a business to be had by ignoring the web completely and sticking to print? Perhaps. The Orange County Register seems to be doubling down on this strategy, locking everything up behind a paywall and actually instructing its writers to stop posting things on their blogs and focus on the print product instead. This approach has an ostrich-like feel to it at this point in the evolution of media, but the paper’s owner seems determined to focus solely on print readers. That may continue to be a business for some time to come, but it is almost certain to be a shrinking one. As Bradshaw puts it:

“No one has the answer to the question of paying for journalism, but we should at least acknowledge that the old system is broken. We cannot go back to print profit margins: readers have left, and advertisers are following.”

Meanwhile, the debate continues over whether advertising-driven digital media is destined to be a low-quality, volume-driven game — an argument that Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review revived in a recent column — and whether newspapers should focus on building subscription-based businesses instead, as the New York Times and the Financial Times are both doing. My sense is that only a few global brands (and possibly some hyper-local ones) will be able to get away with a fully subscription-powered approach, but the reality is that we simply don’t know where success lies.

What we do know (or at least should by now) is that it is long past time to stop debating whether the media industry needs to be “digital first.” As David Pakman of the venture capital firm Venrock Partners noted in a series of recent posts, different forms of content have different attributes, and the reality is that news or “informational” content has become a commodity, and is difficult to monetize. In a nutshell, that is what is fuelling the disruption that newspapers are experiencing — and while there may be many different models for how to deal with that, ignoring it is not really an option.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Zarko Drincic

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  1. Excellent overview of these issues. I agree that digital first really is the only option for growth.
    The big frustration remains how long this transition is taking. Realistically, the crossover point where digital revenue surpasses print losses is still quite a bit down the road for many newspapers. And that’s after years of decline in the print business.

    1. That’s a good point, Randy — in some ways it would be easier (although probably more painful) if the transition were to happen faster.

  2. Automobiles first, horse-drawn carriages last isn’t an option in 1900 – it’s the only way forward.

  3. Dennis D. McDonald Tuesday, October 9, 2012

    I wonder if it would be useful to also be discussing “digital what” — are we talking distribution, creation, editing, or everything in the chain between source and reader?

  4. The other big problem is that anybody trying to enter the same space and competing for the same advertising dollars isn’t talking about “digital first”, they are “digital only”, and don’t have all of that legacy cost base to worry about.

    1. Totally true, Martin — and that is a big disadvantage to traditional players in an increasingly competitive market. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Seems that the debate lies not in whether digital first is the way forward, but rather if it should be tied to the print product and available for a nominal cost. The later seems both reasonable and sustainable. Look at the success of the Minneapolis Star Tribune which has taken a measured approach and seen circulation gains.

  6. I think the other major part of this is how “Digital First” changes for each format. If only it was as easy as finding some over-arching solution for all media.

  7. Digital Journalism Tuesday, October 9, 2012

    As a journalism instructor, what I care is how journalism education embraces the “digital first” concept. It seems that educators are slow to respond. I surveyed more than 500 journalism and communication programs in U.S., and my observation is that only a small number of the programs fully integrate digital journalism into their curricula.

    1. Completely agree.

      1. Though I will say, the NY Times is an exception here, investing and expanding in new areas. We’re all watching Digital First Media to see how this “Project Thunderdome” plays out; they are spending a lot of money somewhere on ramping up new things. We’re still waiting for those to trickle out to the papers to see what impact it will have. The question for me: Can they move fast enough? (And get the rest of us moving faster as well?)

  8. Legacy newspaper brands are still the primary news authorities retweeted and linked to on social media. They’re still driving the conversation. It’s the only reason why someone like John Paton hasn’t completely walked away from them and created his own company (altho some believe that’s what he wants to do with Thunderdome). The digital vs. print, Us vs. Them mentality is stunting much-needed innovation. And while the digital folks complain often and loudly that the transition problems are all being caused by legacy print personnel, both sides are equally to blame for fostering this petty entrenchment. Every idea isn’t great just because it’s digital and every opposition to a digital idea isn’t wrong just because it came from the legacy print side.
    Combine that with the entry of scavenging investment funds into the board room interested only in short-term ROI and you have a very poisonous, unproductive environment.
    It’s hard enough to turn one newspaper around, but trying to make baseline industry change on the scale of Gannett or MediaNews Group in an exaggerated time frame has been a disaster. We can expect more bankruptcies and quite possibly the dismantling of some mega publishing groups before we make real progress. I also believe that until the investment funds get out of newspapers and the business people with community ties get back in, we’ll stay on a downward trajectory. We may have gotten into this mess because legacy owners thought their “freedom of the press” mantle meant they could ignore basic business realities, but that doesn’t mean news is just another business. It’s a civic responsibility and it’s time both sides take that to heart and find a way to work together toward a common goal. Otherwise, we’re going to end up with Gawker and TMZ as our primary news authorities.

    1. How right you are Jassa. I teach journalism. We have been digital first for years.I also research journalism and I have found that older journalists have been very fast in embracing the web – the ‘divide’ doesn’t exist. It is the business model that lags behind. Managements have failed journalists and its no good berating pensioners for the fact that they continue to live and breathe and their cost is dragging down the legacy media. Creative thinking is certainly required but getting journalists to flog products is not the way forward – that way lies the end of real journalism. We have to protect public interest journalism whatever method we use to disseminate. That is the bottom line.

  9. Chris O’Brien Tuesday, October 9, 2012

    Despite the CJR piece, I don’t really thing that many journalists would disagree with the notion that we need to be digital first. And I don’t think it’s fair to draw conclusions about DFM from what’s happened at JRC–yet. But I don’t think this can be all about cuts. I think in transforming companies, of any industry, you can’t cut your way back to growth and sustainability. That, I think, is the frustration at old media companies. We see lots of cuts and not enough investment in new stuff. As an aside, when you mention companies like Facebook or Twitter, they recruit and inspire the best by outbidding them. And yet, journalists are told they should just be happy to have jobs and accept lower pay and benefits. It’s not a great recipe for inspiring people to be innovative and to put their creative energy into re-inventing an new org (or any type of business).

    1. That’s a really good point, Chris — I agree there is too much focus on cutting costs and not enough on growing the business and innovating.

      1. Though I will say, the NY Times is an exception here, investing and expanding in new areas. We’re all watching Digital First Media to see how this “Project Thunderdome” plays out; they are spending a lot of money somewhere on ramping up new things. We’re still waiting for those to trickle out to the papers to see what impact it will have. The question for me: Can they move fast enough? (And get the rest of us moving faster as well?)

  10. David K. McClurkin Tuesday, October 9, 2012

    Journalism professor Paul Bradshaw’s remark that “readers have left, and advertisers are following,” with respect to print as a primary product, rings true. The world is more populated with digital natives now than with digital immigrants like me, and the shift away from print is moving with accelerating speed. Isn’t the real challenge to maintain fundamental excellence in journalistic value while being mounted on this digital horse? Balance between print and digital will always require attention and adjustment. Those who recognize this reality will survive. Those who are instead set in their old ways will not.

    1. Agreed, David — thanks for the comment.

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