New job, and stuff you realise

Wow, it has been a long time between blog posts, hasn’t it? Started the new job at The Guardian, and realised – afresh – a few things about this big debate on “why doesn’t the print industry simply reinvent itself overnight to compete with all this stuff on the web, because after all the print guys have all the money and they’re there already and the web is small and yet they’re faster…

You know why print is slow to change? Because it’s damn hard to do right. You get a daily newspaper working, and you interfere with those workings at your peril. Being fired would be the least of it. Once you get inside a huge citadel like The Guardian, you’re reminded once more that there are so many bits, and they all have to work smoothly together for the paper to appear. Copy has to get to pages. Pages have to be laid out. Corrections have to get incorporated. Deadlines have to be met. Only when this symphony of effort is complete and performed without (significant) error do you get a paper in your hands the next day.

So, in that situation, it’s not surprising if the IT department looks at you a bit askance if you say “Which year did you say this version of Quark Copydesk/Express came out?” The answer is simple: the year when they could get it to work. And which year is it going to be replaced? The year when the replacement works, every single time.

By contrast the web is easy. If you need to, really need to, you can hand-code web pages when things go a bit awry. (Try doing that down at the printing press. Ha.) That’s quite an advantage, in that medium. But of course the web side of the print thing (does that make sense?) can move quickly, and use the latest stuff.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think the print side is guaranteed to lose out in the shift to web. Print publications, at least dailies, have the advantage of knowing how to do this sort of thing, again and again.

13 Comments

  1. I second the IT dept. We upgraded to Quark 5.5 and 6.0 and both versions were terribly unreliable. We only regained some stability when we switched to 6.5 (and even then our production editor lives in fear of his printer, as although all the production machines have indentical software and settings on them, each computer produces a different color version of the same quark file).

    Mind you, worse decision they made was using windows for print production (before my time).

  2. >I donít think the print side is guaranteed to lose out in the shift to web

    Surely, as the economic model shifts it will? Effects have been observed in US print media last year, and also radio is being hurt here (eg GCap). It may happen slowly at first, but then it may reach a tipping point causing serious upheaval. I haven’t bought a printed newspaper for maybe 2 years (though I do pay for the Guardian digital edition). But the real force for change will surely be the drop in advertising from classifieds through to big ads?

  3. Charles

    Thursday 1 December 2005 at 12:09 pm

    If it were impossible for the print organisations to move to the web, then yes, they’d lose out, Ian. But the economic model is still the same: ad goes up, someone pays either to place or to see it. The question is, who gets paid for making the ad available?

    Yes, Craigslist in the US has reamed out many of the big-city newspapers, but their problem was that they weren’t in a competitive market, and had forgotten how to adapt; many were or are monopolies. And of course there’s nothing to stop a print organisation buying a very successful online ad company. Perhaps not Google, but job ads companies are in many cases owned by print orgs: Trinity Mirror owns a stack, for example.

  4. The other thing to remember is how bad most companies are at advertising their products. Some useful data I obtained from a conference on internet behavorial research recently stated that a person is more likely to “see” an ad in a newspaper because usually the company has one or two ads in it. When you’re browsing a web site, you see the same ad again and again, not just on the web site you’re on, but on other web sites that you browse to. Very quickly you learn to “tune” out these ads (which is why the NYTimes uses these massive “pay attention to me!” ads at the moment to try and combat this). Ironically text ads more most effective because people scan them to see if there different than the ones they saw earlier.

    If you want people to read your copy, you make the text smaller. Larger text just leads to people scanning the page without reading what is there.

    Its because of this behavior I think print newspapers will be able to hold their own. They will however have to change. They won’t be able to rely on classfied ads for their main source of revenue or advertising generally for funds. The Washington Post charges 25-35 cents an issue during the week. Its way too low, increase it to 50 cents or a dollar and cut back on the 200 pages of ads that come with the issue (trying to find news content in the Post is a real pain) and I’m sure they would make money. The average length of time a person reads a newspaper in the US is 17 minutes. If they can’t find out what they want in that time, they stop reading. This is why I think the Post is losing print readership, its just too hard to find the news stories compared to the web site.

    The trick is trying to figure out a balance between the internet and print, and educate your advertisers to the advantages of both.

    Remember that US newspapers have profit margins of between 10-27%, so they can’t be doing all that bad.

  5. The other point about ads (which I keep banging on about) is that if you put an ad on your webpage I will do my damnedest to try and filter it out so I don’t see it. I can’t do that with print (though my brain is pretty good at ignoring ads in print), though I wish I could – I really don’t want to see advertising. (Now I’m even starting to change radio stations to avoid adverts when they come on.)

  6. Paul, L. et al

    I’d refer you to a couple of articles:
    http://publications.mediapost.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Articles.showArticleHomePage&art_aid=35690
    and a comment at ArsTechnica on this
    http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20051101-5513.html
    Where the US treads first others follow (though I accept that the industry in the UK is slightly different).

    And, in response to “L” I’m not saying that ads are more effective placed in online news – you’re absolutely right, we’re good at filtering them out. But the people who are responsible for ads will find different ways of getting our attention in the online world – it’s only in its infancy. Things will become far more subtle in the future.

    So, I don’t think newspapers are in a great position at all. There has been a general decline in market cap (note recent sale by Daily Mail owners Ass. Newspapers – self-satisfied smirk at my abbreviation).

    Sure those that do evolve could do well – those that combine online and print, that understand and can really provide value to both readers and to advertisers. But name me a newspaper that gets this right? Today’s Guardian digital edition was not up at 10am (though it is now) – that is shoddy. And remember the pressure coming from eBay, Google and the like. Charles is absolutely right when he says “The question is, who gets paid for making the ad available?”

    The article linked to refers to a tipping point for the industry. It is a finely balanced economic model. You lose one part of the revenue and the other has to go up to compensate. There’s only so much you can do that, and if you don’t get it right, both sides of the equation spiral down.

    As always, it will probably happen slower than some people say it will. But I wouldn’t want to be a newspaper baron today.

  7. Charles

    Friday 2 December 2005 at 2:57 pm

    Well, the digital edition of the Gdn might not have been up, but the paper one certainly was. In fact, had been available for nearly 10 hours by that time.

  8. Charles
    I’m on a pedantic roll today…

    >I think it would be a brave person who’d say the situation in Iraq is improving compared to any period in the past few years. The first PM of Iraq post-conflict said recently that abuses were worse than under Saddam. I’ll go with that.

    I actually agree with you about the operational efficiency of the print side of the newspaper business. I’ve seen it at the Times, and Indie albeit as a very uninformed outsider. I’m just saying that whatever the efficiency of the print side, times-are-a-changing. Perhaps given my experience with the Digital Edition, the experience of the print people could be brought to bear on making the digital experience as reliable and readable as the print edition (well with a few Guardianesque typos to liven things up). This is where the future is, and lessons learned from the “old” business are not being applied to the “new”. They must be.

  9. Charles

    Friday 2 December 2005 at 3:27 pm

    ..interesting bit to quote.

    Anyway, the lessons from the old business *are* being applied to the new. I know, I’ve seen it. The challenge is though that the old business is a car moving extremely fast being driven on a long straight road. Adding the new business isn’t just a matter of squirting the PDF output into any old web page. Which page online should it be? Designed how to match the design of the print object (which is still the main brand)? Indexed how? These are easy questions to answer if you have one or a few dozen web pages to handle and a few articles to produce. They’re a hell of a lot harder if you’ve got thousands of pages, dozens of print pages every day, and content being generated all the time.

    That’s what I meant about the inertia. Nobody wants it, but it’s inevitable.

  10. >..interesting bit to quote.

    How embarassing! Copy and paste error on my part. I was trying to respond to too many blogs at once (and finding the Grauniad rather slow). I MEANT to copy the following

    >Well, the digital edition of the Gdn might not have been up, but the paper one certainly was. In fact, had been available for nearly 10 hours by that time.

    (actually as I did that again, I realised why I had the problem the first time. NNW doesn’t always seem to put what you copy in the clipboard, so it pasted “…interesting bit to quote” again until I went back and re-copied the text)

    Anyway, I hope that puts the comment into better perspective although I’ve probably left the readers here completely confused!

  11. Ian, I agree that 2005 was a bad year for the newspaper industry, but the fundmentals were still good. No newspaper group I know of made a loss (in the US). THey all still have high profit margins. Also if your revenue drops by 7% but your cost structure drops by 30% then you’re still in a good business. I suspect that the number of people in the industry will eventually become smaller, and whoever figures out a new tool for merging print and online effectively (I would argue they haven’t got to that point yet) should make a bit of money. The $64,000 question is how much quality control should you have in a newspaper, what will the public accept, and what should the newspaper be about? Within 5 years I would be surprised if any local newspaper still carried international news. I think we’ll see newspapers become more locally focused. Hopefully it won’t turn into Fox local news (in which a cat being rescued is the main headline or someone being shot), but something more interesting. Google and Craiglist may eat their lunch on classfieds but newspapers will come up with a solution. You can already see some attempts in the midwest newspapers (check out ponyter.org e-tidbits section).

  12. The Guardian still uses Quark?

    Why haven’t they switched over to InDesign?

  13. Charles

    Monday 5 December 2005 at 10:51 pm

    Some parts of the Guardian/Observer have, in fact, switched to InDesign – principally some of the monthlies and weekly bits in the Observer.

    But as I said above, the version of software you use is the one that works, every day, every time. There are so many subtle things that happen in newspaper production, which require specific middleware (there’s an Oracle database at the back there somewhere too), that you don’t just bin one and put the other in. It’s not like running your own machine, which is the mistake so many people make when they say “But version X.2 is out, why haven’t you got it?”

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