It was nearly 20 years ago when I first read Newsweek magazine. My high school history teacher insisted that everyone in his class have a subscription in order to know what was going on in the world. What he knew then is that high school kids would willingly flip through a weekly magazine, read about current events and in doing so, be open to the subject of history. We discussed history in the making and he peppered our discussion with context from the past. He was a smart guy. And yet, as smart as he was, I don't think he or anyone else at the time could have foreseen what the future – his future in teaching and our future as consumers of media – would hold and how quickly it would change. It was 1995 and the Internet was young.
Newsweek's 80 year old print operation will be shut down. These days, it's not surprising to hear another story of print operations suffering. When circulation is down, labor costs are held steady and many news(wo)men are packing up shop and heading fully to the Web, something has to give. For Newsweek's Editor in Chief, Tina Brown, the solution was clear. As the former Editor In Chief of Vanity Fair and co-founder of The Daily Beast, I'll readily admit that Tina Brown knows print and digital very well. Yet I have this nagging suspicion that there is something that she, and the rest of the Newsweek Daily Beast Co. team are missing. No, the numbers don't add up on a business basis and yes, public corporations exist to serve their shareholders and not society at large, but I still feel that there is a social responsibility that is being lost in the accounting.This week most of us learned through digital media that
Back in 2008 when The Daily Beast launched, I was working at Ask.com – a sister-company under the IAC/Barry Diller umbrella. I saw first hand how hard it can be for someone to do something new and different in the News space. The team at The Daily Beast hustled. They hustled hard. They brought in as many seasoned and opinionated writers as they could, they asked celebrities to weigh in, they leaned on other companies within IAC to feature their content, they struck relationships with outside companies, and they created new forms of storytelling like the now forgotten "Big Fat Story." They tried, they failed, they were industrious and they succeeded. As an outsider looking in I can say without question, they believed.
If belief, hustle, investment, great content and forward thinking features are what launched a great digital news brand, then why can't the same team produce something compelling in the print space? Is Print beyond repair? I don't think so. There are still thought-leaders putting out new, high quality print content (people like Chef David Chang with his Lucky Peach quarterly). But for every one, small success in Print, there are countless major outlets suffering. It would be folly to think we're anywhere but at the start of the collapse. So as we peer into the abyss of Print's future, my only hope is that there are enough tenacious and creative people in the space to see past the failures, ride out the down-times and apply to Print the same tenacity, creativeness and faith that it took to make online journalism the success that it is today. Despite what critics like Andrew Sullivan think, I believe that print media is both important and possible.
It would be foolish for me not to acknowledge the fact that I myself am not a regular subscriber to print publications. In this, I'm an absolute hypocrite. I read novels, I read a gazillion blogs about cameras, beer, technology and other interests. I do not often find myself flipping through a physical publication but when I do, I realize that I should do it more often. The type of content presented in magazines and its design should be defensible. It should be the trump card that keeps Print rolling – as a complement to its online cousin. There can be a beautiful print experience that just can't be reproduced online or in an app. Print needs to get hyper focused in those niches. The absurdly visually beautiful. The long-form. The totally disconnected. The small vacations from the tweets, tumbles, and "Related / More / You might like / Ad!"-filled blog posts that make up our online reading experiences today.
There are already people trying to tame online publishing and make it more print-like. People like Mike Montiero with Evening Edition, Pitchfork with its new Cover Stories approach, SAY Media with its Clean Campaign. The list goes on and on. People get it. Still, though, the spirit of what everyone is trying to achieve in this space already has a name. It's Print. That needs to be embraced. For print media to survive it needs to do what it does so well that online media cannot (yet) do. It needs to find a cost and revenue model that make sense (how about hand-curated selections that you'll like rather than a static monthly subscription? – something akin to what Drip.fm is doing for online music discovery). And it needs to do it very quickly. It will look and function differently in an ever increasingly connected society, but it will exist and those that can see beyond today's challenges to make that happen will be the winners.