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.

  • victor

    Another very good piece. But I’m still going to keep on printing out every post on this blog on acid-free, archival-quality paper and storing it in my underground bunker. When the machines go dark we’ll need a written record of all that has transpired here.

  • Jeff Miller

    Exactly right and like almost all shifts in technology and publishing the people who should have seen ahead didn’t. Now though as they are finally responding to the shift, still magazines are putting out basically scanned copies as apps with bad interfaces that are more of a hybrid than thinking out how to use the medium.

    Plus Catholics are also far behind in this. Catholic Answers Magazine does not deliver an ebook format. Though at least older issues they make available are a least PDFs. Envoy does have a digital subscription, but with a crappy delivery method. Don’t even get me started about the Vatican.

  • robin

    Excellent article regarding periodicals, but victor makes a very good point. What about books?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Publishing is one of the most hidebound institutions I’ve even encountered. They just fear change.

    There are some very good emagazines for the ipad. NatGeo and Popular Science both add some extra bells and whistles. I think they’re catching on.

    As for books, I don’t think they’ll vanish as fast as periodicals because there is a sense that these are a “legacy” item to be saved or pass, not an ephemeral item to be thrown away.

  • Mike

    There are other problems to be worked out with digital media. It has no history, meaning you can’t know that the thing you read today hasn’t been edited since it was first published. It has no permanence, meaning when my digital subscription to Newsweek (not that I would get one) runs out I also lose all the back issues. And it seems even the things we own we don’t actually own, as per the recent legal issues over inheritance and digital media. All of these problems could be addressed, but aren’t, and until they are digital media isn’t going to completely replace print, IMHO.

  • Noe

    I’ll see your Ghostbusters reference and raise you one Yellowbeard;
    I will probably retire myself at the point books are retired, just as I rarely listen to music now that it is all digital. I just – don’t. I can’t really say why. Even myself, I can’t be introduced to something new (music, books), unless someone else has “also bought” on amazon, I can’t browse a cd store, I can’t query the clerk who is down with my music. For some people, selective forums work to share out things – for some people. Truth may ultimately be a person, but ultimate truths can be irrelevant as terribly important temporal truths so often are. People ‘accept’ artificial intelligence, even though it’s not there, it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not or ever will be. I think of the consequences of some of these technologies this way.

  • Ron19

    The money that used to go directly to the delivery person, and now goes directly to the subscription department, that threw the newspaper on your doorstep was almost entirely to pay for the delivery person, and maybe the sheets of paper and ink and the actual printing process.

    The newspaper does not sell news. It makes its money by renting out advertising space. That revenue pays for the writers and editors and building, etc. The stats on the publisher’s page are for circulation, not which articles are read. The articles are a gimmick to keep circulation numbers high. There are movies and such about reporters scooping stories, but the actual history of newspaper wars was about circulation.

  • Ron19

    Sorry. I forgot that I wanted to mention that the minimal amount of money coming into the coffers from delivery to your doorstep was the reason that newspapers could afford to give away the news and other articles on the web.

  • SDG

    “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.”

    That’s an old saying? I’ve been saying it for about a quarter century (except for the “great coverage” part), but I just thought it was my own personal observation.

  • Patrick

    The idea that digital=cheaper is a misnomer. My wife worked for a book printing company and she accurately points out that the real expenses in print isn’t in the physical copy but the actual production of what is put in print – editors, writers, designers, marketing, production staff. The reality is there is very little savings (and sometimes more expenses) in creating a digital copy. Hence why you don’t see massive savings in digital print copies of books, magazines and comic books.

    I’d say the printed work is closer to the “death of PC gaming.” It’s becoming a healthy, interesting niche market, not a graveyard.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I have to disagree with that completely. Certainly the expenses you describe are part of the process, but printing, shipping, postage, and warehousing are a significant part of the overhead, usually more than 50%. That’s been the case with the magazines I worked on, unless they’re own by a printing company.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Publishing is sustained by subscriptions and (and sometimes “or”) by advertising. Advertising is divided into display and classified. Craigslist killed classified, which was a huge part of the revenue stream for a daily newspaper, leaving only display, which was unable to take up the slack. Some publications work purely on advertising, such as free weekly circulars and certain regional publications. These publications are given away because the ad sales people need to be able to say, “Your ad will go to 100,000 people.” If you keep receiving a magazine long after your subscription runs out, its because the publisher needs to keep audited circ numbers high in order to maintain their ad rates, and it’s more cost effective to give away 10,000 subscriptions than it is to cut the ad rates because fewer eyeballs are seeing the ads.

    But to say the product is the ads and not the editorial is to misplace the emphasis. You may get ad-only circulars or newspapers in the mail, but how much do you really pay attention to them? There’s a reason your local issue of Clipper charges $300 for an ad, and a glossy magazine charges $10,000: because the people are buying/reading the publication for the text, not the ads. The text is the product, and the ads are the support mechanism for that product. I have a simple proof for that: I’ve been on plenty of publications (including Games, where I’m currently an editor) with no advertising at all. Our content is our product.

  • Patrick

    She worked for a company that had it’s printing done in-house and I was blown away when she told me.
    When she broke it down it came like this – 70/30 split with distribution companies like Apple, Google and Amazon. Additional staffing costs for digital media production and software. In the end it ended up being a wash, or in some cases, lost revenue.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    That changes the equation radically. Games Magazine is owned by a print house, and it radically reduces our overhead. By contrast, my wife’s last medical journal was spending $30-$40K per issue on hard costs, and a fraction of that went to content and layout.

  • EMS

    I feel sorry for future historians/researchers/anthropologists. Much as I love computers, I love books and the written word more. I don’t mean to sound like an end times nut, but give the problems ordinary computers are prone to, what will guarantee that those computerized files will survive and be readable in 10, 20, 50, 100, 500+ years? When I was a research assistant to a prof in college, I loved looking through Time, Newsweek, etc printed in the 30s and 40s, including the ads in them from that time. Computerized files just don’t have that, assuming they’ll be readable.

  • Ted Seeber

    Those aren’t bugs, they’re FEATURES!!!!!!

  • Ted Seeber

    I currently bemoan the fact that the historical record from ~1968-1996 is very badly represented online (only biased articles included and some things I remember from my childhood, like the invention of the nuclear battery, I can’t find ANY reference to online). But the flip side is this- digital media from that same time period, thanks to the way the tech evolved, is all but unreadable. I have tens of 12″ floppy disks, for which I have no drive for. Hundreds of 5.25″ floppy disks. A couple of thousand 3.25″ floppy disks. All of which contain information that is now utterly unreadable by any operating computer in my house.

    I dread the day I lose my collection of early 21st century TV programs when the home hard drive fails (but not enough to find the time to back it up, yet). I’ve copied my music collection to about 12 locations.

    I have several video games that won’t play on any system I have.

    Now having said that, anybody got an original copy of The Canterbury Tales that they can actually read? How about Beowulf? The fact is, digital is just another language. And language, evolves.

  • Helena

    Thanks for the comment about Beowulf. All things are passing, except people, as CS Lewis pointed out. The big shift involved with going digital is the need for two pieces – the data and the reader – instead of just one, like with a book. I think that’s why there’s such an appeal in sci-fi for the self-contained unit: I’m thinking the Stargate digital stone tablet, for example, (although even that needs a stylus-style page turner).

    That’s the end-user format question. The bigger issues that I, at least, thought I heard, were the content-producer questions: 1) what should I make, 2) why should I make it, and 3) what format should I put it in to best attract end-users?

    Question (3) dovetails with the first point. Question (2) is generally going to be answered by some combination of ideology (in a good or bad sense) and money (ditto). If the answer leans heavily to ideology, that can make question (3) even more relevant, and it generally answers question (1), at least in broad strokes.

    So as far as I can tell, the moaning about the death of print coming from the media is really about a subset of question (1), namely:
    for those business
    that exist to create written matter
    for the purpose of interesting readership
    at sustainable levels to provide profit for the business (either via ads or subscription costs):
    what content will accomplish this goal?
    And, is the answer to this question changed by delivery method?

    I tend to think that, no, delivery method is FAR less important that content. I think the death of print media has very little to do with Kindles and a whole lot to do with competition. Why should I read inaccurate or blatantly false reports about things that happened weeks ago, if I have another option?

    The perfect example of this has nothing to do with print media. One of my facebook friends posted a web-article, from a web-based tech news source, about the Icelandic work towards a new constitution. The article, other than saying, “Hey! The Icelandic people are working on a new constitution,” had no useful information and a lot of elitist pretentious snideness about the ability of regular people to write a legal document. In 30 seconds I had googled and found an English translation of the whole proposed constitution. Print media will probably never run a story on this at all, and the tech mag only did because they wanted to point out that crowd-sourcing tech was used to write the constitution.

    My point being, I don’t think I’m the only one who would pay and/or support the ads on a publication that hired competent people to keep track of world events and point the big ones out to us, in three sentences or less, preferably with links to first sources. Most of the time I read only the headlines anyway, and if something sounds important I research it away from the news reports.

    If you want to write, to write articles, and have me read them, you have to prove to me that you have something to say worth hearing. The closest that anyone’s come for me is certain pages of the Wall Street Journal, and not quite often enough for a subscription. And this coming from someone who pays for a subscription to World of Puzzles to only use about half. (And now I’ll undermine my own premise by admitting that I prefer using a pencil to using a stylus, but that may only be because I don’t actually own a tablet. And, I like saving back issues to do the puzzles later.)