The Myth of the Print Transition to Digital

Some of you have probably read Anne Marie Owen's letter to her newsroom at the National Post about the efforts of the paper to transform itself into a "digitally focussed" operation. I'm a huge fan of Anne Marie and I have nothing but goodwill towards the people at the Post, and I honestly wish them well in their efforts, but I think they are doomed.

We are now twenty-plus years into the digital era and it is clear that there is no such thing as a transition from print to digital. I've heard hundreds of print outlets, and a lot of policy makers, talk about this transition but I can't think of one important title that has effected such a transition, newspaper or magazine. Many are trying, and they're all still shrinking at alarming rates, or (like the Atlantic) muddling along with aid of a business strategy that no longer resembles publishing, whether print or digital. Here's a recent roundup of the bad news.

It doesn't matter whether the legacy print outlet has pinned its hopes primarily on digital subscription revenue, like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, or digital ad revenue, like Postmedia, the Toronto Star, and most of the rest. Digital revenues are unable to support the weight of legacy cost structures, even after they've been pared to the bone. Print titles are either collapsing under the weight of their expense lines, or wasting away like so many hunger strikers.

So, again, let's be clear. There is no transition from print to digital. There is print, and there is digital. Period. I find this depressing but it needs to be confronted. Show me a single title that has stood up and said, "Here, we've done it, we've made the leap from print to a flourishing digital operation that can support the expense of what's left of this newsroom."

You might point to Vice, but it never amounted to anything as a print publication, and that, I think, is why it turned completely and successfully to digital. All of the digital journalism properties that seem to have a chance are digitally native, like Vice, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, TMZ, the former Gawker network, and I'm not sure I'd bet on any of these for the long-run. (Vice's hurry to become television channel suggests that it has glimpsed the limits of digital-only operations).

Print and digital are different mediums, with different cost structures and business models, different styles of engagement, and different audiences.

We had the media critic and entrepreneur Michael Woolfe up at an event last fall in Ottawa and at a break in the action I pressed him on what the future held for journalism. He said he couldn't see a single business model that appeared to be sustainable. I've been arguing with him in my head ever since, watching for signs of progress at Texture and at new entires like Blendr. But I can't say that I see the future anywhere unless you count a bunch of shoestring sites that can't pay their writers a living wage (god bless these sites but, thus far, they are a poor substitute for what we've known).

None of this is to suggest that journalism, as a craft and a public service, is dead. There are reasons for hope, which I'll address in a later post. But it does no one any good to believe that the way forward is transitioning from print to digital.