For years people have declared that print is dead, but perhaps these are now its final days.
Nearly every morning you can find a new article about some publication closing up their print editions and moving solely over to the web. The failing economy is an easy direction to point the blame, but it’s likely just the last nail in the coffin.
It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The Christian Science Monitor and PC Magazine move to the tubes. The Tribune files for bankruptcy protection. Once great newsstands close as people get more of their news online. Google is digitizing books and now magazines too, bringing some of the last of the information onto this superhighway. These are some huge shakeups, but the “printed” word isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
All publications have websites already, so what’s remarkable about this? The web was supposed to be the savior for publications and their diminishing print readerships. The problem is, few have invested any real time or talent to make their websites even half as remarkable as their print editions. Most publishers seem satisfied to blindly dump their prized content into a lifeless shell of a site. Why should we give a damn about your site when you clearly don’t?
In an economic crisis, it’s common to see competition decrease because more companies are forced to close. But a byproduct of this is that it allows those that remain to see the way forward more clearly, bringing about innovation. I believe the decrease in competition may be applicable in a broad sense, but due to the generally lower physical overhead for a website as compared to a print publication, competition may remain constant online, if not actually rise. As more publications move exclusively online, and potentially do it successfully, momentum for other publications to see it as a viable alternative will increase. And this is where it gets interesting.
Competition makes for innovation. Without the print edition to serve as the flagship product, the website will no longer be a second class citizen or a quaint add-on to a business model; it will become the business model. Companies will need to rethink their strategies and goals for the web, and ways to distinguish themselves. If a publication or a few happen to break out of the current mold and start innovating, this may cause other publications, whether still maintaining print editions or not, to become competitive online as well. Once a publication forms a real connection with readers by giving them a reason to care about their website, other publications will be forced to do the same.
The medium of print will not die, but its spot atop the mountain of mainstream content distribution is in its final days. This could bring about a rebirth of design innovation online. We can help bring about change and find new ways to connect with audiences. This is an exciting time to be a designer, assuming we can all hang onto our jobs long enough to see what happens.