Print Is Dead, Print Isn’t Dead: The “Chinatown” Scenario of a Shifting Media Model

March 25th, 2014
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Print Is Dead, Print Isn’t Dead: The “Chinatown” Scenario of a Shifting Media Model  Ellis Friedman BurrellesLuce Fresh IdeasIf you happened to be searching for information on the state of print media, you’d encounter a classic Chinatown (spoiler alert) contradiction: Print is dying, it’s not dying, it’s dying, it’s not dying, it’s dying and it’s not dying!

Every morning, BurrellesLuce creates and distributes a daily briefing culling articles about the industry, and nearly every day there is an article extolling print’s comeback, and the next day, one about its continued decline. Time Inc. is laying off workers, but The Washington Post is expanding. Newspaper The Los Angeles Register will debut in print, but do print magazines have a future? Fashion magazines are posting growth in ad pages, but ad dollars are getting stretched thin by all the new website offshoots.

Newspaper publishers are losing money, CNN laid off 40 senior journalists, and many newspapers are now going without photojournalists and instead relying on citizens with smartphones. And yet, California newspapers will be carrying a new Sunday print magazine, and Net-a-Porter just launched its own print magazine. Sales of hardcover books were up last year, while sales of ebooks were down.

With print’s evolution of both expansion and contraction, perhaps the death proclamations are due not to the actual dying of traditional print media, but due instead to the fact that we call it “traditional” and “print.” In using the “traditional” label, we condemn print to a stuffy, rigid, outdated image when that emerging print publications are being integrated into online publications’ business models.

In talking about “print” and its death, perhaps what we’re referring to is not wholly the paper medium itself, but edited, high-quality journalistic content. It’s not a dead art form, but it is being overshadowed – and dominated – by online media powerhouses that have ushered in a new era of image-heavy, conversational, meme-focused free digital content.

This isn’t to say that modern online journalism is lesser than the content that preceded it, as many exclusively online sites provide insightful reporting alongside fun, sharable content. But the nature of crowd-sourced content creation, varying editorial standards, and prevalence of misinformation make online content as a whole a much more volatile medium.

It’s not just the “traditional” “print” media that’s suffering; publications are trying new strategies like native advertising, hiring more reporters and focusing on hyper-local news, and even those dynamic online outlets are scrambling to get by –  The Huffington Post has yet to post a profit and may even enact a paywall, and now digital magazine Slate will introduce a paid membership plan.

So perhaps what we’re talking about is more than a Chinatown scenario: it’s a shift in writing and reporting styles that’s tough to define, and a desire for free content that makes it tough for any online or paper medium to get by.

What’s your take on this shifting media model?

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