Publishing is Dead – Long Live Publishing!

The name of this blog was inspired by a former colleague at The Thomson Corporation. As our team embarked on a major push into digital media in the mid-90s, he reminded us that the old publishing mantra “Content is King!” was being recast as “Content in Context”. Simply having loads of content was no longer enough to command a dominant or exclusive market position – publishers had to make sure their content was timely, relevant and easy to navigate. Ultimately, content has to help users find insights to their problems and solutions to their needs quickly and efficiently.

I was reminded of this recently when I heard some data storage experts talking about the challenges of what to do with all the data we are creating – especially at the rate we are going. According to latest analysis, 90% of all data was created in the last 2 years.

We keep being told that publishing is dead, but it is clear that we are producing more content than ever before – in which case, it’s great to be part of a dying industry! Sure, the business models are changing, and so is the technology; but there are still a number of core publishing disciplines that we risk losing sight of as we continue to develop boundless and limitless volumes of digital content.

There are several skills that publishers traditionally bring to any new content, print or on-line. And it’s not just about technology, SEO or the number of “Likes”. Any content owner seeking to engage vendors to develop their digital assets and manage their on-line presence would be well advised to ask potential suppliers about their experience, strengths and processes in each of the following areas:

  • Commissioning – having a nose for new authors, where to find them and how to nurture their talent
  • Editing – turning text and data into meaningful and coherent content, including length, structure, tone, clarity and access (tables of contents, indexing, cross-referencing, citations, footnotes, bibliographies, etc.)
  • Design – using appropriate formats, layout and fonts to suit the material and the readership
  • Customer Engagement – bringing the audience into the publishing process, through market research, pre-sales activity and user groups
  • Marketing – knowing how to distribute particular content or promote a particular writer
  • Content Management – analysing the usage data and capturing audience feedback, to understand the value of the publishing assets

Yes, these skills do exist in the digital realm, but increasingly the publishing process is being made subservient to the technology, often at the expense of meaning and comprehension. Doubtless this stems from the misconception that the speed and frequency of publication renders everything as mere ephemera – so why do we need to bother with such archaic ideas as an index?

An author acquaintance of mine recently lamented the response of his publishers who, when informed that his text-book needed an index before it could be distributed in schools, responded, “what a great idea – why don’t you send us one!” I can only assume that the publishers were so caught up in on-line media that they had forgotten how most readers navigate books or other content, especially when they are accessing them for the first time.

On-line developers do us a great disservice if they forget that digital content needs tools such as indexes and tables of content to aid user navigation and accessibility – text tagging and search functions are all very well, but they do not always return relevant or meaningful results, and they can create unintended or unforeseen linkages that may be completely out of context.

As a consequence of the exponential growth in on-line content, and our simultaneous interest for archive material (and the demand for data analytics), publishers are increasingly taking on a new and important role as curators – managing content assets, understanding how to present them, knowing the value of the material they are dealing with, and finding the right context in which to provide this content.

This shifting role of publishers is just confirmation that publishing is far from extinct.

What’s in a business model???

Interesting speculation in the business media this week about whether Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters are in a potential bidding war for the Financial Times (which is not actually for sale?).

The New York Mayor seems to love the product, but hates the business model. Besides, Bloomberg is still playing around with Business Week.

For Lord Thomson of Fleet (the last remaining Press Baron?) it’s rather like deja vu – didn’t The Thomson Corporation (as was) offload all their newspapers in the ’90’s because print was so last century?

The FT was one of the first newspapers to construct a paywall around its content, and has created customer traction for a range of subscription, pay-as-you go and “freemium” sales models. It also remains a strong brand for global business news, and has a solid presence in Asia. But some commentators suggest that the pink’un is losing money, despite its on-line success, because of declining revenues from print advertising.

The main challenge for traditional business newspapers these days is not so much print vs digital (the FT has sort of got that worked out, and Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters are two of the largest online publishers for financial information). The real challenge is identifying and engaging the audience – who reads a business newspaper these days, and why, when there are so many on-line alternatives?

Despite current market challenges, Fairfax Media has always had a clear sense of its audience profile for the Australian Financial Review. As I understand it, the typical AFR reader is a C-Suite executive (current, former or aspirant), interested in what’s going on in the world and the impact of global events on their personal, corporate or sovereign wealth. In fact, unlike some other newspapers, there are no corporate or institutional customers of the AFR – all subscribers have to be individual readers, potentially making it easier to establish long-term relationships that survive career moves or other changes in personal circumstances.

However, the main difficulties for Fairfax are:

the cost of quality journalism and content in the face of declining revenues (hence the recent syndication deal with the FT in response to The Australian’s access to content from the Wall Street Journal?);

increased competition from numerous on-line entrants (most of which are free, the latest being Leading Company); and

the blurred boundary between the “personal” and the “professional” audience for informed news and commentary on a broad range of inter-connected topics – finance, politics, economics, business, technology, culture, sustainability, leadership….

All of which makes it rather difficult to see why anyone might want to acquire a newspaper business these days, unless for reasons of vanity – Baron Bloomberg of Southwark Bridge?