Is Print Doomed?

A blogger and a magazine exec square off. Is paper too one-way in an interactive world, or will the Web actually beathe new life into dead trees?

Jeff Jarvis

Former print editor, now a consultant and blogger at BuzzMachine.com

John Griffin

President of the National Geographic Society's magazine group.

Resolved: Print is dead.

Jarvis: Print is not dead. Print is where words go to die.

Too many of the ideas trapped on pages end up, at best, in unused archives or, at worst, in recyclers' pulp, when they should be online: searchable, discoverable, linkable, part of the conversation.

In this new world, the medium is meaningless. Media define themselves by the pipes that feed them but the public does not; we want what we want when, where, and how we want it. The wise media company will be there with us; the stubborn ones will die.

Look at the hoo-ha it took to create this page: lots of photo, editorial, and production tsuris, and for what? Is our conversation better for being on this slick paper? No, it's not, because only two of us are in it when we know that the collective wisdom of the people holding this page is greater than our own. We should be having this conversation together.... on a blog.

But that's the problem with print: It is far too one-way for this two-way world.

Griffin: Actually print is where words go to live--we're still reading the ancient Greeks. On the other hand, I question the life span of blogs.

Blogging is great if you want to see yourself published unedited, and the Internet is wonderful when you already know what you are interested in. But there is tremendous value in passionate, knowledgeable, talented editors who can assign stories and photographs with budgets to do them better and more authoritatively than any individual can. The reader of a magazine like National Geographic can depend on the information being accurate, coherent, concise, beautiful and created by the by most talented writers and photographers in the world. And readers may learn about something that they didn't know they were interested in.

Print is the perfect introduction to an informed debate and to the deep resources of the web. The words and pictures in print or on a magazine's web site become the basis for searching, linking, talking and ranting for those with the time or inclination to do so. The web is the friend of print, not its killer.

Jarvis: Imagine you're the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Katrina destroyed what made you special: your medium. What are you now? The paper fled to the Internet to inform by any means possible, to gather news from every source available, and to bring people together with family and rescuers. It made connections.

So what are you in 20 years, when the medium no longer matters? I've argued on my blog that in our post-scarcity world, distribution is not king and neither is content. Conversation is the kingdom, and trust is king. Perhaps your value is not just editors or articles but the community that gathers around them. I'd love to hear the wisdom of the crowd of New Yorker readers now that they, too, are writing. I listen to podcasts on iPods and Sirius. As a newspaperman, I wanted to provide the community with tools, training, attention--and revenue--so they could share the local news we couldn't afford to get. That's how we can grow bigger than mere paper and reporters could allow.

So don't just worry about bloggers or how one medium helps another. Break free of the shackles of media and ask: What are you, really?

Griffin: Twenty years from now, strong brands like National Geographic will survive and thrive--they will become even more international. Ink on paper will become a smaller part of the magazine; it will be available on line, on e-ink, with and without video, assembled and disassembled, on-demand and delivered. New media will have emerged and people will have exponentially more choices--and they'll increasingly choose more economical and sustainable delivery systems.

The wild, wild west of the Internet will evolve to more consolidation of the biggest brands at the top and an infinite number of tiny fragments at the bottom. The public will have neither the time nor interest to consider all of the options available to them--so the role of editor, both human and electronic, will increase in importance as people look for experts to help sift, validate and organize the infinite sources of content. In any case, the need for information, entertainment and motivation will be as strong as ever.

Economic models will be as varied as media. Advertisers will still be trying to figure out how to buy effectively in this constantly changing world. Readers will expect information to come with little or no cost, so editorial budgets will be squeezed. People can buy as they choose, by article, or photo, or issue or subscription or with archive or bibliography.

Jarvis: But the economics of the industry must change. Kleiner Perkins VC Vinod Khosla said at the Web 2.0 conference that the model of "top-down content is no longer relevant." It's a bottoms-up world where, he predicted, the winning media companies will be "the most adaptable, not the biggest or the one with the most content." The winners will be "aggregating audiences in interesting ways."

So take that as advice from the bottom up: Find ways to aggregate people and capture the wisdom of that crowd. When the public edits that "infinite number of tiny fragments at the bottom," as you put it, they do it well: The best photos at Flickr.com/explore rival even those in National Geographic. The people have intelligence and taste – or they wouldn’t be buying your magazines, would they?

And now let me close by asking for your advice from the top down: When, as you say, people will continue to expect information to come at little or no cost, what will it take for marketers to value and support new media as much as they do old media--now that the audience is there?

Griffin: I agree that the winners will be the ones who aggregate audiences in interesting ways, the way Google Earth and hundreds of other great web sites already have. It's said that amateur astronomers using only the web are the ones making the most discoveries in space these days. If that is true, it's inspiring and proof of the power of the Internet and wisdom of the amateur. And, of course there are fabulous photos on Flickr.com. (There are terrible photographs there as well.) For National Geographic to maintain its position as the world's leader in photo journalism we will have to find a way to celebrate those terrific photographs and photographers. If we don't someone else will.

I can't say how we'll get marketers to support the new, fragmented media as they do the old media. There is a tsunami of money flowing into the web, and some will trickle down to bloggers. But advertisers are not agents of change. For the most part they are risk averse. They aren't going to embrace things they can't easily measure or compare and at this point they don't seem inclined to bother with small audiences. So until they can measure and buy easily and not risk the boss' wrath because they bought Gawker.com instead of The New York Times, it's going to be tough. But in the final analysis, quality, performance, and passion will overcome most barriers.

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Jeff Dorenbush

    All medias are changing rapidly -- it's a very interesting, yet scary thing to watch.

    Great debate though.