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Timing of print-to-digital transition is crucial to success for publishers

08 July 2013 · By Earl J. Wilkinson

All news publishing is going the direction of digital. The only question left for publishers to contend with is when (and how) to orchestrate the transition.

Hour glass sitting on top of a newspaper.Across an international network of news publishers, it’s easy to delude oneself into believing that there are strategic outliers.

Every publisher believes they are unique. Every press association believes their country’s publishers are somehow outside the trends.

I find very few strategic outliers in the news industry worldwide. I do see tactical outliers, mostly in how responses to the market are timed. The most common mistake is along the “print vs. digital” divide.

Let’s be brutally clear: The clear direction for the news industry is digital. There is not a single exception on the planet. The only question is timing.

Here’s a simple, funny exercise I share with audiences who get uneasy – fast – when talking about print/digital because of the cultural toxicity of the debate within their companies: Will you be delivering news primarily via print or digital in:

  • 100 years? Clearly, digital.

  • 50 years? Clearly, digital.

  • 20 years? Not sure.

  • 10 years? Probably, print + digital. Maybe digital + print.

  • Five years? Clearly, print + digital.

Across the 80-country INMA network, our reality today is that we are a “print + digital” industry. That’s a big, comfortable umbrella that brings everyone into the same room and allows us all to sit at the same table.

If we can agree on the concepts behind this timeline, it allows us to step away from the emotional debate about print/digital that I saw recently during a whirlwind visit with Italian publishers and that I continue to see throughout Spanish Latin America.

Latin American publishers, especially, argue that digital might be our future, but that print is our reality today. That we as an industry are spending too much time talking about digital and that the mere discussion of it is helping accelerate print’s decline.

Every national newspaper industry has gone through the same discussion in the past 20 years. These markets are the latest.

Every publisher worldwide is in the same funnel leading us to digital transmission of news.

Where we are in that funnel depends on the uptake of digital (and which devices) by readers and advertisers:

  • North American and Scandinavian publishers are deep in the funnel. Maybe the Americans were too quick to harvest print quality. Maybe the Norwegians were too quick to let go of the print reins and manage the multi-media transition. Those are qualitative judgments that others can learn from.

  • German publishers thought they were outliers until the past two years. Like Rupert Murdoch before them, they are now playing catch-up as reader and advertiser numbers point them to the boomerang effect of digital uptake. Like Murdoch, they are having to acquire companies and skill sets.

  • Indian publishers thought they were outliers, too, a part of a storyline very different from their European and North American counterparts. Then along came the smartphone and tablet and the very high likelihood that there will be a Tata-isation of these devices sooner rather than later. (Tata is the creator of the US$2,500 car and they seem to always find an inexpensive alternative to high-end products.)

  • Australian publishers have been devastated by an economic downturn and rapid uptake of digital news consumption to the point that they are considering radical restructurings of companies, platforms, and business models. The rapidity of the uptake has been such that they are looking for quick paths that their North American and Scandinavian counterparts had a decade to develop.

A recent visit with publishers in France and Italy reminded me of the need to be honest about what “print vs. digital” is about: timing.

The art of the print-to-digital transition is not about how to change your organisational structure and your corporate culture. “How” can be copied by talking with executives at VG in Norway, the Financial Times, The Economist, and The New York Times. If you want a template to catch up with digital culture, look to Axel Springer in Germany, which is investing tons of time and energy in this process.

No, the real art is the timing of the changes:

  • When do you decide to transition your culture to one that is more adaptive to multi-media?

  • When do you decide to cut down the wall between editorial and commercial?

  • When do you make the hard personnel decisions that move out the print guys and move in the multi-media guys?

  • When do you accelerate digital sales at the possible expense of print sales?

Timing is everything.

In Pakistan today, the No. 1 challenge for publishers is they can’t get their hands on enough newsprint. They are more worried about government intrusion than digital uptake.

If Jang Group or Dawn Group drank from the digital fountain tomorrow and decided to accelerate digital transformation, they would do so without an existing customer infrastructure behind them. Digital might be the clear long-term direction, but getting the timing wrong in the transition would be devastating.

Tougher today are markets stuck in the middle. The challenge in Spanish Latin America is that markets are largely calcified. Middle classes aren’t growing fast enough. Government is interfering with economic growth.

Publishers are buying printing presses for markets where older people still read print yet in less frequency, while young people are adapting a digital media diet more like their counterparts around the world. That feels like the U.S. news industry in 2003 and, similarly, publishers in the United States were paralysed to make clear decisions.

All publishers are going in the direction of digital. We are all in the same funnel. You are not, somehow, a strategic outlier. The only question is when to say “go” in pushing transformation. Then the hard work begins.

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About Earl

Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of INMA. In his interactions with INMA members worldwide, Earl has one of the broadest views of newspapers of anyone serving our industry today. He is a trendspotter and a leading advocate for cultural change, transformation, and innovation. This blog represents his unique view of the emerging global news media industry.

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