To say the least, the notion of ‘switching off the presses‘is simplistic. There will be complicating factors we can only vaguely imagine. Here are a few that might emerge:
1) Print could generate profits after digital revenue streams mature
Fickle investors who buy shares in the likes of DMGT, News Corp and Trinity Mirror on the public markets will see no reason to halt print production if it remains significantly profitable.
As others go digital-only, quoted groups may hang around, mopping up the last print-based profits. As competition declines, these could prove hard to resist.
The risk, of course, is that these businesses begin to resemble Big Media’s very own rustbelt. The last men and women standing will need to be dedicated to cost-cutting. They will continue to feel the old urge to protect print at the expense of digital.
2) A two-speed national news market?
Focusing 100% on the digital future as soon as possible has its attractions. Pushing all of your resources and talent in one direction could produce impressive results. A big gulf could open up between digital-only and print/digital publishers.
Privately-held operations like Guardian and the Telegraph Media Group may find themselves free to dive headlong into a digital-only future.
3) Are conservative readers more resistant to change than liberal readers?
Some readers will never be ready for the end of print. But does the Daily Mail (for example) attract more late adopters to its ranks than the Guardian?
Logic suggests that liberals are just as likely to resist the passing of the old medium as conservatives. But the Mail’s editorial campaigning against most (all?) things digital suggests that it believes anti-digital sentiment runs deep among its readers.
Demographic trends might encourage some publishers to hold on to print for longer than others. The Sun still sells around 2m copies a day. . .
4) Print as a break-even platform dedicated to marketing the brand
Some publishers may choose to maintain dwindling print editions as a marketing tool, to promote their brands and drive readers to digital sites. For this reason, too, the death of print may be a lingering affair.
5) The ultimate mopping up operation: print editions go free
The experience of the Evening Standard suggests that free distribution could become the ultimate means of extending the lifespan of the nationals’ print editions.
The infrastructure required to distribute in huge numbers will be daunting. So will the costs. But you’d have to bet that someone will try. The Independent could become a test bed for bigger future efforts.
6) What happens to the huge build-out of print capacity?
Good question. In the run up to 2008, News International spent £650m on huge new printing facilities in Broxbourne. John Witherow of the Sunday Times suggests that these presses ‘were supposed to last 30 or 40 years'(ie: until 2048).
News International spent big. But lots of its rivals invested in new print plants at around the same time.
It’s too early to argue convincingly that these investments represent an industry-wide miscalculation of strategic proportions.
But what does lots of spare capacity suggest? All other things being equal, it suggests that the cost of printing newspapers, on an outsourced basis, at places like Broxbourne, can only decline. This may represent good news for local newspapers who contract out their printing to vast print plants owned by others.
Alternatively, all of that spare capacity might be dedicated to printing huge runs of a few free national newspapers.
There will be plenty of twists and turns on the road to an all-digital future. Yes, a few broadsheets might switch off the presses by 2015 or 2020 or even 2025. But their exit from the market will open up opportunity for others. Taken as a whole, the transition from print to digital still looks like a lengthy affair.