Be sure before you flip the switch

11 Oct 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Be sure before you flip the switch

For publishers, reaching for the digital-only button could in many cases turn out to be a very unfortunate error. Raymond Snoddy explains why.

You can’t see glaciers retreat in the face of climate change at any one moment, although over time the phenomena can clearly be measured.

The process is thrown into stark relief when without any apparent warning huge chunks of ice suddenly fall off.

The gradual retreat of print is a bit like that. It’s largely unremarked until something dramatic happens and significant chunks of the industry make the life changing transition from print to digital only, a rite of technological passage from which there is rarely any return.

The sudden decision by the Wall Street Journal to cease publishing both its European and its Asian editions after 40 years is one of those moments that make you sit up and take notice.

There is talk of print copies of the main US edition coming to some overseas cities in future but outside the US it looks like a digital-only future.

In the wake of Trump attacks, fake news and alternative facts the WSJ has actually been doing rather well in attracting more than 300,000 new subscriptions to take the total to more than 1.27 million.

And the really interesting thing about the new subscribers, Dow Jones chief executive Will Lewis revealed recently, is that they are very different from conventional WSJ subscribers. A high proportion of them are young, female and Democrat, for goodness sake.

But with Dow Jones parent group News Corp reporting a loss of $643 million (£479 million) in the year to June the balance of cost versus advantage came into play with a vengeance.

The slow gradual retreat of print is likely to continue - although there may be periods of remission along the way - simply because, as the Wall Street Journal said, the rise in digital subscriptions made “continuing the foreign editions no longer cost-effective.”

There is of course no suggestion that the WSJ is less than wholly committed to print in the US, at least for the foreseeable future, but you can see that pragmatic thinking by newspaper managements is the order of the day.

The official Guardian line for instance, echoed elsewhere, is that printed editions of the paper will continue as long as readers want print. It must also be true, though often less explicitly stated, that it will only continue while it is cost effective to do so and that remains true even for the Guardian, which is not actually required to make a profit.

As the final copies of the Hong Kong based Asian Wall Street Journal was coming off the presses last week another chunk of print was falling into the digital sea - although not perhaps such a weighty one.

Conde Nast announced that next month’s issue of Glamour magazine would be the last in print and the title would be relaunched as a digital-first product. Although there will be a “collectible” print edition of Glamour twice a year there are fears that the decision will turn out to be a harbinger of change at least in the younger women’s sector of the magazine market.

More women, analysts say, are getting their beauty and fashion tips online or via smart phones.

There is little doubt that a move to print only is a sign of weakness and a symptom of declining market share and rising financial pressure. For some of the digital only converts fighting for attention in the endless seas of the web will turn out to be the foyer to oblivion.

Print still demands attention and stands for impact, and the ideal solution for most publishers remains, and will remain, a fully integrated print-digital offering - while they can afford it.

Yet where moves to digital only is often a sign of weakness it is not universally so. Digital is the obvious solution where specialist information has to travel vast differences in search of scattered and far-flung audiences: as in WSJ Europe and Asia.

The strength of brand created in print is also clearly important if digital-only editions are going to avoid the abyss of endless information.

It seemed a terrible thing on March 26th last year when the Independent published its last print edition after 30 years – and for the many journalists who lost their jobs it clearly was.

Eighteen months on, the online-only Indy has to be judged a success although it is not what it once was even though a stark choice almost certainly had to be made between an online Indy and no Indy at all.

The huge reduction in costs meant that Independent Digital News and Media was able to announce a record pre-tax profit in the year to October 2016 on turnover up from £8.2 million to £14.3 million.

Most important of all for the longevity of the Independent the business was able to attract a new investor - controversial because he is a Saudi-which is believed to value the company at around £100 million.

Such a thing would have been inconceivable 18 months ago with the paper Independent selling around 56,000 copies a day.

The future is not, however, inevitably wholly digital.

In music vinyl has been making a remarkable comeback against digital, as have printed books as objects to hold and keep.

Newspapers and magazines are more fleeting and time sensitive although perhaps the same principle might still apply, particularly at the top end of the market.

At least for magazines in the US there are now a growing number of publications having the digital snip reversed and coming back in print again.

The most famous example is Newsweek magazine, which ceased print publication at the end of 2012, but was relaunched in print in 2014 under new ownership and is believed to be profitable.

It is not alone - American publications such as Good, Paste and Spin have come back to print although often the return from print death is in the form of quarterly or bi-monthly editions.

Overall the majority of traffic still takes the form of bits falling off the glacier in the move to digital.

Yet it is still a matter of horses for courses and reaching automatically for the digital-only button could in many cases turn out to be an expensive and very permanent error.

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