Why Print Needs to Crash and Burn

Following on my recent and rather depressing post on the impossibility of transitioning a media company from print to digital, I want to explore a more optimistic scenario we'll call the Phoenix Model of journalism's future.

A number of people have pointed to possible exceptions to my blanket assertion that no conventional print operations have transitioned to flourishing, profitable digital operations: The Independent in the United Kingdom, La Presse in Quebec, Atlantic Monthly in the United States.

Interestingly, all of these exceptions have one thing in common. They were each weak as print properties long before the internet did its damage. They were not high-flying print operations that managed to transition to high-flying digital operations in mid-air. They crashed in print, abandoned print, and out of the ashes built digital businesses. They are early examples of something we're going to see more of now: companies that flame out in print and start more-or-less afresh digitally.

One of the principle reasons print outlets fail to transition to digital is the weight of the legacy operations, the cost of sustaining them not only in financial terms but in time and attention. Crash in print and you're in a different game. You become a digital pure play. You can restaff with inexpensive and nimble talent. You can concentrate entirely on your new business model, your new audience and its demands.

This seems to be where a number of Canadian companies are now headed. Postmedia and Rogers publishing have both announced in recent months that they are radically reducing their commitment to print in order to concentrate on digital. I don't know all the financials involved, but the records of layoffs and announcements suggest the companies had no real alternative to throwing in the towel on print.

Hundreds of newspapers and magazines are set to crash in the next few years. As this happens, we will see two things. First, the remains of these companies, and castoffs from these companies, will begin building digital operations if not from scratch, at least untethered to print. Freed of the burden of their legacy businesses, they will embrace their new realities, try many things, and learn a lot, and some of them may find their way to sustainable new business models. This huge new wave of effort by desperate practitioners of former print journalists may well produce something interesting.

The second thing is that the shelves will begin to clear of legacy businesses. This might allow more room for digital-only ventures to catch the eyes of consumers and advertisers.

The new models, should they emerge, will likely be relatively smaller and less remunerative than what journalists have been accustomed to, but they are something. And given the natural impetus of media markets to consolidate, they may over time lead to something far-reaching, better capitalized, and more enticing to advertisers.

The key, again, is to be liberated from print, to embrace digital with a mindset of nothing to lose, instead of trying to do both print and digital simultaneously. The mindset of "transition" is itself self-defeating.