The economics of print are becoming millstones around the necks of publishers

Mark Inskip is UK managing director for marketing agency Group FMG

As the digital publishing revolution continues to gather pace around us, two recent pieces of news clearly demonstrate how things have changed in this arena.

On the face of it, the fact that The Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger was forced to officially deny claims that the paper is considering becoming an online-only publication after The Telegraph reported that executives at Guardian News & Media wanted to end its print edition and focus on guardian.co.uk, could be seen as inter-paper rivalry and gossip mongering.

However, only a couple of years ago, a story like this would most likely have been laughed out of the newsroom. The fact that a very public denial has been required to stop the spread of rumours, is a measure of the shifting temperament in the publishing industry and the growing realisation that consumer reading habits really are changing. As well as the fact that the economics of print and distribution are becoming millstones around the necks of publishers.

This was further highlighted by news – just a day later – from the other side of the Atlantic announcing that Newsweek, the high-profile US-based weekly current affairs magazine, will publish its final print edition on 31 December and move to an all-digital format early next year, ending more than 80 years in print.

Newsweek’s editor-in-chief, Tina Brown, was quoted as saying: “This decision is not about the quality of the brand or the journalism. It is about the challenging economics of print publishing and distribution.”

However, the problem for publishers runs deeper than that. The reality is that the fundamentals of their entire business model are changing. It’s no longer just about the written word – video and audio formats are becoming increasingly important.

But, more crucially, even daily news updates are becoming too slow as we get used to an almost instantaneous spread of news around the world via the internet.

It’s clear that the publishing industry is on the brink of another huge change that will have as big an impact on it as the advent of computerised typesetting in the late 1980s.

Although The Guardian has denied plans to go digital only for now, it is probably only a matter of time before one of the major publishers takes this step in the UK. At which point we are likely to see an exponential increase in people consuming media on digital platforms.

This will have a huge effect on brands and marketers, not just from an advertising perspective – although many brand owners are already realising that digital advertising offers them more powerful and engaging ways to interact with their customers – but also because they rely heavily on printed material in almost everything they do.

From that perspective the digital industry needs to start educating brands now as to how to cost-effectively manage this shift.

Simply reproducing a printed magazine or catalogue on to a tablet or website doesn’t count for a digital content strategy. Reader experience needs to be paramount and this means optimising each publication for whatever screen it is going to be displayed on (from desktop to laptop and from iPad to smartphone).

Equally creating bespoke apps can still be an expensive business. A third option is to repurpose existing designs and optimise them quickly and simply for the platform – offering a powerful yet simple solution.

No doubt more options will become available as the transition from print to digital continues. But for now, we need to guide companies and publishers as they adapt to the changing needs of their audience and make sure that when they do manage this transition they ensure that what they produce is fit for purpose.

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