Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fit to digitize

To the surprise, even shock, of many, the Washington Post was sold to an outsider.  No printers ink on those fingers, none in those veins and certainly no experience running a newspaper.  What will happen to the venerable Post, how can someone from outside the tradition possibly succeed?  More important, isn't he likely to shake the tree, perhaps ruin everything that was.  No, I'm not talking about Jeff Bezos but of the banker and former Federal Reserve Chairman Eugene Isaac Meyer — of 1933, not 2013.  According to Wikipedia, Meyer said, ...that he had bought the Post on his own, without the influence of "any group or organization".  Meyer was an outsider and look how that turned out.

Well Jeff Bezos, also an outsider bought the Post on his own and could easily have repeated Meyer's words.  Meyer stepped in to pull the paper out of bankruptcy after it's owner Edward McLean, the scion of a newspaper family it should be noted, ran it to the ground.  Today's Post is losing money but hardly bankrupt and its now newspaper Graham family (Meyer's descendants) are and have been highly responsible and respected owners.  It wasn't mismanagement that threatened the newspaper, but a sea change in how our news is delivered and received.  Meyer gave the Post fresh thinking and a renewed life in the twentieth century.  Given what the right outside eyes can bring and accomplish, perhaps Bezos will do the same in the twenty-first.

The New York Times (not for sale) has been integral to my life since early childhood.  Occasional lapses aside, it has largely remained true to Adolph Ochs' promise, "all the news that's fit to print".  It was and is a unique newspaper.  For sure, it is of New York, but of the nation and the world as well — our shared paper of record.  So it's hardly surprising that it accompanied me when I moved from Manhattan to Chapel Hill.  Of course, it was the Times the came along, not the physical paper.  My Times is now, and has been for some time, 100% digital.  To many people (including some in my own family) the idea of reading the Times exclusively online is considered sacrilege.  How, they contend, could one possibly live without the feel of the paper in hand, survive without the turning its pages?  Ah, rituals.

Well of course one can survive and there is a generation growing up that has no such attachment to the "paper" in newspaper, no need for the tactile, no nostalgia for the "real thing".  To date, www.nytimes.com hasn't adorned its home page with and updated version of Ochs' promise like, all the news that's fit to digitize ("publish" would work as well).  That omission may reflect some unease about a medium which requires constant updating and where the risk of "printing" the unfit or not entirely vetted is greater.  But I suspect it reflects more that companies with precious legacy products or services are loath to admit that their "real thing" is no longer sacrosanct.  My client The Coca-Cola Company, fearing dilution or worse denigrating their "real thing" delayed years before launching diet Coke.  "Fit to digitize" assumes not only as Bob Dylan might put it that, "times they are a-changin" but the much harder to swallow, that they have already changed.

The Times, to its credit, launched its digital version fairly early and has improved it constantly so that today it is the country's most visited news website with 30 million unique monthly visitors. Earlier this year it reported 676,000 paid digital subscribers, myself included.  How can those of us who subscribed to the print edition and relied on its content expect to get the same reporting for free?  Indeed, "there is no free lunch".  If we want a quality Times, Post or any other content-rich periodical, we should be willing to pay for it.

The Post came to the web somewhat later and still doesn't have anywhere near as robust an online version.  They have about 19 Million unique monthly visitors.  While both Rupert Murdoch and Michael Blumberg have long been said to covet the Times, it's hardly surprising, and I think encouraging, that the Post's possible savior is a digital man pure and simple.  In the not so long run, periodicals like the Times and Post will only survive if they are willing to completely embrace what inevitably will be a post-print era.

The decline of newspapers has been well documented.  Fewer readers and consequently lower ad revenues coupled with the often-unpredictably high cost of both printing a paper and delivering it to market are certainly to blame.  Then of course there are the competitive forces — radio and TV (which have been there in the past) but most especially cable news.  You can blame or praise Ted Turner for that.  His 24/7 CNN (even if it no longer dominates) changed the ballgame.  Add to that, the Internet, which threatens to put a final nail in the coffin, especially when lifelong loyalists like me abandon the printed page for the digital screen.  And obviously we're not simply talking computers any more but smartphones and tablets.  I often read a book (something Jeff Bezos knows all about) across all three platforms moving from one to another, each knowing where I left off.  My digital Times may not yet work the same way, but it surely will.

The word newspaper itself presents a significant branding/nomenclature problem for the Post, Times and others.  I said the Times came along with me from New York to North Carolina, not the paper.  Newspaper is a self-defining descriptor both for the companies and for their readers.  In a sense, the newspaper nomenclature locks in the legacy and makes it less flexible.  Jeff Bezos started his company with the intention of selling books on line.  He could have called it books.com but opted for Amazon.  This non-specific name permitted him to go anywhere, sell anything, which is exactly what he has done.  Something called newspapers don't have the same flexibility.

The word newspaper impacts on the mindset of the company and the readers.  It sets up expectations in terms, for example, of what format constitutes the "real thing".  The paper is real, the digital format not so much.  From a business standpoint, newspaper can send the wrong strategic signals.  It can be misleading when it comes to allocating resources.  The word newspaper in the twenty-first century leads, I would suggest, both the publisher and reader to look backward rather than forward.  To be sure there are some very good and satisfying things about a physical paper, about turning those pages, but much of that comes from the fact that we're used to it; it's familiar and comfortable.  Some of us are very change-resistant.  But holding on to print, giving it priority, means holding back.  That can be fatal.  Eastman Kodak, despite having come to digital early, and inventively so, held on to the primacy of film so long that it was forced into bankruptcy in 2012; 132 years after George Eastman founded it.  Too many wonderful newspapers have experienced the same fate — Kodak has since come out of Chapter 11, but they have tragically disappeared.

Don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not writing here to promote Jeff Bezos and his acquisition of the Post.  Billionaires like him seem to be taking over the world, gobbling up small companies, often homogenizing our society and obliterating competition and choice.  Think airlines, drug companies, Walmart to name a few.  But I am definitely suggesting that it's time to look forward and to embrace all the enhancements that it can bring.  My Times still gives me in-depth reporting but it also provides up-to-the-minute breaking news, video and so much more.  Perhaps CNN once posed a threat, but today it is the on-line Times and other great brands like it that are moving once again into the drivers seat.  And, in my view, that’s a good thing. 

What a Bezos could mean for the Post and for the industry is fresh thinking without being encumbered by legacy, the paper legacy.  That doesn't mean that he (or others like him) will discard the heritage but they will be focusing on how to renew and revitalize it for the current and future generations.  That is not only good, it is needed.  Selfishly it will make my experience better, but I think it will also enhance yours.   Symbolically, the Bezos purchase focuses the Post and us not on where we have been but where we are and will be in the years ahead.

As reported in a recent Post interview, Jeff Bezos said, that "the Kindle e-reader convinced him that the printed word doesn’t have to be on paper. 'The key thing about a book is that you lose yourself in the author’s world.  Great writers create an alternative world.  It doesn’t matter if you enter that world' via a digital or printed source."    I feel the same when I read my Times each day.  The words of its reporters and columnists count, not where and how I encounter them.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

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