Thursday, January 27, 2011

SIIA Information Industry Summit 2011 - Chasing the Money in The Second Web

This year's SIIA Information Industry Summit at Cipriani's 42nd Street digs was an interesting study in content industry leaders providing provocative insights that seem to come usually from guests dressed in blue jeans instead of suits. The center of gravity in the content industry has shifted permanently towards Web-enabled services that put more of a premium on understanding and responding to online audiences and away from traditional product platforms.

Mobile content delivery adds more leverage against this fulcrum, providing more ways to collect and disseminate content services, and accelerating the need to make intellectual property, agile, cross-platform, easy to integrate and multi-functional - or else. It isn't that intellectual property is obsolete, but owning rights to content is only of limited use if extracting value from the rights to that property is not as lucrative as extracting value from how it's used through agile repurposing. Licensing matters, but if your licensing doesn't get your content to the best opportunities fast enough, then you're missing increasingly large parts of the available market that rewards valuable content.

You'll find links to my live-blogging of individual sessions below, followed by my highlights and summary analysis.

Many of the excellent panels and keynotes at the IIS faced these problems square in the face and offered both sober assessments and exciting responses. Jonathan Knee's opening keynote underscored the lack of fundamental shareholder value for many of the well-established media companies, over-leveraged by market share grabs and under-invested in increasing margins. B2B information providers fare better than their consumer media counterparts, but even there today's leading companies are offering less than 5 percent annual returns over the past ten years. Take away some sources of "cash cow" revenues like fees for rating financial securities, though, and the picture is more grim. Many SIIA member companies already embrace Jonathan's theme of "Efficiency is cool," but it needs to be applied on more platforms from more angles in more entrepreneurial ways.

Some of these ways were highlighted by InfoGroup CEO Clare Hart, who demoed a simple but nifty example of how mobile phone messaging services can create custom content for audiences while collecting marketable contact data and demographics. She had the audience type in a mobile phone text message with some personal data that people sent to an InfoGroup platform that sent them an email based on that information with a personalized autographed photo of SIIA Content Division Vice President Ed Keating. It was a simple but powerful way to demonstrate how audiences are key contributors to the quality and value of today's online information services which in turn allow personalization and contextualization of services in ways that drive up their value significantly.

ProQuest CEO Marty Kahn did a great job of underscoring these themes with a presentation that highlighted some of the key opportunities and obstacles to success in today's content industry. One of the key points that Marty Kahn highlighted was the challenge of dealing with massive amounts of content being generated in nations with booming economies like China that are not generated in Western languages, most especially English. There are enormous amounts of valuable content being generated in research labs and universities that are opaque to audiences not familiar with their languages. This takes away a huge portion of market growth potential.

Marty also highlighted key barriers to success such as overcoming barriers between public and private institutions, dealing with inconsistent content formats across platforms and the need to face up to the realities of buyers who are less willing than ever to pay for content in its traditionally packaged forms. This last point lead to a powerful and somehow ominous observation: "Too often we find users who are trying to do serious research hitting paywalls. The process is too imperfect, leads to frustration and lack of true discovery." In other words, of what use is intellectual property if it's not getting to the people who need it when they need it most?

Coming from the CEO of ProQuest, perhaps the world's largest source of licensed periodical literature,  this was a profound statement. It cuts to the heart of the margin issues that Jonathan Knee highlighted; if your efforts to protect the value of IP in fact reduce your ability to realize its value in its markets, then there are fundamental issues to address in how you return value to your investors. With governments less willing to pay for content in tight times, the answers are hard to come by for many forms of content that are essential for economic growth. New partnerships, new attitude towards what creates value for IP in content markets and new kinds of staffing at information companies are essential to overcoming these barriers.

Having come up to speed with the Web for the most part, content companies now find themselves adapting to The Second Web, in which content must succeed in ever more far-flung and mobile contexts in more languages on more platforms  using more sensors and data inputs with more personalized value than ever before. Thinking back to the information systems of Wall Street and other financial communities, it's as if the average content user today has become as demanding as the typical investment bank securities trader was a decade or two ago - and now they want that information in real-time for next to nothing, 24/7/365, anywhere they go, on any platform that they desire. The content business isn't your father's all-singing, all-dancing Web site anymore. You get your content to where people need it and want it and can share it the way that they want to - or you're gone.

The heartening news is that in the middle of this challenging landscape are content and technology companies that are learning to adapt to this changing terrain rapidly and effectively. Especially heartening were this year's batch of SIIA Preview companies, which were tackling complex content opportunities with very powerful business models. Also heartening were the many conversations that I had with executives at the conference, which demonstrated a high level of awareness of many of these issues and a strong desire to tackle them head on. Read further for the details from the great presenters at this conference, but rest assured that the content industry seems to be getting ready to prepare for far better days ahead.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

News and Magazines on iPad: TRVL, Flipboard and MSNBC Apps Paint an Old/New Picture

As Apple logs its 10 billionth download of the 350,000+ apps available on its iPhones, iPods and iPad computers, it's no surprise that publishers are keen to figure out how to profit from apps. Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp is readying an app-based news publication known so far as "The Daily," which he hopes will be a platform to define a new market for paid-for news content. Others such as Wired Magazine, Richard Branson's PROJECT and Esquire are hoping to bring premium magazine content to iPad tablet readers. But there are also apps that take a different approach to high-value content on the iPad which should make us think carefully about our expectations of how publishers may succeed in this exciting new medium. Shore's Peter Propp and I sat down recently to demo and analyze some of these new publications in a ShoreViews video. I have more analysis after the video embed below.



The key thing I see about many mainstream publishing apps for iPad is that they are in some ways replicating  responses publishers had early on to the Web years ago. Most publishers pooh-poohed the Web at first and stuck initially with putting their content on subscription platforms such as Compuserve or AOL and offering either no content or limited content on their Web sites. By the time that many publishers began to take Web publishing seriously, competitors had sprung up that were able to adapt to the new medium in ways that responded to audiences' needs quite well. Like these early Web efforts, it appears that the most promising apps for news and magazines are those that are integrating the lessons of the Web and other media most effectively for tablet audiences, instead of focusing on how to migrate old assumptions to a new medium. Some key examples of provocative iPad magazine apps include:

  • TRVL - Available only on the iPad, TRVL offers lush photography and stories about exotic travel destinations via a free app, with each issue being in essence a single article on a particular destination. The layout of the magazine is slick, sophisticated and bound to attract premium advertisers looking for upscale audiences. The content is also decked out with social media "hooks" that make it easy for readers to share its great photos with people on the Web. 
  • Flipboard - Also an iPad exclusive so far, Flipboard is a free app that aggregates content favorites from your social media network and your own social media and mainstream sources in an application that forms them into a beautiful and easy-to-use tablet publication. Like TRVL, Flipboard in turn makes it easy to tell your social contacts on the Web about great content that you're reading. What's fascinating about Flipboard is that news article from mainstream sources as well as social media sources are all formatted similarly in the Flipboard app - and they all look equally well-formatted and engaging.
  • The Rachel Maddow Show - This MSNBC news show has built a free iPad app that sets the bar for TV news media in the tablet medium in many ways. It does a great job of making it easy not only to sit back and view an entire episode's news stories but also to flip through all of the available segments to find the items that interest you most. Also importantly, when you pull up an individual episode it includes links to Web content related to the show which you can view beneath the video as it plays. Often the links are to sources other than MSNBC reports.
All of these are great examples of rich, immersive content experiences that are likely to be highly satisfying tablet experiences. Yet, interestingly, none of these are being delivered by major magazine or newspaper publishers. Also importantly, these apps are powerful in large part because they have both adapted to the unique strengths of the touch-screen tablet medium while not forgetting the power of the Web that feeds that medium. Key lessons from the Web that cannot be left behind on tablet apps include:
  • Good content is where you find it. The agnostic aggregation made possible by Web technologies on millions of Web sites isn't going away just because of a few hundred thousand apps, most of which rely on that aggregation. People will be attracted to whatever tools enable them to enjoy the content that matters most to them. Agnostic content aggregation may include the efforts of curators, but when it's our trusted social networks who select the stuff that we read, the concept of selling a collection of editorially selected content in which only a fraction of it will be relevant to us on a given day will remain a challenge.
  • Each medium defines its own immersion. On the Web, immersion can be defined often in "lean-forward" mode, where people are enabled to scan huge amounts of information and experiences efficiently and to create content. To some degree mobile phones are a "lean-forward" medium also, though enabling content creation in different ways, often through data collection and photo sharing. Tablets are called often a "lean-back" medium, on which we can focus on specific pieces of content more effectively. This is true, but it's dangerous to equate a tablet's leanback experience with a magazine or newspaper. Unlike those media, the Web is integral to the enjoyment of a tablet - and to both the content selection and the ways in which we choose to spend our time using a tablet. On the Web, we tend to surf from article to article from different news sources. It appears that while tablets are more able to help us focus on specific pieces of content, it's probably unrealistic to think that people are likely to use a single app from a single publisher exclusively for their immersion. The TRVL magazine model of packaging individual articles very well is a good indication of how much attention people are likely to give a particular topic from a particular publisher before they decide to move on to the next thing, either on an aggregator app like Flipboard or switching to another app. Don't think in terms of people spending 30 or 40 minutes with your "apped" content - think in terms of timeframes somewhat longer than Web content, typically no more than eight or ten minutes at a shot.
  • Your cool isn't that much cooler. Yes, major publishers do have deep resources to slick up their tablet publications and huge staffs that can feed content through these platforms. But is it enough to warrant a premium price for your content alone? Unless you build your publication from a loyal social media community on out, I'd say that in most cases the answer will be no for tablet apps priced to traditional newsstand or subscription pricing levels. People appreciate cool-looking content, but the tools to make content look cool are so affordable now that it will be rare that your cool is going to out-cool some startup or social media-based publisher who can do pretty darn well also. What's cool are people and relationships and the access that they provide. Think in terms of unique, events-oriented content such as exclusive live interviews or conference access or social media discussions that other people lacking your professional social network can't replicate easily. 
The iPad is an exciting medium for publishers, and I do feel confident that there are opportunities for premium news and magazine content development on this platform and on emerging Android-based tablets and increasingly sophisticated ebook readers. But the best of these opportunities will not come from those who try to apply old pricing and packaging models to a device that has its own Web-defined capabilities, content sources and access expectations. Most publishers ultimately are looking at apps as little more than digital rights management protection for premium pricing. With native Web-based apps becoming more sophisticated rapidly and more easily adapted to premium pricing and tablet use, publishers should use the current era of apps as a great period in which they can prepare for a more sophisticated era of Web publishing that will continue to keep competitive pressures on traditional publishers to outperform scrappy challengers.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Time to Market: Google's Schmidt Heads Upstairs to Accelerate Growth

Eric's upstairs in the boardroom, now. The decks are clear for Sergei to dream up great stuff and Larry to execute.

It's not that Eric Schmidt has been a bad CEO of Google. Heck, think of where this company was just a few years ago when a dutch auction of a portion of Google's worth was parceled out to lucky investors in public stock markets. Back then, you were betting on a search engine with a few funky tech bits hanging off the side. Today, that's an investment in a leading mobile smart phone platform, a tablet platform, a voice platform, a video platform, a leading browser, a satellite and street imaging platform, a car-driving platform (?) and more funky experiments than you can shake a stick at. Back then, some analysts were spooning about the fearsome "Google/Yahoo/Microsoft" triumvirate based on the power of search engines and content aggregation. Today social media and content and apps ecommerce from Apple and Amazon have changed that era's assumptions about digital content value and discovery radically.

And back then, people were worried about Google having enough "adults" in the house to keep it focused on sustainable growth. Today, there appears to be a lack of youth in the house that's able to push out good products fast enough to keep up with a broader and more complex marketplace for content and technology services. Wall Street and Hollywood are lionizing the growth of Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook social media empire as the paradigm of growth, spurring investors on both U.S. coasts to start unfolding their wallets. As I noted on my Content Nation blog, Facebook grinds out product reliably and keeps the focus on tuning its social media machine in tight iterations. Google's getting better at this, but they need to pick up the pace.

And oh yes, there was that little fumble with the social media strategy. First Wave. Then Buzz. Then, not so much Wave. Then, what happened to Buzz? Then, redo. Then, redo the redo. Then...we'll get back to you, we promise. In the meantime, Facebook started to trump Google in the ratings wars. You can't put the social media slips all at the feet of Eric Schmidt, but with so many complex moving pieces in Google's plans requiring a strong sense of where social media is headed, it's not always good to have someone at the helm who seems most comfortable romancing "adults" in the content industry who are holding on to ever-smaller slices of the content market pie.

And then there's Africa. Or, more to the point, most every developing nation in the world. Google has a golden opportunity to position its technologies and services very competitively in emerging markets that used to be ignored by many major media companies. The global economy's growth is going to rely ever more heavily on enabling prosperity in places that have been long ignored, offering entry points for Western brands. Google is one of the most trusted brands in the world, in part because it has been the one associated most with the concept of freedom of access to information, albeit with some hedging for politicians and business partners.

A recent post on Google's official blog about enabling software downloads for Iran ends tellingly: "Our products are specifically designed to help people create, communicate, share opinions and find information. And we believe that more available products means more choice, more freedom, and ultimately more power for individuals in Iran and across the globe." While there may be some political overtones to that statement, it is first and foremost a branding statement. Google wants to be the brand that's embraced by a new wave of consumers and entrepreneurs that is hitting the beach rapidly as people armed with mobile Web services begin to transform cultures and economies around the world. Google works with big companies and affluent technophiles who will help to build their brand, but its essence is to service markets bottom-up. Well, the bottom is about to grow far faster worldwide.

In this sort of environment, having someone who plays a good hand at Davos summits and in boardrooms and the halls of government  is probably not the best choice for projecting your global brand. A good person to have as Chairman of the Board, to be sure, but not your go-to image person.  The tousle-haired Harvard dropout look charmed first a Microsoft generation and now a Facebook generation. Google wants us to look in the mirror and see the Google generation, but it needs a younger sensibility to encourage their target markets to do that. Better to give up on a 20-year plan (divide by Internet years anyway) to rule a company together and to profit from a 20-year plan to rule the markets that people believe in.

None of this is likely to lead to major perceived changes in Google's strategy soon. Schmidt has been moving further back in the executive decision making process for a while, if you can believe some reports. Many other executive shifts recently at Google have pointed towards decision-making streamlining at other levels, too, so this is more a final piece falling in to place rather than the start of a major upheaval, it would seem. Much depends on Google meeting expectation key product launches this year for tablets, mobile payments, social media and search enhancements. Best to give Schmidt a portfolio that can keep him in Washington, New York, Beijing and other strategic places and allow the folks in Mountain View and around the world to be...Google.

Monday, January 17, 2011

There's a (Science) App for That: Elsevier SciVerse Applications and Developer Network

Elsevier is one of several publishers offering journals, databases and productivity tools to professionals in scientific, medical and technical markets that is trying hard to make their offerings more relevant and useful to their clients. In some ways, Elsevier is suited ideally to this task, with an enormous span of privately offered content available in its Science Direct database as well as its Scopus index of journal article abstracts from over 4,000 peer-reviewed journals and its Scirus index of Web-based research articles. As I outlined in an article a few months ago in ContentBlogger, Elsevier has started to provide a common access framework to its offerings via SciVerse, a unified search portal for subscription and Web research content. At the time SciVerse was featuring a new API "hook" that allowed third parties to introduce value-add functions to enhance the researching experience for SciVerse users. Since the API was brand-new at the time there wasn't much to demonstrate how it might be used, but recently Elsevier's Rafael Sidi, VP, for Elsevier's Applications Marketplace & Developer Network, offered me a tour of how third parties have been making use of the SciVerse API to introduce new functionality into this new platform.

Apps developed using the SciVerse API are available now in a storefront-like apps marketplace, where one can view summaries of the apps, view aggregate ratings and then "drill down" into the details. Installation is quick and simple, akin to what one experiences on a mobile smart phone or an online personalized portal like iGoogle (SciVerse in fact uses base technology for its displays similar to that used in iGoogle). Once selected from the marketplace the apps are be plugged in to the SciVerse Hub desktop, where one can initiate searches for new content.

That's nice in its own way, but the real value-add that I saw was SciVerse's use of these useful apps as post-search filters. as seen in the search results to the right, the search results for "angioplasty are complemented by profiles of scientists focusing on angioplasty from SciVerse's ExpertSearch app, which includes their "H-Index" productivity and impact rating as a researcher, numbers of articles produced, article citations and key fields of study. Another app developed by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechinic Institute enables SciVerse users to probe information available on a selected topic in the U.S. government databases exposed in their Data.gov initiative. Other apps are more functionally-oriented, such as one which will take a displayed article and format it for use on mobile phones.

So far there are nineteen of these apps that have been developed for the SciVerse environment which have been put on the platform's storefront for free installation, but their clients are developing them for their internal use as well, so consider their app storefront just the tip of the iceberg for this value-add capability. That's typical for APIs, of course, especially in competitive fields where finding the needle in the haystack of innovation opportunities means serious money. But I think that Elsevier's SciVerse Applications and Developer Network storefront also offers an opportunity for software developers to showcase premium applications as well. This approach certainly worked to the advantage of Salesforce.com, whose AppExchange marketplace has offered an easy-to-use self-service method for their subscribers to install value-add premium content and services from third parties on their sales productivity platform.

SciVerse's budding apps marketplace is still in its early days, but it is a promising move towards an era in scientific publishing in which solutions are oriented not just towards a specific set of journals available in a subscription service but more towards the full range of solutions that scientific, technical and medical professionals call upon to solve problems in research, applied sciences and clinical medicine. The more that enterprise publishers ask the question, "What do my clients need to be successful" rather than "What do we need to do to protect the value of our subscription content," the more that they'll come up with high-value solutions that their clients will be willing to pay for.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

CES Wrapup: Nothing but (Mobile) Net

It seems that there were as many media pundits crowing about not attending the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year as those that bothered to go, so I don't feel too bad that I experienced its proceedings remotely via blog posts, videos and podcasts. It certainly saved me time, money and a lot of shoe leather to find the diamonds spread amongst the rough of a huge display floor. There were several key trends coming out of the show that appear to be ready to shape what we'll be doing in the content industry for the months ahead, including:
  • Competent Android tablets.
     Motorola, Samsung, Vizio and a host of other manufacturers were displaying tablet computers equipped with the "Honeycomb" version 3.0 release of Google's Android operating system. The belle of the event was Motorola's Xoom tablet, which took honors from several tech publications as a "best in show" offering. The unit featured a snappy new interface for YouTube videos and other very tablet-centric displays of content that are aimed to peg Android devices as an even-steven competitor to Apple's iPad tablets. Ever on the move (and absent from CES itself), Apple is primed to launch an iPad 2 soon, according to rumors, so the apples-to-apples comparison of Android tablets to Apple's will be ever in flux. Clearly Apple will have a sales lead for a long time in this category which it seems to have defined to its liking via the iPad. Yet Android-equipped devices, as well as new tablets from other manufacturers such as Research in Motion's Playbook, which offer full native Web access, are helping to re-open the battle in this niche from one that is focused on proprietary delivery platforms back to cross-platform, Web-centric solutions.

  • Sensors galore. From Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's somewhat bizarre keynote address via a Kinect avatar to front-and-rear cameras, health monitors, built-in barometers, smart appliances and RFID antennas, new sensor interfaces for mobile and indoor computing were the often quiet stars of CES. What was just a couple of short years ago a market that featured mobile devices tethered mostly to keyboards and, sometimes GPS location sensors, is now a market that features a rich array of sensory inputs that use the world and even our human expressions as data points in our information experiences. Ballmer's Kinect demo was trivial on one level in that he was able to have a Kinect-driven avatar reflect not just his motions on the CES stage on a computer-generated stage and to even reflect when he was moving his eyebrows and smiling. But what happens when inputs such as that get married to more sophisticated Web search applications, such as "show me all the videos that made my friends smile?" Or, what happens when millions of barometer-equipped mobile tablets connected via the Web begin to give us a radically more detailed account of weather conditions across the planet? Sensors are going to move from toys to critical leverage points for valuable content services in enterprise and consumer markets over the next few years, extending our understanding of the world more rapidly and more intuitively than ever.

  • The "app-ing" of television.
     While Google TV had a relatively low-key presence at CES as it awaits significant upgrades to its interface, there were many demos of devices that are eliminating traditional technology layers that have managed the interface between content sources and television screens. One of the more interesting demos along this line was of a new "superphone" from LG, an Android phone which was equipped with the same Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor used on the Motorola Xoom tablet. This phone has an HDMI high-speed digital video interface port, which was used to drive 1080p high-definition movies streaming from the phone to a large television monitor effortlessly. There was also a demo of an iPhone driving the enormous monitors used for some of the keynotes on the main stage of the conference. Manufacturers sporting today's Google TV software built into their own hardware included Sony, Samsung and Vizio. In other words, the primary interface for televisions is becoming the Web, not the cable or satellite box.

    Television as we've known it is becoming one of many apps available to audiences from Web-driven menus offering video services, be they on mobile devices, outboard devices or built-in devices. This transition has been promised before, but given the breadth of Web-enabled hardware that can now plug in directly to televisions or be incorporated into them with high-quality programming, the technology and the content are now ready to commit to this important transition. Where the Web touches an appliance - and there's hardly an appliance that it no longer doesn't or cannot touch - business models change inevitably. As apps for video destined for big screens, tablet and phone screens take off in the next couple of years, expect this trend to accelerate radically.

  • There are fewer gimmicks that keep the Web at bay. Pundits who predicted that last year's 3D TVs would fall short of well-hyped expectations are feeling good about themselves right now. It's probably a little harsh to call 3DTV a flop at this point, since units that don't require glasses are being promised in the near future, but the real issue is whether it's a technology that will enable content producers to keep a premium edge on their offerings. Already many mobile phones can crank out HD-quality video footage, consumer cameras at around $1,000 can produce cinematic-quality HD productions and some consumer cameras can even shoot 3D movies. There are too many opportunities for device manufacturers to produce gizmos with compact content technologies that enable more content to keep people immersed in things other than what comes out of major studios or game producers. More importantly, even when something like the Kinect comes along that could give one particular manufacturer an edge, the Web seems to grab it practically before it's out of the box and find ways to help it connect the world more effectively. Theatre-quality entertainment will continue to feature the latest and greatest content technologies, but none of them will give content producers long periods of comfortable protection from Web-enabled content producers adopting them and applying them to broader sources of entertainment and information.
So while there were no huge breakthrough technologies that dominated this year's CES event, there were some key table-setting introductions that are likely to dominate how we have to develop content services in the months and years ahead. They all run towards the Web, most especially mobile Web-enabled devices that interact with the world and with virtually every form of communication that's important to us. It's a fair enough time to ask, what part of "The Web will win" is hard to understand?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Beginning of the End: Storefront Print Media Outlets Disappearing? [UPDATED]

I usually take the train to New York from our suburban town's train station, but bypass the street across from the station itself on my way to and from the parking lot. This weekend I cruised past the corner across from the station and noticed that it appeared that newsstand there had closed. Turns out upon further investigation [UPDATE - thanks to a tip from a reader] that it was still open, just renting out its window space to local realtors. However, down the highway a bit another venerable newsstand in Westport closed recently, in spite of its being on a busy corner next to a donut shop near where Martha Stewart used to live.  Now, it's just plain gone.

You can see also when you go into outlets like the local supermarket and "big box" bookstores that newspapers and magazines are taking up far less shelf space in just the past several months. In our local Barnes and Noble, there is now a large area in the front of the store set aside for sales of its Nook ebook readers, usually manned by well-trained sales reps who are all to eager to tell you how to consume digital content on these devices. By contrast, the information desk for finding books in print is tucked comfortably back in the middle of the store.

If there is going to be a significant story for mainstream media in 2011, it is likely to be that this is the year in which print sales shriveled far more quickly than many in the publishing industry would have anticipated or hoped. That's not all a bad thing, of course. Many publishers are well on the way to becoming successful ebook distributors, though magazines are making a more slow transition to digital equivalents of their print publications on tablet and mobile devices. Newspaper publishers, while well ahead of magazine and book publishers in their experience with online publishing, are perhaps further behind in finding digital business models that are likely to float their operations in the next twelve months, with a few sparkling exceptions.

In short, if you're a publisher and you had bet on a graceful transition from print to digital revenues, in most markets you bet wrong. With mobile devices of many sizes equipped with high-resolution touch screens swamping global markets in the past year, people with discretionary income to spend on print media not only will spend less on it but will have far fewer places in which to find it. While magazine racks in local drugstores still take up more space than racks for buying gift cards for services like iTunes, that may not be the case for long.

Big-box book retailer Borders, which took a late and weak stab at entering ebook markets, is also feeling the heat. They have reported delays in payments to some of their suppliers, triggering at least one major supplier to cut off shipments of books to the chain. This is an especially alarming turn of events given that the holiday season overall saw good sales in Barnes and Noble outlets where Nooks were flying off the shelves both in stores and online. Why Borders thought that they might be in a position to acquire B&N is beyond me, but I suppose big dreams die hard, sometimes.

One or two of these sorts of things you can dismiss as cyclical trends, but the canary in the coal mine for me remains the disappearance of newsstands. In a prosperous town with well-educated people, there should be no reason for an institution like a newsstand with no local competition to die unless there is something fundamentally wrong with the industry. If you're thinking that less prosperous people could be the salvation of print, think again; percentage-wise, according to recent data from the Pew Internet project, less affluent people in the U.S. are using mobile media more than their affluent counterparts. In other words, if you're in that checkout line at the supermarket, you're already looking at TMZ on your phone instead of the cover of US.

I honestly don't think that print media is dead. I do believe that custom and on-demand printing has a solid future, especially when Near-Field Communications devices begin to get embedded in print publications and direct people to related digital materials. But print media as we have known it is about to leave town. What will take its place in magazine racks and newsstands will be far more targeted than traditional print publications, materials that are more focused on the operations of the store that you're in and developed either by those stores or by publishers closely targeted towards their markets. As the merchandising of print shifts, so will the publications themselves. Why settle for a found-anywhere copy of Gourmet magazine when you can get one tailored for your local delicatessen? This kind of highly targeted customization more targeted to personal and in-store merchandizing will be the future of print media.

In the meantime, apply your mental tape measure to the magazine racks in your local stores and newsstands over the next few months. Shelf space for merchandise that moves is at a premium as it is, and mass market print media is losing rapidly its sure-fire appeal in stores near you. Let's hope for the sake of struggling publishers that a rising economy buffers this trend, but it may just accelerate more digital devices flying off the shelves. Unless print publishers can re-invent their wares rapidly in the months ahead, there's a lose-lose battle looming.