Fast Company

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, 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 will die.

Look at the hoo-ha it took to create this page [in the magazine]: lots of photo and editorial 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. Paper is too one-way for this two-way world.

Griffin: Actually, print is where words go to live. The Internet is wonderful when you already know what you're interested in. But there is tremendous value in passionate, knowledgeable editors (like ours) who can assign stories and photographs with budgets to do them better than any individual can.

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? 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 around them. Break free of media's shackles and ask: What are you, really?

Griffin: In 20 years, strong media brands will survive and thrive--and they'll become even more international. Ink on paper will become a smaller part of National Geographic; it will be available online, on e-ink, with and without video, assembled and disassembled, on-demand, and delivered.

The wild, wild West of the Internet will consolidate to 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. Advertisers will still be trying to figure out how to buy effectively in this constantly changing world. And readers will expect information to come at little or no cost.

Jarvis: But the economics of the industry must change. Kleiner Perkins VC Vinod Khosla has said that the model of "top-down content is no longer relevant." It's a bottoms-up world where the winning media companies will "aggregate 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. And let me ask for your advice from the top down. When, as you say, people 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 today?

Griffin: I can't say how we'll get marketers to support the new, fragmented media as they do the old. Advertisers 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's wrath because they bought Gawker.com instead of The New York Times, it's going to be tough. But ultimately, quality, performance, and passion will win out.

Read the full text of this email debate.

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