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.