Monday, February 8, 2010

The Rebirth of Print: Time for the New Aggregation Plays to Take Off

Somewhere in the world today a printing press operation is preparing to go dark. Mind you, it's not a universal phenomenon; in markets such as India, where a burgeoning middle class is hungry for news and not yet equipped with an abundance of electronic media sources, print media is actually growing. Scholarly publishers are still doing well their premium journals and custom print for B2B and consumer markets is thriving. But in many developed media markets print operations are struggling to stay alive, with 2010 expected to be a year in which newsstands begin to display significantly fewer titles. Barnes and Noble, with its Nook ebook reader, offers free wireless in their stores as a bundled part of the service, trying to encourage both browsers and coffee-drinkers to make more use of their "big box" stores real estate. It's a Web-eat-paper world, and the publishing industry is wearing newsprint shorts.

Yet the broader picture of print is that print publishing technology has never been more sophisticated, cost-effective and capable. Many of the same technologies that enable the Web also enable printing presses to deliver mass-customized printing runs, allowing wholesale book distributors such as Ingram to deliver profitable print runs for titles with as few as two ordered units. Mass print customization also allows ever more effective tailored marketing materials, allowing highly customized color post cards, brochures and other high-value communications tools at very competitive prices. In short, print rocks, if you do the right things with it.

The wrong thing to do with print is to expect to do the same thing again and again and expect different results. That is, as many will tell you, the definition of insanity. Unfortunately, this is the insanity that grips much of the B2B and consumer publishing industry. I paid a short visit to the recent Professional Scholarly Publishing 2010 conference in Washington, DC, though far less time than the event deserved. I was encouraged by the American Institute of Physics winning a PROSE award for their work to advance scholarly publishing through its Web-enabled services. Yet at the same time I was confronted by a surprisingly young attendee who had a hard time getting his head around the definition of publishing that I had used in my book Content Nation, which embraces social media as a key form of publishing. He saw this concept as "too broad" a definition of publishing. In spite of many advances in electronic publishing, many people at the heart of the publishing industry still see the traditional business model and functions of publishing as the "real" publishing industry. You can see this attitude in many of the efforts to adopt electronic publishing platforms that enable content to look more like print publications, as if waiting for the Web to give up its "defects" in failing to adapt to their ways of doing business.

Well, certainly the Web is still a relatively young form of publishing technology, in spite of its rapid advances. But it is not the Web that has failed publishing: it is publishing that has failed publishing. It's only as red ink has flowed liberally in the past couple of years that many publishers have made the hard decisions to adjust their staffing levels to the revenues that they can expect in a Web-first world. There are simply far too may substitute information sources available to the average person that can be discovered via search and social media tools to justify the dedicated brand approach to publishing that most publishers use as their fundamental business premise. If "a brand is what a brand does," then most publishing brands just don't do what Web publishing outlets such as Google and Bing do. If that "doing" doesn't align with the classic "dos" of publishing but still satisfies markets, that doesn't mean that it's not publishing.

This brings us back to print, where, in spite of the capabilities of mass print customization, most publishers insist on creating print artifacts on a mass scale that are in essence the same. Yes, you get some zip code-level tailoring of ads, sometimes, and perhaps some regional content, but it still isn't dawning on most publishers that the real opportunities in print are in creating highly customized artifacts on a massive scale. These are still seen by most publishers as "ancillary revenues," much as they saw Web operations as a little bit of gravy on top of the meat of their print revenues. But now that Web revenues have to sustain them more as their meat in many instances, most publishers have failed to position their print operations as highly targeted and highly profitable value-add operations, Instead, they continue to seek out ever-slimmer markets for mass-produced print content, either resigning themselves to smaller audiences or seeking out larger audiences with ever-slimmer slices of least-common-denominator content that offers little long-term brand value either as a product or as a service.

The answer to this problem can be seen in a now-familiar model: Google. Instead of trying to assemble a portal of perfectly curated content for specific audiences to consume over an indefinite period of time, Google decided to focus on search as a tool to curate content tailored to specific people's needs at specific moments. Each search result is a publication, with its own editorial rules, tailored ads and features. It happens to be a publication assembled from any number of sources, selected based on the editorial recommendations of people using content on the Web, via Google's ever-changing PageRank algorithms.

The question is, why haven't publishers awoken to the opportunities to take a Google-like approach to print? Just as the advantages of search technologies are largely wasted on relatively small collections of content, so are the advantages of today's mass-customizable printing technologies wasted on relatively small collections of content collected by a particular publishing house. The Web exists, and will, in all likelihood, never cease to exist as a medium that reduces distribution costs and speeds to near-zero levels.

This means that print as a platform must adapt to Web economics to deliver optimal results. To do this, print media must adopt a Google-like model of source-agnostic content aggregation tuned to the needs of tiny and/or individual audiences. In other words, just as search engines have enabled people to aggregate content from anywhere that meets their needs, so must print media operations if they are to return high value. Some service, somewhere, will enable people to print any collection of content from whatever source in whatever form suits them best in whatever quantity suits them best.

Some might say that copyright concerns stand in the way of such an approach, that this would be the equivalent of enabling anyone to print up content willy-nilly. Not so. What really stands in the way of this happening is an antiquated sense of "this is what publishing does." If publishing in the classic sense is getting value from copyrighted content, then simply tune that classic model more effectively to the available channels. In this instance, that tuning would require a more flexible approach to content licensing. Today, content licensing is still largely a person-to-person effort, requiring business development specialists or marketing managers, legal departments, and days, weeks or months of process time required to enable one publisher to use another publisher's content, be it in print or electronic form. But if today's printing technologies have the ability to assemble content with Google-like agnosticism and speed in a way that's tailored to very specific needs, then it is content licensing, not copyright, that stands in the way of more effective print revenues.

Thinking of both existing licensing technologies from organizations such as Copyright Clearance Center and iCopyright as well as emerging technologies from organizations such as Journalism Online, we are likely on the verge of a new convergence of licensing and printing technologies that can revolutionize what appears in print. This does not mean that print as a whole will surge back as a primary profit center, though. In the long run, the time that it takes to spool out pages of print will never be a match for the Web's ability to spin out tailored text and multimedia content sets instantly and effortlessly. But it does mean that the wide availability of custom printing technologies and the wide availability of people with professional printing skills figuring out what to do next in the aftermath of the current print apocalypse is likely to fuel the Google-like print revolution of mass-customized print content delivery no matter what. The main question is whether it will be Google taking on that challenge on a large scale or someone else.

The other key question, though, is whether publishers are going to balk at the notion of massively automated content licensing for tailored publications. Given history and publishers' attachment to the notion of their brands being what they want them to be rather than what their audiences want them to be, it's likely that many will balk at the idea. In that period of balking, it's likely that widely available substitute sources of printable content will work their way into these opportunities - leaving established publishers as also-rans yet again, though this time in their native medium.

Publishers failed to optimize their operations for Google-like content searching in time to take advantage of the in-the-moment opportunities available to them, in part because they were afraid that it was a technology that was in conflict with their publications' Web sites. The same sort of tensions seem to exist with customized printing and typical print editorial operations - and the same opportunities await publishers that tackle them proactively with aggressive automated content licensing strategies.

High-value purchasing and advertising opportunities await those publishers that begin to take highly customized printing opportunities more aggressively. Just as Web revenues looked like a puny investment early on, so does custom publishing look more like a sideline than a main line of revenue to many publishers. But in a world in which Google has become the center stage of most of the world's content access, it is imperative that publishers look more seriously at how their print publishing models are affected directly by the same potential for agnostic content aggregation - and leverage them as rapidly as possible for high-margin revenues.
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