Friday, June 22, 2012

Can't Stop Progress - Print vs. Online

Last night I was watching Modern Marvels on TV. It was a show that they called "Retrotech" though I think that might have been somewhat of a misleading title. They were showing the old technology, what it has been replaced by and what that means to today's world. At least the world of 2009 in which it was originally aired.

One segment stood out as particularly meaningful to the world of June 2012, and to me personally as a retired page layout designer who worked with print magazines for the last 20 years of my working life.

The segment showed how print newspapers where having to adapt to the changing habits of an increasingly online world. It showed that with so many other options available to get your news today that traditional newspaper publishers are having to find ways to keep people turning to them among so many new choices. They featured one newspaper who was starting to integrate an online version with the traditional printed version. They utilized the same reporters and editors, though they needed to learn new skills and often new ways of reporting. Reporters were becoming bloggers and editors were becoming producers. Management seemed to be very upbeat about the changes, but remember that this was 2009. The world has gone even more to an online paradigm since then. At that time, management reported that 30% of their readers did not have access to the internet, and there was no chance of the print version being totally replaced.

However, the technology revolution continues to speed up, and today not only can you get your news on your computer or smartphone, but tablets have entered the mix, and have become a major factor in the last few years. Many of the major newspapers which used to allow you to access their material for free online, now are using schemes whereby you must pay for it. Some, like the NY Times, allow a certain amount of free content before you need to pay, but more and more you are now finding that - like a newspaper on the newstand - if you want to read your favorite newspaper online, you will need to subscribe for a fee. Print newspapers are losing advertising to the online versions - the price you pay for that newspaper does little to offset the cost of publishing it ... that has always been the role of advertising. Advertising rates have always been controlled by certified circulation rates, and those can be determined quite easily in the online world.

So, is this a good thing or a bad thing? As I said, I spent the last 20 years of my career working for a publisher of print magazines, but as they started placing content online, more and more that became a major part of my responsibilities. Designers and layout artists shouldn't necessarily lose their jobs. (In my case, my retirement came a bit earlier than planned as my publisher decided to go offshore with all production work for cost reasons. I was lucky enough to be able to retire, and all of the others in my department found work before the last day.) Printers and their employees however could find themselves in a situation of possibly losing work.

Yet, how do you stop progress? The genie cannot be put back into the bottle. To be honest, while we still get home delivery of our local newspaper, and my wife looks forward to reading it when she comes home from work, I have always been an early adopter of new technology and have been getting my news online for many years now. Even that local newspaper which we get every day has an online presence, and I have read it before our print version is delivered.

No longer do we have to wait for the newspaper to be delivered to read the latest news, or have to wait until the next edition for late breaking news. The radio and then TV started the trend away from newspapers and online editions continue that trend. In fact, since newspapers can have their own issues online - unlike with radio and TV - perhaps this will be less harmful to those who work in the publishing arena.

Another advantage is that I can now read news articles from local newspapers across the US and the world, and read about things that happen without a NYcentric or UScentric slant. And yes, I will admit, that when one of the local sports teams that I root for beats an out of town team, I enjoy reading about it in the other team's local newspaper.

I used to have a regular column in a US magazine and one in a UK magazine in the 1980's. I would think that my US readers might have enjoyed reading my UK column (and vice versa) if there were an online world in those days.

I have mixed feelings here as you might expect, having worked for so long in publishing. You can't stop technology or progress. What is happening to newspapers is also occurring with magazines. To be honest, with the quality of today's tablets, I find myself buying - and subscribing to - the magazines I read regularly from my tablet and enjoy the convenience of not having so many lying around the house. I love to keep many of them around for future reference. So yes, I am among those who prefer my magazines and newspapers online.

What about you?

(Related: E-books: Devil or Angel?)


  1. you are typical of so many, not a bad thing, and i see the appeal of the neatly-filed editions and a clutter-free house. i am yet to purchase a tablet, mainly because as my work is all on screen, i enjoy the break of sitting in a quiet house, away from my screen, with a fresh coffee and today's newspaper. and on the rare occasion i purchase a magazine, that additional sense of holding it in my hands and slowly peeling over each page … i wonder do i process the information a different way?

    in the generations to come, will we be able to measure the diminishing of our sense of touch, or the blossoming connection between eye and brain? xt

    1. I certainly understand the tactile pleasure of a hard cover edition, beautifully bound book. (See the "Related" link above) But when I am looking for information as I would with a newspaper or a magazine, there really is no special pleasure - in my mind - to be had handling paper ... especially newsprint which can make your hands black. Even a printed magazine can smudge and pick up fingerprints. Magazines have a definite smell (and feel to them) but honestly, all that smell brings to my mind is the smell of "work" after all these years in magazine publishing.

      As for the whole "sitting in front of a computer for work so I don't want to do it when I don't have to" feeling, I do understand that, but for me this most likely is a throwback to the early days of home computers. Back then, at least for me, having a computer was like having a video gaming unit is for many today. It was something I played on - programming it to see what I could make it do. New software wasn't about doing my job better, but being able to do new and different things on my computer that I could never have done before. It's different today with the computer being no more than a tool like the typewriter was before.

      I don't think reading a newspaper, or magazine, or even most books on new technology will reduce our sense of touch, smell, or the connection to the physicality of the world. There is still so much to use our senses on which is enhanced with that use. I don't think this really is one of those experiences - unless you are talking about scratch and sniff advertising.

  2. I am caught right in the middle on this. I still love the paper version of NYT but I did subscribe on my nook tablet just to see and I will be unsunscribing as the layout on this device is awful. BUT I get my New Yorker and other mags on the tablet and it is great. I just got my ipad (yes!) and I suspect that the NYT on this will be a better experience. I think I will always want my Sunday version in paper format - just something about it. And another mag I subscribe to on the nook (Vanity Fair) I think I would prefer in the actual glossy mag version. There is something about the experience ... and oddly I think I miss having the actual mags lying around the house.
    Did you read about the situation in Australia? They are about to abolish 1600 journalist jobs at our major newspaper because of the online factor.
    Definitely interesting times.

    1. Yes, I have been following the Fairfax situation, and it was a combination of that, and my own experiences which clicked when I saw the program last night that lead me to write this.

      You know the Chinese epithet regarding interesting times ...

  3. Yes Mark, the Fairfax issue is a hot topic down here. The debate is about the restyle to a tabloid size but not tabloid content, the jobs that will disappear and also what is the intention of Gina Rinehart who is buying in but has no newspaper expertise. Just what is her agenda. I have read and loved newspapers for most of my life. Friends traveling overseas would bring me back newspapers - I didn't care how old or even if they were in another language. I have long watched foreign language news reports on our SBS station. I read news online, preferably on my iPad occasionally on my phone. I also listen to the radio. I will stay tuned.