When the print legacy becomes a hindrance
Dec 27, 2012
Print legacy hampers media outlets as they resist digital transition, leading to disarray and potential brand disappearance.
The entry of journalistic content production into the digital world is not a walk in the park, it is not voluntary and it is not necessarily advantageous. Media outlets that have been comfortably supported by their presses for years and decades (and in some cases, centuries), find themselves forced to make decisions that push them out of their comfort zone. The tension created by the resistance to this departure and the pressure towards it is responsible for the situations of disarray that are still prevalent today. What situations? Those that lead the reader to wonder why that medium decides to make certain decisions when other paths are more obvious. Increasingly, the insistence in pursuit of a dying comfort increases the chance of major brands disappearing.
Let's talk about context. Faced with dilemmas, world-famous magazine titles are seeing their print operations swept away by the deluge. In the week before Christmas in 2012, two major brands in world journalism, the music magazine Spin and the news magazine Newsweek, ended their print editions (Newsweek even with a touch of digital humor, using a hashtag referring to the last issue).
Quick cut and we return to Brazil. Two Brazilian magazines (which I will take the poetic license not to mention by name) caught my attention in the same week. The first of them, dedicated to a more literary journalism, and the second, addressing sports and its adjacent areas.
In the case of the first, the strangeness is because when trying to subscribe to the journalistic title, I discovered that it only offered the print version; the relevant thing about the sports publication is that it also did not have a digital version, even though it had a large digital operation. Both titles are aimed at the segment of the audience with the highest purchasing power and which, especially in the case of the journalistic publication, is highly identified with tablets, smartphones, and other digital devices. One of them is ending its activities; the other (I suppose) only survives because it is a title that has subsidies (read as, institutional sponsorships). In both cases, a considerable number of readers are left unattended, even though they have money and a desire to purchase. This is the most symptomatic picture of inappropriate editorial choices.
In the United States, printing and distribution account for about 40% of the costs of running a news publication (in some cases, even more than that). There is nothing to suggest that in Brazil these percentages are much lower (in fact, Brazil, with its unbalanced demographic and economic constitution, suggests even higher values). These 40% therefore have a significant impact on the final price of a journalistic product, but rarely do journalistic companies talk about digital mutation as a beneficial thing. Newsroom costs usually hover around 15-20%, suggesting that quality cuts in the newsroom have much less power to relieve financial pressure than operational adjustments, cuts in executive bodies full of perks, or debt renegotiations.
In the two cases mentioned, the nature of the editorial distortion that led the companies not to treat the titles according to the trend of digitization was of different origins. In one case, the company owning the title has had a gigantic and expensive printing and distribution infrastructure set up and functional for decades, where the larger the number of participating titles, the lower the individual cost and the greater the profit that the process generates; the fewer the titles, the greater the cost and the smaller the profit. In the other case, the decisions seem to have been more due to the embryonic stage of digital consumption in Brazil, which leads many editors to be afraid to bet on digital versions, even when they have the means to cover the loss for a certain period. The mistakes are born at different moments in the decision-making process that involves a publication, but they result from the same insistence mentioned in the first paragraph, which is generated by a series of paradigms inherited from print.
Spin and Newsweek are as much heirs of this print mindset as the companies that own the titles that serve as the thread of this text, but in some way, they chose to pull the plugs on print before print pulled the plugs on the magazines. It is true that Spin and Newsweek have the advantage of being in a more mature market, where digital revenues are more consolidated, but it is also true that they began to suffer from the digital invasion earlier. What happened was that the American titles bet on an uncertain future scenario instead of a present scenario whose certainty is that of an end with a marked date.
Magazines in particular are graced by the digital medium with the birth of a series of infinite possibilities. Those who have seen the digital versions of Wired or Sports Illustrated know what this is about. Major publications that have the resources to cover the loss of a digital edition for a few years need to do so now, including to acquire expertise that will give them an advantage in competition when the market matures. It is hard to say how much Spin and Newsweek have secured their futures, but it is certain that they have more chances than competitors who have not made their decisions. At this moment of transition, the responsible companies must protect their most important assets - the titles and the newsrooms - and bet on the future. More than a matter of pride, this is a responsibility of journalism to society. Mourning the end of an era will not save anyone from the cold cost and expense spreadsheets.