In the previous post, I referred to my three-part strategy for updating the blog even though I have been buried in deadlines. The first part of the strategy was to cadge someone else’s insight and write a quick, short riff on what that other guy said. The second part of my strategy is to outsource the whole post! So, now entering the lineup for The Dale, playing shortstop and batting cleanup, Paul Dempsey, web director at Ursinus College:
The Future of Print
As a web guy, I may be overstepping my bounds by participating in the CUE listserv. CUE, after all, stands for College and University Editors, and it’s reasonable to assume that only ink-stained wretches need apply. But I consider myself primarily a communicator and I’ve always worked closely with my print-based colleagues. So I follow the discussions and try to contribute when I can.
In addition to requests for headline help and advice on freelance writers and photographers, one recurring topic is the threats to traditional print-based magazines. These threats, generally attributed to “higher ups” or “powers that be,” include cutting pages or issues and moving publications online. The threats category picked up some steam a few weeks ago, following the announcement that Newsweek would be ending its print edition, becoming an online magazine. Robert Mendelson of Carnegie Mellon started a thread on CUE, aptly titled “Thanks a lot, Newsweek,” in which he noted that the Newsweek decision is again raising the question of a switch from print to online editions.
In the ensuing discussion, I was struck by the defensive tone of many of the comments. In addition to bashing Newsweek—one post called it “awful” and “dry, pedantic and visually dead”—the comments focused on the failure of online editions and the positive responses to magazine reader surveys. This was on my mind when I was watching CNN’s media show, Reliable Sources, which had a good segment about the Newsweek decision. It’s well worth 10 minutes of your time:
Host Howard Kurtz interviewed Tina Brown, Newsweek’s editor, about the factors that led to the decision to stop printing. While she naturally defended her decision, citing among other things the “inexorable force of the zeitgeist” (who talks like that?), I thought her comments about reading habits were particularly interesting. She noted from personal observation that fewer people seem to be reading print magazines and books in favor of reading on tablets. Citing the tremendous growth in tablet use, she said, “I want to go where our readers are.” This was echoed by author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, who noted “there is still life in print, but clearly the future is digital.”
You may argue with their conclusions, but there is a lot to consider in these observations from people who have spent their careers in print journalism. As I noted, a lot of the discussions on CUE about the future of college magazines seem to be defensive and critical of any “higher-ups” who dare question the current model. Even though some of those questions may be misguided, there are important issues to consider.
I’m not suggesting it’s time to stop publishing college magazines. But it is important that we consider the impact of disruptive technologies and think of ways to stay ahead of change before it’s forced on us. The explosive growth of tablets in just a few years, for example, is clearly having an impact on reading habits and the publishing world.
I worry when editors cite failed early experiments in online publications and weak online readership data, for a number of reasons. The rapid change in our reading habits and use of technology means that data from one or two years ago may not accurately explain the current situation or predict the future. In addition, comparing online analytics with self-reported information from the CASE Readership Survey may not be particularly valid. As the survey report notes, there is always some inherent bias in these surveys and magazine survey respondents may be tilted toward readers and friends of the publication and institution.
Rather than finding reasons to defend the status quo,wouldn’t we be better off keeping an open mind? As some CUE posters noted, we are not Newsweek. We don’t cover world news, come out every week, or rely on paid subscriptions. These are all advantages, giving us flexibility to explore these new platforms as we try to engage alumni and other audiences to communicate what is special about our institutions.
The stories we tell with good writing and photos (and now video and audio) will remain important. The methods of delivery are evolving, though, and may include combinations of print magazines, web sites, tablet apps or e-magazines, and e-mails to drive readers to the content. Rather than react to the higher-ups or powers-that-be, we need to lead in order to guide them to consider change sensibly.