NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

The printed word will continue to endure

Some years ago, there began a rev­o­lu­tion which has changed the way we com­mu­ni­cate, do busi­ness, enter­tain our­selves, and get our news. That rev­o­lu­tion, the dig­i­tal media rev­o­lu­tion, is still going on today, and it has ush­ered in a new era of tran­si­tion and uncer­tain­ty. As news­pa­pers and book­stores close down or go online-only, we are increas­ing­ly sub­ject­ed to the prog­nos­ti­ca­tion that print, as a medi­um, is dying, and will soon be dead.

While it is cer­tain­ly true that many peri­od­i­cals once pub­lished only in print are going the way of the dinosaur, the notion that print as a medi­um is head­ed for extinc­tion is unfound­ed. The print­ed word will con­tin­ue to endure because it has val­ue. It will coex­ist with oth­er means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, as it already has for decades.

The advent of radio and tele­vi­sion did not kill the print­ed word, and nei­ther will the dig­i­tal media rev­o­lu­tion. What the rev­o­lu­tion has done is change the eco­nom­ics of pub­lish­ing. For instance, it used to be that news­pa­pers had a vir­tu­al monop­oly on clas­si­fied ads. But when the Inter­net came along, clas­si­fieds start­ed migrat­ing online to web­sites like craigslist, deny­ing news­pa­per pub­lish­ers rev­enue.

The old eco­nom­ics of pub­lish­ing sup­port­ed large news­rooms at one or two papers in most major cities, per­mit­ting the assem­bly of a broad­sheet with dozens of pages for dai­ly dis­tri­b­u­tion. The new eco­nom­ics does­n’t, and that’s why so many big news­pa­pers are shrink­ing or dis­ap­pear­ing. The media com­pa­nies that pub­lished them did­n’t both­er to adapt, or were not in strong posi­tions pri­or to the onset of the rev­o­lu­tion. So they were bat­tered, and in some cas­es, ruined.

Para­dox­i­cal­ly, many small papers are doing just fine, because they pub­lish less fre­quent­ly and are put togeth­er by a small staff that writes for a very loy­al read­er­ship. The con­tin­ued exis­tence of such pub­li­ca­tions proves that the print­ed word is in no dan­ger of going away. A great many peo­ple, myself includ­ed, still like read­ing books, mag­a­zines, and news­pa­pers.

What’s more, there will always be sit­u­a­tions where it makes no sense to be read­ing on a tablet or lap­top (and maybe not even a smart­phone).

The beach is my favorite exam­ple. A beach is a fine place to bring a paper­back nov­el or a mag­a­zine, but it’s a bad place to bring a Kin­dle.

As any read­er who has acci­den­tal­ly dropped a cam­era at the beach can prob­a­bly attest, sand does ter­ri­ble things to elec­tron­ics.

But sand isn’t the only prob­lem. A Kin­dle left on a beach blan­ket might get stolen while its own­er is stand­ing in the surf or explor­ing tide­pools, unless it is being guard­ed by some­body else. A paper­back nov­el or mag­a­zine, on the oth­er hand, does not need to be guard­ed — it isn’t worth that much.

This exam­ple illus­trates that there will always be sit­u­a­tions where cart­ing around elec­tron­ic gad­gets isn’t a great idea. What’s more, there will always be peo­ple who sim­ply pre­fer read­ing the print­ed word to read­ing on a screen. Not every­one is going to buy an e‑reader, no mat­ter how much mar­ket­ing Ama­zon or its com­peti­tors do. Not every­one wants a tablet, either.

And even peo­ple who do buy tablets and e‑readers won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly do all of their read­ing on a screen. I have a tablet, and as I said ear­li­er, I still enjoy read­ing books, mag­a­zines, and news­pa­pers. I grew up read­ing news­pa­pers. Before I became an activist, I was a pas­sivist — I fol­lowed pol­i­tics in the news­pa­per.

When I was a child, our fam­i­ly actu­al­ly got mul­ti­ple news­pa­pers deliv­ered dai­ly. We always had at least one morn­ing news­pa­per and one evening news­pa­per.

Since that time, evening news­pa­pers have become all but extinct. Two of the papers we used to sub­scribe to — the Jour­nal-Amer­i­can and the Seat­tle Post-Intel­li­gencer — are no longer pub­lished. The Jour­nal-Amer­i­can, lat­er the King Coun­ty Jour­nal, ulti­mate­ly evolved into Reporter News­pa­pers (a group of week­lies, which I reg­u­lar­ly con­tribute to) and the Seat­tle P‑I thank­ful­ly endures online.

The media land­scape has changed and will con­tin­ue to change, but I believe print will always be a part of it. As I wrote ear­li­er, print will coex­ist with dig­i­tal media.

Will there be a time when e‑books become more pop­u­lar than print­ed books? Per­haps. But thanks to the tech­nol­o­gy of print-on-demand, it will nev­er be dif­fi­cult for pub­lish­ers to cater to peo­ple who pre­fer the print­ed word.

The dig­i­tal media rev­o­lu­tion has, again, already changed the eco­nom­ics of pub­lish­ing; it may even be that its dis­rup­tive effects on print have peaked.

The broad­cast­ing indus­try may have more to fear at this point, because it seems like­ly to be the rev­o­lu­tion’s next vic­tim. The Project for Excel­lence in Jour­nal­ism has been track­ing the decline of the audi­ence for local and nation­al tele­vi­sion news for years. In 2009, they report­ed:

Local tele­vi­sion news appears to be los­ing its audi­ence at an accel­er­at­ing pace.

In 2009, view­er­ship at affil­i­ates of the four major net­works, which pro­duce most of the local tele­vi­sion news in the U.S., declined across all times­lots, accord­ing to PEJ’s analy­sis of data from Nielsen Media Research.

For ear­ly evening and late news, the view­er­ship decreas­es were steep­er than in 2008. And in 2009, there were declines in ear­ly morn­ing local news­casts as well, which had been sta­ble the pre­vi­ous two years.

Things haven’t improved too much since then. Data sug­gests that the land­scape  have sta­bi­lized, but how long is that going to last?

Even if the dig­i­tal media rev­o­lu­tion does upset the eco­nom­ics of broad­cast­ing, it won’t kill broad­cast­ing as a medi­um, just as it has not killed print.

It cer­tain­ly may be the cat­a­lyst that forces already mis­man­aged media com­pa­nies into bank­rupt­cy (or worse, liq­ui­da­tion).

News­pa­per own­ers cer­tain­ly have a cau­tion­ary tale to tell broad­cast­ers. Many of them were ill-pre­pared to weath­er a rev­o­lu­tion in how peo­ple access and con­sume infor­ma­tion. In some respects, news­pa­pers were a monop­oly. Pri­or to the dig­i­tal media rev­o­lu­tion, there was­n’t anoth­er way to eas­i­ly get the infor­ma­tion that news­pa­pers dis­sem­i­nat­ed. Now there is.

But just because the infor­ma­tion that is con­tained with­in in news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, and books can be read on a screen does­n’t mean that we are head­ed for a future where there is no such thing as a paper pub­li­ca­tion.

There will always be an audi­ence and a mar­ket for the print­ed word. It may not be as big as it was in the days before com­put­ers, tablets, and smart­phones were inex­pen­sive and wide­ly avail­able. But it will still be there.

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