The Death of Print — Redux or Reflux?

March 17, 2012 by  

In a recent article on Electronista,  it was reported that USA Today will “undergo a major overhaul of its structure to shift attention away from print.” Their new Vice President of Digital Development, Steve Kurtz, is chartered with “refining the paper for its digital side.” The future thrust will include providing content for devices like smartphones, the iPad, other mobile devices, and the Web.

USA Today will be eliminating individual managing editors for its Life, Money, News and Sports sections, rather, they are placing editors together in content groups. This should result in the loss of around 130 jobs, but no official announcements have been made regarding which areas will be cut.

USA Today’s circulation, like many newspapers, has dropped significantly due to the influence of the web higher costs related to publishing on “dead trees,” including paper, ink, and labor. As circulation decreases, this becomes a vicious circle for publishers. Additionally, a number of newspapers have suffered from ill-conceived mergers, where management over-borrowed during the buy-outs, anticipating the traditionally high-profit newspapers could handle the debt load. Enter competitors like Craigslist. Craigslist and similar businesses have all but eliminated the once highly-profitable classified ad departments with lower prices and easier access. Other influences include the huge number of free content outlets from both the conventional media (newspapers, TV, radio, etc.) and the emerging alternative media.

Mobile device technology has also played a part in reducing revenue for newspapers.  Plainly put, people just love their mobile devices and like the ability to view content of whatever kind, wherever and whenever they want.

This does not mean the newspapers aren’t fighting back. News Corp., owners of the Wall Street Journal, among other outlets, more and more is placing their content behind pay-only firewalls. For outlets like the WSJ, this has actually worked out pretty well for them, thanks to a great understanding of their reader base and compelling content. It hasn’t worked out quite as well for most newspapers, as readers have become used to advertising-supported content. These readers will likely abandon a newspaper that begins to charge for content.

An interesting sidenote to this issue is that most newspapers are profitable. Problem is, they are not as profitable as they once were, and are now unable to sustain the massive debt load their management has incurred.

I’m still a subscriber to a local newspaper. I like the feeling of the paper in my hand.  It hasn’t been easy, though. In the last three years, the subscription price has nearly doubled, while the sheet size has shrunken by 20-30% (with the newspaper’s management spinning it by saying the new size is “more convenient”), and total page count has gone into free-fall. So, I get less than half the paper I once had for twice the money. Yet I still subscribe. Oh, and I also subscribe to over 20 magazine titles.

It’s not easy for someone who wants to get into the print world. College professors tell their graphic arts students that print is dead and that their students shouldn’t even accept offers for work in print. In my own experience, I have had to spend an inordinate amount of my time training ad agency graphic designers about print, and how to make graphic files and page layouts that work in print—things they should have picked up in school. Basically, what graphic arts students are being taught today is that if it isn’t online, it’s not worth talking about.

Go to your neighborhood bookstore, to the computer section, and see how many titles are available these days for print-specific computer applications, including graphic design, page layout, etc. There are plenty of books on web design, on Photoshop for the web, on Dreamweaver, and so on, but if you’re lucky, you might find one or two titles for things like Adobe’s InDesign (an advanced page layout tool), and nothing for Quark Xpress or FrameMaker.

As much as I am here today writing this for an online outlet, my heart is still with print, and in spite of the opinion of the “popular” media, print is not dead. Its business model is certainly changing. New print technologies are making short-run jobs more economically feasible, and conventional pressrooms are getting more and more efficient. The use of soy-based inks, recycled papers, and filmless pre-press are making print greener than ever, not to mention lower cost and higher quality.

So, support your local newspaper before it’s gone, and if you are considering a career in graphic design, consider print—from what I can see, the field is wide open.