July 24th, 2006
Scott Donaton has a column in Ad Age imagining the inevitable day when the Wall Street Journal will fold its print publication:
I don’t have enough insight into The Journal’s economics to say when (or, with confidence, whether) the day will come when a print-to-digital conversion is economically feasible. Could be two years, could be 10. But most newspapers are faced with roughly the same dilemma: Print dollars are flat or down but still account for the bulk of revenue and profits. Digital is growing by double- or triple-digits, but off a relatively small base, and online advertising isn’t valued as highly as print. Even those who believe a digital takeover is inevitable don’t want to admit it because it puts their existing revenue streams at risk too soon, before they’ve built the ark that will carry them safely to a new business model. [Bold mine]
I’ve always though of the print publishing conundrum in terms of this graph:
Scott nails the Catch 22 for print publishers (which I bolded) — how do you shift the business online without going out of business?
Scott does point out — and I concur — “I strongly believe that print has a future; it’s hard to imagine a world without glossy lifestyle monthlies because there’s no better delivery system (yet) for their photos and stories.”
Ultimately, each category of print publishing will live or die based on its own economics — the fixed costs of print publishing will not diminish (and if anything will grow, with everything from paper to postage to the increasing costs of propping up print circulation as media time continues its shift online) — if the revenue is there, then it may make sense to continue publishing. But once the revenue hits the point of no return (i.e. loss of profitability), the top line will cease to matter.
Some publishers may choose to subsidize their print publications until they can finish work on the digital “ark” — but that can only last for so long.
I’ll go out on a limb and predict that a major newspaper will cease publishing in print in the next 5 years — within 10 years feels like a really safe bet, but based on the torrid pace of change, my gut tells me it’s all going to go down a lot sooner than we expect (i.e. next 3 years).