Print is Dead! Long Live Print?

Editor’s note: Jordan Kurzweil is Co-CEO of Independent Content, an agency that helps media companies launch new digital products and businesses. Prior to starting Independent Content Jordan worked at AOL running original programming, and News Corp bringing its traditional brands to digital. You can follow him on Twitter @jordankurzweil.

It’s been said before, but it needs saying again (and again and again): PRINT IS DEAD. Across the publishing industry, year-over-year declines in revenue, subscriptions and circulation, are well documented. Yes, there have been a few quarters of blood-stanching flatness (yay!), but – you heard it here first (or few weeks ago from The Annenberg School, or over the summer from Clay Shirky) – print periodicals are going to go away – forced out of this world by the march of technology and changing tastes, and replaced by new powerhouse brands – TMZ, Buzzfeed and HuffPo to name a few — which are poised to own the future, because they know how to adapt to (and even anticipate!) evolving user behavior. As John Paton, CEO of one of the largest newspaper companies in the U.S., put it recently “‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone’ is not much of a business model.”

Just this week, Gannett gave us a stunning reminder of just how little it understands the world it lives (and dies) in, and how myopically it views its business when it announced its $100M bet on establishing paywalls in all 80 of its local newspaper markets. A gambit predicated on “the public’s strong desire for local news and in readers’ longtime trust in Gannett’s papers,” according to Gannett’s CEO Gracia Martore. Oh my. The paywall, whether for Gannett or other publishers, is a finger in the dyke, a cover-up for tectonic shifts in their businesses. For Gannett, local paper audiences are old (that’s what “longtime trust” means), and may well age out of relevance before Gannett’s gosh-darned paywall gets erected. And where’s the proof that the public wants local news? Readership is declining, local news website traffic is infinitesimal, and even pure digital plays like Patch can’t seem to find readers or revenue. The fact is, the thirst for local news can be sated by a single hometown blog, run pretty much by a single entrepreneurial blogger (granted they’d be very busy – and underpaid).

What can Old Print do to survive?

To use a trite metaphor (or two) – stop rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, grow a pair, and change your businesses. Pivot out of the corner and reclaim your heavyweight title. RUMBLE, Old Man, RUMBLE:

1. Face reality:

– The audiences of traditional print brands on paper and pixel are aging.

– Digital upstarts are capturing the new audiences, and stealing your least loyal current readers.

– The cost structures of Old Print companies are out of whack with the times.

– New technology is further commoditizing content, and fragmenting audience.

– In-house digital innovation at Old Print companies is largely non-existent, stymied by outmoded, editorial-first ego at the top, and fearful protectionism of current revenue sources: print subscriptions, ad pages and banner impressions.

2. Start thinking like startups.

Actually, start thinking like well-capitalized start-ups – pirates with a war chest. Lose the fear and deploy some of your profits to incubate new ideas (like The Washington Post) and go after whitespaces. Consider pure-play digital products and platforms you have the brand permission to create, and that leverage your current audiences to build new ones. Be aggressive; invest in your own technology and talent – and buy what you can’t cultivate.

3. Gut and retool your staff and cost structure.

Take a disciplined approach to justifying every position and business expense in your organization. Eradicate all unnecessary fluff, and all employees with meta jobs and not enough to do. Everyone in your organization should be a doer, contributing 100 percent of her/his work hours to either making things (content, technology, digital and physical products and services) or selling things (to consumers and advertisers). Keep your good editors. They are some of the sharpest, most creative people on the planet. They’ve simply been given a flat and narrow palette to work from. Put their imaginations to work. And bring in new, energetic digitally literate talent around them. While you are at it, delete your entire company’s Outlook calendar database. Start everyone off fresh without meetings. The people who are doers will automatically fill their time with more doing, and the people who suddenly have nothing to do are the ones you can cut. Act like a P.E. firm that’s just bought your company, before they show up at your doorstep.

4. Stop thinking that technology serves content.

The anachronistic mentality that technology is just a means to an end for getting content in front of readers is going to kill you. Technology and content need to be seen as one and the same, each working with the other to delight and engage your users. To that end…

5. Update your web platforms.

To a publication, the flagship websites of print publishers are too unaware of the web-at-large. They put content and page views first, and appear to consumers as static, opaque and uninviting. There are a host of technology and design tactics that can be deployed to improve and open up your sites, making them more enjoyable to use, and enabling deeper connections with your audience. Watch what Lewis D’Vorkin is doing over at Forbes, and read everything he writes. (Disclosure: I worked with Lewis at AOL). Or, look at what Marcus Brauchli of The Washington Post is doing with that product suite. Remember, when it comes to digital, you’re creating a living, breathing application, not just republishing (or even “repackaging”) a magazine or a newspaper.

6. Use data to inform your editorial and product decisions.

Search and social chatter are the paths to finding audience. Install listening stations on editor’s desktops. Require real-time and forensic reviews of content and headline performance to teach your editors social and search engine biorhythms – so they can learn what their audience wants, and what content connects with them. Deploy machine learning and data analysis technologies on your publishing platforms to dynamically adjust metadata and tagging to improve SEO and content discovery.

7. Add great digital product people to the executive suite.

Your future is digital, and digital thinking needs to start at the very top. Digital product people are not your classic CTOs or CIOs; they’re people who think creatively about how to use technology to create digital experiences, and marry editorial with functionality. Put a priority on hiring the best talent to take you forward, and to work with your star editors to re-imagine your businesses. Together they can set a course for the future. Look for people from outside who are uninhibited by print tradition, can spot trends and have an innate ability to create and execute in the digital sphere. Just as importantly, empower them to hire and inspire great, nimble and creative tech teams, and teach technology – how the web works – to employees at all levels of your organization.

8. Break down the wall between editors, writers and readers.

If you do one thing, make your editors and contributors work like bloggers. Espouse transparency and accessibility. This is what builds trust and connection with your audience. Nudge writers off the cliff into the cacophony of social media, and redefine enterprise journalism to encompass not only reportage, but also building an audience of followers, and responsibility for driving traffic to their own work product.

9. Consider your most cherished asset – content – as currency, not the end-all, be-all, but a means to an end.

It’s the way to get your audience in the door and engaged on a larger scale. Ask: If content is your conduit, what can your audience do, and what will give them more value once they have engaged with your product? And I don’t mean: read another article, search our newly digitized library of old content, or print this page. We’re talking about what service or product experience, what self-sustaining platform, what new thing can you get your audience to try, share and love.

[image via flickr/NS Newsflash]