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The Election and the Future of Print

This morning, I was standing in a line of six people outside a newsstand near Wall Street. All of us were waiting to buy a copy of the New York Times, on paper, as a sort of souvenir of the historic election. The woman next to me mentioned that she’d been going around to different newsstands for half an hour trying to fulfill this desire.

Elections are a great time for the traditional mass media. Most of us probably gathered around TVs last night with friends and family, and I’m sure dead-trees editions of papers with OBAMA banner headlines will be selling out all over the country today.  

Unfortunately, this is just a temporary reprieve from a bigger downward spiral. The Times itself published a pretty glum story last week about the young campaign embeds from the papers and the news networks, who will find few job opportunities in journalism after the election.  Can it really be true that the career-making job immortalized by The Boys on the Bus in the 70s is now more like a dead end?

Of course, not all the news about the news is bad. Media winners from this election include the sparkling—and liberal—Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, along with websites The Huffington Post, Politico, and the geek-heaven stats site

The worry on the minds of those of us in the media biz is not a lack of outlets. It’s that as ad dollars shift online—a process sure to be accelerated by the coming downturn—the rates and revenues just won’t rise fast enough to support good reporting in any medium.    

But my experience today got me thinking about the future of print as a medium in its own right. It's sure to be more specialized, but it's unlikely to disappear. The Christian Science Monitor, just became the first national daily newspaper to go digital, with a weekly print edition. In future years, not too far ahead, I can see the Times and the rest of the papers choosing to print issues only on demand—reserved for historic days like this one—or perhaps a premium Sunday edition if people would like to preserve the nostalgic experience of curling up with it over brunch.

Even the stodgy New Yorker has just launched a digital edition—current subscribers can now receive the entire magazine in their inbox Monday morning, PDF format plus full access to the archives—all 83 years.

Of course, I happened to learn about the digital edition while I was reading my paper New Yorker, on the subway, drink in one hand, underground where I couldn’t get any internet access even if I had a smartphone. So there's two use cases at least where print still has an edge: the comfortable, familiar, and convenient, on the one hand, and the historic and tangible record on the other.