Digital first isn’t an option for media — it’s the only way forward

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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