Is Print Really Dead?

My mother says she always knew that I’d be a writer, which is odd since I assumed I’d be a filmmaker, or maybe Indiana Jones. (I hedged my bets in college and got degrees in both film production and English, after dropping out of the Anthropology program, thus ending my Indy dreams.) I worked for less than a year in film and television production, and just as I began achieving that dream, I realized I didn’t want it any more. Writing always came easily for me, and it was a lot more fulfilling than grinding through 14-18 hour days on some New York soundstage. After a brief, Dilbertesque time spent as a technical editor, I went full-time freelance as a critic and journalist, and have made my career in print ever since.

When computer gaming and the PC craze was at its height (the 1990s and slightly into the 2000s) this was easy, and there were years I made very good money. But that money gradually went away. At one point, we were putting out 400+ page issues of PC Gamer with a 60/40 ad/editorial ratio, and a single ad selling for something like $6000. Since they only paid me about $300 per 700-word page, you can do the math on that one, but the companies (first GP, then Imagine, then Future) were swimming in cash. 

And that was just a niche publication: an extremely successful one, but hardly Vanity Fair or Time. Print ruled, and the internet was little more than CompuServe, AOL, BBS, Usenet, and the like. Those of us in tech actually saw the balance of power tipping before anyone else in publishing. In the mid-90s, I was asked to contribute to a startup website called Gamespot that would be all online. This had happened before–with Happy Puppy–and gone nowhere, so I expected to collect some of their money and then they’d just go away.

But they didn’t go away, and their success contributed to the death of my major income source: magazines and newspapers. Profitable models for online sites were hard to find, and the influx of capital during the dot-com boom made people sloppy about finding a way to monetize something they were giving away for free.  Gamespot and others rode out the rough times and survived. CNet and IGN did as well. They got creative, and learned how to be profitable. Suddenly, the idea of buying a computer or game magazine seemed absurd. You could get all that information for free online, and get it faster. The content of magazines and papers is already old news by the time they appear on newsstands  It’s an unsustainable model when compared to the free-flowing tap of the internet, which is ready to deliver opinions and facts instantly, although the opinions might be bad and the facts wrong.

Gradually, my magazines dropped like flies. PC Magazine, which paid me $1.10 a word, got thinner and thinner before going online only in 2009. Computer Life, T3 (US), Computer Shopper, Computer Gaming World: vanished. The mighty Ziff-Davis, a media empire with a benefit and salary package so lavish it was called the “golden handcuffs” (because you could never afford to leave), was sold by the Ziff family and slowly dribbled down the drain. Pieces of some of these once-mighty media empires remain as shadows of their former selves, but their time is gone, and wishing won’t bring it back.

The question remains: is print dead? People are asking it again after Newsweek announced it will cease publication. Putting aside the fact that Newsweek has been little more than a tawdry forum for stale left-wing talking points for years, it raises a simple question: is there a place for a print newsweekly or a news-daily in the modern world?

The answer is, of course, no. Not just “no,” but “Are you kidding?” The idea of getting your news in a packaged, printed format in 2012 makes about as much sense as trying to find replacements for your whale-bone corset stays or buggy wheels. Folks, it’s dead. It’s over. Let it go.

I loved magazines and journals and newspapers as much as anyone, when they were necessary. I made a good living from all of them as a worker, and I purchased them as a consumer. Some of them (such as pulps and comics) I even collected. I love the format. I love the tactile element. I love that they were very broad in their content, and might contain a few reviews, some features, maybe a story or poem, and a couple of news items. I’d read things I would not seek out on my own, because they shared space with things that interested me, or were grouped under a large topic (say, history or culture) that embraced many subgenres and allowed for a diversity of approaches and opinions.

Smart editors hiring good writers to cover interesting or offbeat subjects creates an effective forum for understanding the world. Those editors and writers provided a filter that’s lacking on the internet, where people swim in an ocean of content and have to choose narrower interests or get lost in a sea of words. That’s what the internet just can’t do very effectively. Even sites that aspire to be magazine-like (such as Salon or Slate) are undermined by an ideological bias that cuts off half the population. I don’t visit Salon or Slate  because their underlying assumptions (all left-liberal) make their content unappealing to me, and create ideological blindspots that compromise the writing.

This makes epistemic closure almost inevitable, as people seek out their own interests  and their own “kind of people,” and lose contact with a diverse range of content and thought. Hand-wringing about epistemic closure was all the rage a few years ago, but I don’t recall the conversation going anywhere in particular. The internet is the giant engine of epistemic closure, but it’s also the great watchdog of the casual falsehoods perpetrated by the legacy media over the years. Suddenly, it was no longer possible to publish a piece in the Times saying that X is true, when an army of people who have direct knowledge of X can provide an instant fact-check.

People learned the truth of that old saying about the media: They provide great coverage, except on those subjects about which I have direct personal knowledge. Now those people with direct personal knowledge of a subject can, for free, blog, Tweet, tumbl, or Facebook their takedowns of received media truths. Dan Rather was brought down by a couple of bloggers who could look at a document and know, instantly, that it was a fake. The recent debunking of the Jesus’s Wife story, a story rolled out by the Times in a credulous and fact-challenged feature, was conducted by a network of professors and passionate amateurs sharing information on blogs (including this one) and in comboxes. Enough “little” people can take down a giant with ease. And when that giant has gotten fat, lazy, self-contented, and sloppy, it’s all the more easy. I will see the New York Times cease to print in my lifetime. I won’t be sad to see it go. It won’t have simply died or been killed. It will have committed suicide.

And it didn’t need to happen. The writing has been on the wall for over a decade, and the solution has been in our hands for years. When those Times subscriptions and sales started vanishing, the Times should have cut a deal with Amazon and given away Kindles with a two-year paid digital subscription to the paper. You do realize that game hardware (like Xbox 360 or Wii) usually sells at or below production cost, right? You know why? Because they make their money on the software. Same for cell phones: the money isn’t in the phone, it’s in the phone service. It’s the old razors-and-blades model: they give you the razor at a loss, and then charge $20 for a package of blades.

As print started to vanish, the New York Times need to provide people with a new media for receiving their product. See, their product wasn’t paper and ink: their product was news. Eliminate the cost of paper, ink, production, and shipping, and your costs are radically slashed. You can afford to provide a new medium for people to receive your content. Sure, you’ll lose some of those people after 2 years, but you’ll also retain some. And since hardware is running on a 2-3 year cycle, if you offer a newer newsreader, they may just resubscribe. The Times shouldn’t have been moving to free web-based content or clunky subscription models. They should have been giving away Kindles, and lots of them.

People still want something they can hold in their hands. Bathroom, subway, waiting room, airplane: you’re not lugging your desktop or laptop into these places to read. The bizarre little truth of the matter is that the desire for people to read a packaged, professional monthly like National Geographic or Vanity Fair has not gone away. The web hasn’t replaced that, and publishers are mistaken if they believe it has. People want a contained, quality publication that arrives on a regular schedule with fresh content. They really do still want that encounter with things they won’t find surfing Drudge or Slate or even the Catholic channel on Patheos. And they will pay for it in a way they won’t pay for a website. Publishers are beginning to figure out how to make that work for them, but for some, it will be too late.

Apple newsstand, Kindle subscriptions  and similar digital delivery methods are the future, if indeed the legacy media survives long enough to greet their future. Digital delivery is a fraction of the cost of printing and delivering a magazine or newspaper, but too many companies haven’t figured out how to make it work. Right now, the digital version is a nice extra for a subscription: punch in your Smithsonian subscription code and just download the magazine. That’s what I do. And you know what I do when the magazine comes? I throw it away, because I don’t need more crap around the house. You know what that means? Smithsonian wastes a lot of money sending out hard copies of magazines.

Perhaps this is just a transitional phases, as people adapt to digital delivery and publishers adjust their prices accordingly. (Unlike Biblical Archaeology Review, which now offers a $15 print subscription … and a $20 digital subscription.) Eventually, maybe that hard copy will just fade away, leaving only the digital manifestation. If Newsweek had figured that out a couple years ago, maybe they’d still be putting out a product.

The Man Who Changed the World

The web cannot entirely replace the periodical. Magazine stands and bookstores will vanish, just like hitching posts and gasogenes. I’m not wholly delighted with the prospect, since I like paper and ink and print, but I don’t fear it, and I know that people will still want to connect with each other and learn new facts and share old interests. That doesn’t go away. The printing press is the most world-changing piece of technology ever created by the hand of man: more than electricity, more than gunpowder, more than the internal combustion engine.

We will not leave “print” behind. The word will not die.

It will, however, cease to be printed. I love paper and ink just like the people of Gutenberg’s time no doubt loved a beautiful illuminated manuscript on vellum. I’ll continue to love both of them. I own a page of medieval manuscript. I treasure it. I can even read it. It’s a thing of rare beauty, and it’s not even illuminated.  I don’t, however, wish it was the way words were still shared.

Gutenberg didn’t say, “Oh, forget this printing press thing: I prefer the touch of vellum and knowing a human hand puts words to the page.” His goal wasn’t to produce nicely printed paper, which is merely a pleasant side-effect. His goal was to share knowledge, particularly the truths of scripture. And we’re going to go right on doing just that, with or without the paper.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.