You can’t blame print publishers for having a bad case of cognitive dissonance as they try to figure out the future of their business. Try digesting this:

From BusinessWeek, January 9, 2006, page 29 (for those of you following in print), Call it Gutenberg’s Revenge:

Upstart Internet publishers, helped by low costs that go with signing up their online members, are venturing into the print world they once viewed as an albatross of paper and distribution expenses.

According to researcher InsightExpress LLC, 68% of consumers don’t read any magazines online. Of that group, 54% say they shun them because they’re inconvenient, while 47% say they don’t like banner ads and pop-ups.

Advertisers, too, still have a soft spot for print.

FROM A SIDEBAR IN THE PRINT-ONLY VERSION (why do they do that?): Babycenter – The online community of mothers is now getting a printed magazine. It turns out moms like to curl up with the pages between their fingers, and advertisers want to reach them with slicker ads than the Net allows.

From Bloomberg (and 1,000 other sources), Online Ad Growth Accelerates, Outpacing Newspaper, TV Spending:

“We’re seeing a shift to a more diverse set of media choices,” said Mary Baglivo, chief executive officer of the New York office of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. “Certainly a move away from what had traditionally over the years been the vast majority television and print.”

Almost half of the ad executives in a Credit Suisse survey intend to increase Internet spending by almost 30 percent in the next year, according to the brokerage’s Dec. 9 report. The study, conducted by New York-based market researcher TNS Media Intelligence for Credit Suisse, included 90 companies and 10 ad agencies, with average accounts of $22 million.

Still, display ads will be the slowest growing ad type next year as spending on animated, or so-called “rich media” ads, increases, according to Credit Suisse. Terry forecasts that group will overtake banner ads in 2008.

“Video is the most compelling and emotive creative medium available for advertisers,” said Nate Elliott, an analyst with Jupiter Research in London. “It does the best job of creating emotion.”

From BusinessWeek, January 9, 2006, page 30 (the VERY NEXT PAGE), Curling Up with a Good E-Book:

Can Sony Corp. make the iPod of digital books? That’s the plan.

Sony has to hope consumers find the same pleasure curling up by the fire or on the beach with an e-book reader as they do with an old-fashioned paperback.

From Folio, January 2, 2006, Predictions: Bumpy Ride Will Continue in the New Year:

The Internet has become the focus of attention, both to recruit new subscribers and as a publishing medium. Holmes, who has 20 years of experience in circulation, watched recently as Technology Review cut its print publishing schedule in half, to bimonthly, and revamp its Web site to include multimedia content and other features to accommodate reader preferences. “It’s interesting to say Technology Review is an Internet entity with a print magazine to support it,” she says. “Print is ingrained in me; it’s hard not to constantly think about print.”

First, kudos to Heather Holmes, the circulation director of MIT Technology Review, one of the few print publications making a bold move into Publishing 2.0, for having the courage to speak for the entire industry. Here it is again:

“Print is ingrained in me; it’s hard not to constantly think about print.”

How utterly cathartic. Now, let’s take this one step at a time:

Anyone who thinks a static print ad is “slicker” than the next generation of rich media ads online either isn’t connected to the Internet and/or doesn’t own a computer. Full stop.

Yes, advertisers are still spending real money on print. It’s understandable that online-only pubs would want a piece of the action — while it lasts. It’s short-sighted, sure, but why not make a buck in the meantime.

That said, at least these online pubs have the economic hierarchy right: they are principally online publishers, supported by an ancillary print product. The challenge for print publishers is to reverse their current print-centric model, to put their center of gravity where the growth is.

A handful of forward-thinking publishers, like Technology Review, are already shifting away from the economics of print, even while there are large numbers of people who still read publications in print. For those publishers still holding out, keep an eye on e-books. In the 90s, the maxim was “all content wants to be free.” Here’s a Publishing 2.0 maxim for the 21st Century:

All content wants to be digital.

As soon as someone invents a digital reader that makes text as readable as print and portable into the bathroom, on the couch, on the beach, and on the plane, the economics of print publishing will collapse. It’s a matter of when, not if.

Don’t believe me? Try reading Michael Kinsley’s hysterical (and deeply sobering) Post column, Black and White and Dead All Over, in which he describes in excruciating detail how a print newspaper is published, and also observes:

In 1996 the oldest Americans who grew up with computers and don’t even understand my tiresome anecdotes about how people used to resist them (“What’s a typewriter, Mike?”) were just entering adulthood. Now they are most of the working population, or close to it.

No one knows how all this will play out. But it is hard to believe that there will be room in the economy for delivering news by the Rube Goldberg process described above. That doesn’t mean newspapers are toast. After all, they’ve got the brand names. You gotta trust something called the “Post-Intelligencer” more than something called “Yahoo” or “Google,” don’t you? No, seriously, don’t you? Okay, how old did you say you are?

And newspapers have got the content. The first time I heard myself called a “content provider,” I felt like a guy who’d been hired by the company that makes Tupperware to make sure there was plenty of Jello salad. As a rule, anyone who uses the term content provider without a smirk needs to consider getting content from someone else.

There is even hope for newspapers in the very absurdity of their current methods of production and distribution. What customers pay for a newspaper doesn’t cover the cost of the paper, let alone the attendant folderol. Without these costs, even zero revenue from customers would be a good deal for newspapers, if advertisers go along. Which they might. Maybe. Don’t you think? Please?

As for the 68% of consumers who don’t read magazines (or eat Jello salad) online, I wonder how many of those would say they don’t read anything online. The Internet is transforming the way people read and consume information (whether for the worse is a topic for another day). Of course people don’t want to read online the static, un-linkable, un-taggable, un-searchable piece of content they call a “magazine.” They want to read dynamically, the way the Internet has long enabled them to, collectively, through the new dynamics of social media, and interactively, with the opportunities provided online to speak out and not just be spoken to.

So does that mean the end for print publishing brands? What about the deep trust that these brands have developed with their audiences over time?

To pick up on Kinsley’s point about brand trust, a survey published in American Demographics found that Google is the #3 most trusted source of information on the Internet (behind Yahoo! and MSN), and #1 among the younger crowd. As the article observes:

Google’s strong showing in the U.S. and Europe as a reliable Web information source is intriguing since the site largely leaves it to users to figure out what in the sea of unedited search results should be believed or discarded. But that leaves consumers in control, and those consumers count on Google to lead them to the truth.

I’m guessing that whether people trust the content they find through Google still depends on who’s supplying it, i.e. content brands still matter — but not as distribution channels. Consumers don’t want their branded content bound in static packages. All together now: they want what they want when they want it.

As for the pillars that still support print: longer articles, reading on the beach (in the cab, on the plane, on the couch, etc.), glossy paper (or ink on your fingers), the ability to stack in the corner until your spouse or office colleagues tell you to throw them out — Sony, Apple, somebody, please hurry up — publishing really needs to get over print.