Major Print Publishers Gang Up to Pre-Empt Apple, Already Make Mistakes



Well, it’s been recently speculated, and now it’s true: Five big names in ink-and-paper magazine and newspaper publishing have ganged up in a joint venture. It’s aim, despite grandiose PR? Outsmart Apple, and side-step Amazon.

The companies concerned are Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp., and Time Inc. Their joint venture, currently unnamed, is designed to “develop open standards for a new digital storefront and related technology that will allow consumers to enjoy their favorite media content on portable digital devices.” Or at least that’s how the press release puts it.

The four key goals that go with this mission are to:

  • Be ready to publish digital content on “full-color devices” in a manner that makes them beautiful and recognizable
  • Work across multiple devices, OSs and screens
  • Put together a common online store for buying publications, and accessible on any device
  • Work with advertisers to craft attractive digital-form adverts, more advanced than print ones can be

It all sounds very very sensible for an industry that’s facing an impending crunch caused by the very technology these guys are now trying to embrace.

But here’s the real meaning of this: It’s a kind of “It’s not me, it’s you” thing. These guys have been caught napping by the digital online and on-gadget publishing revolution, and for years they’ve resisted it and complained it’s stealing their business instead of smartly and swiftly adapting to maximize the revolution as it happened. Now, with the Amazon Kindle already shaking up the e-book market, and with Apple’s amazing (if still mythical) iTablet on the near horizon, the big five are panicking that control of their business may be stolen away from them, in exactly the way Apple forced a revolution in the cell phone and music business. This is a pre-emptive strike.

Forming a e-magazine Voltron with the intention of defining a common format and selling the texts through your own store therefore sounds neat. But effectively the team is trying to carry out business as usual, with a simple substitution of pixels for ink, and its strategy assumes so many things about the future that may be purely wrong, it’s hard to see what it’s trying to achieve. Let’s break out a number of these points for you shall we?

  • The public wants to consume digital magazines and newspapers in the same way as paper ones. Given the inversion in the digital music industry, where the album has disappeared and single-track sales are the habit of the day, this may not be realistic. We’re all used to real-time Web pages now.
  • The public will pay for digital magazines. Would you pay for a simple reconstruction of, say, Time in digital form with whizzy dynamic content, versus a Web-page? Even assuming you’d be happy to pay for a digi-mag, wouldn’t you expect to pay less for it given what you may perceive as hugely reduced production costs? Given that these publishers will have to learn cutting edge new-tech skills, and disregard some issues that print involved (ink color and quality for one) this change is going to be a personnel nightmare: Staff will have to be hired, fired and retrained…which is going to be expensive. Perceived value and price charged may not add up.
  • Apple will just take this lying down. Given that the iTablet, when it arrives, is pretty likely to sew up the digital tablet market (following the iPhone’s footsteps) Apple’s vested interest in securing content for the device is huge. And since the iTunes/iPhone ecosystem is tightly controlled, we can assume the iTablet one will be too: Publishers will have to come to Apple, not the other way around, if they want to get content on the gizmo.
  • The press release is weirdly U.S.-centric, noting potential smartphone and e-reader sales in the States. When are these chaps going to learn that digital tech really knows no boundaries? More iPhones are sold outside the U.S. than inside it, and English is a de-facto global language. Publishing your own e-magazine or e-newspaper on a global scale is infinitely easier than dealing with physical publication issues, and you ignore this fact at your peril.

There are other holes in the JV’s plans, but I think these are the startling ones. What’s your take? Are Hearst and gang getting this all wrong right form the get-go?

[Via PaidContent, AllThingsD]


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)


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