Commentary & Analysis
Broadband: Contributing to a Decline in Print
By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: March 3, 2008
Editor’s Note: Dr. Joe is off this week. Although he has written much about the impact of the Internet and high-speed broadband connectivity on print volumes, it is interesting to look back to June of 2003 and the insight he provided at that time. How many businesses and associations in our industry listened and took action?
I admit it, I'm a broadband bigot. For years, I accused others of being so, while I suffered with erratic dial-up service. But now I've got two years of broadband access behind me, and I don't know how I managed without it. For media competing with print, the speed of broadband is critical to their plan (whoever is behind the conspiracy!) of "killing" print. The top income households have it, and while there has been a lot of discussion about the slowdown of the broadband build-out, I don't really think it's that relevant. What I look at is the following:
* 70% of the U.S. has broadband accessibility geographically, covering the "best" cities and towns in terms of dollar levels for income and spending
* There is a huge fiber optic network that phone and cable companies want to use for broadband connectivity. Now that the bulk of the fiber optic build-out is done, broadband access prices will start to come down as these companies attempt to penetrate lower-than-current-customer income households, and as they move to create more paid services on those networks.
* More broadband-required services are becoming available, such as more streaming media services and music services, as the link between entertainment access and telecom/cable becomes closer (Apple Music is the latest, but RealNetworks has revamped their system, and AOL is going to start one soon).
* The differentiation between broadband and digital cable is starting to blur. Baseball is already broadcasting TV feeds as streaming media, and the NFL will do so as well. Narrowcasting, which is why we have so many cable channels, is about to get narrower. And that's the idea, isn't it? View-on-demand?
A growing economy will obviously encourage more broadband use and create more interest in new broadband products. "Print Bigots" be forewarned: broadband creates a very satisfying Internet experience and a greater ability to access information online rather than using brochures and other printed products. In our family, "Googling" has become the principal method of gathering any kind of information we need for vacation planning, homework research, investment information, and a host of other uses.. Particularly awesome is Google's news page, created through automated monitoring of news stories and continuously updated. And most of you are aware of my fascination with the online version of the Wall Street Journal, which has become a standard for all newspapers on the web.
That doesn't mean that the revenue "model" (I always hated that now-cliched term; a model is supposed to represent reality, but people use it as if the term meant forcing reality to match the model) for publishers and content-owners is solved. Few Internet-only businesses are profitable, and those that are certainly publish a lot of "pro-forma" financial statements, don't they? We're still in a long transition phase and a very long period where print and electronic media will continue to coexist. One is not going to eliminate the other, but they will certainly work together to strain the profitability of each other. It's doubtful that products like wsj.com would survive on its own without the fixed revenue coverage of its much larger hard copy edition.
It's important to not fall for the "convergence" theme that so many fluent in "consultant-speak" use. There's really no such thing. Markets fragment, and don't converge. (Reminds me of the old SNL sketch "It's a dessert topping! No, it's a floor cleaner! No, it's not, it's a dessert topping AND a floor cleaner!") Technologies don't converge either. But they can coexist and integrate with each other. Think of it more as mutually coexisting technologies from which users and developers can cherry pick to meet their needs. I never heard of TV dinners being the convergence of aluminum, meat and veggie technologies, and there's no reason to think convergence is anything more than the fortuitous and simultaneous use of whatever happens to be available at a particular time.
And that's part of the problem. Old and new media are competing for the same investment and spending dollars. The media choice is not up to us; it's up to the buyers and users. For now, when they're asked to choose between old and new media, their answer is "both." Broadband bigot that I am, I agree, There are some magazines that I just prefer in print. That is the exact predicament publishers are in today.
As an aside, the recent announcement by the GPO about the planned shutdown of their physical bookstores is a sign that the availability and use of broadband in businesses and among researchers is common. The GPO bookstore was grossly inefficient. I once had to write one of Rhode Island's Congressional representatives to intervene in a GPO order I was having difficulty with; it took eight months for me to get the books I needed. Now I just jump onto the various agency sites and get everything I need in a timely and reliable manner, and I can even correspond with the actual agencies rather than using the GPO as an intermediary.
The full column can be found here.