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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Dead Tree Media 

Yahoo's Semel In The Spotlight:

I've been thinking a bit about dead trees and print media. For some reference points, see:

PaidContent.org's link to Wired's story on Yahoo, which notes: The story strikes some odd notes, like the reference to COO Dan Rosensweig and Chief Sales Officer Wenda Harris Millard as "dead-tree media types."

And Rex Hammock's essays on the future of magazines:
How will magazines survive the Internet, Part III?
How will magazines survive the Internet, Part II?
How will magazines survive the Internet, Part I?

As someone who's always felt that I had ink in my veins (which really hurts, sometimes), this is a critical issue for me. But I've come to the conclusion that it's the wrong question. In a recent post, I posited that thinking about print may be the wrong way to look at it. We should be thinking about written-word media, as opposed to visual or aural media (and interactive media like video games).

Here's a little media diary of mine, from last week, when I had a sales trip to New York. After waking up, I checked my rss feeds, and skimmed the New York Times headlines online. On the way to the airport, I listened to NPR's Morning Edition. On the plane, I read the print edition of the Wall Street Journal, and then paged through the Postal Service's new deliver magazine.

While in New York and between sales calls, I pulled down email and my favorite rss feeds to my nifty little smartphone (Audiovox SMT-5600), which is the Swiss army knife of cellphones, except that I can't figure out how to use the corkscrew yet). I also checked out how the Dow was doing by standing like an idiot in front of an office building window and watching CNN on a monitor, and then later, by watching the CNN feed to an elevator television.

On the trip home, I thumbed through the Economist, the best-written business magazine on the planet. (One of the fun things about the US Airways Shuttle is the free magazine newsstand, though the selection has really declined post 9-11).

And finally, at home, I did my e-mail, then watched a rerun of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart with my wife, and then passed out.

So that was my day--a lot of media inputs from a lot of sources: print, radio, the internets and television. And probably not an unusual media day for a 45-year-old traveling on business. Print was equally weighted with other media forms, but written-word media far outweighed either aural or visual media.

Is there a lesson here? Print is the wrong metaphor. Dead-trees are just one way written words are distributed.

Newspaper executives continue to wring their hands over declining news holes and circulations, but they're thinking with the wrong metaphor. See this piece from The Micknsey Quarterly, via Forbes: Can The Tabloid Format Save Newspapers? Wrong question!

The right question is: can newspapers (and other print media) effectively transfer their true skill--which is not applying ink to paper--but is researching, reporting and editing news, analysis, features and service pieces for a targeted audience, to other distribution mechanisms?

I'm just as comfortable with my print edition subscription to the WSJ as I am with my digital subscription--and use one or the other depending on my immediate circumstance. Am I grabbing a quick burger or flying? Then the print edition works--except on a crowded plane, where the Journal's broadsheet format can cause cramped muscles or annoyed seatmates. Am I walking between appointments? Then my smartphone can pull up what I need from the Journal.

This phenomenon is most apparent in my children, who are 7 & 9 years old. They're equally comfortable shifting among different types of media. They read magazines, the comics sections of the newspaper and books, of course--we're a dead-tree family. But they also skim the internets (under supervision), where they follow their interests (horses and Yu-Gi-Oh) and play games. They listen to CDs, or MP3s. They love DVDs, and Tivo (where they have their favorite shows captured). To my kids, the "how it gets there" of media is irrelevant.

Print is not dead, and probably never will be. But more importantly, written-word media is not dead--it's the critical driver of most new media distribution technologies.

In thinking about the Wired article on Yahoo, linked at the top here, there's another lesson. Terry Semel has brought a Hollywood studio outlook to Yahoo, and it's changed the value of that business. Print media types have been doing the internet thing for a while--and we're still moaning about the potential loss of dead trees. If we took Semel's approach, which is to bend a distribution mechanism to the will of a filmed-entertainment mogul's business model, we'd probably lose less sleep. And maybe make more money.

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