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'Is Print Dead?' and Other Tough Topics from the MPA Conference

By Bob Sacks
Published: October 18, 2012

For the record I just flew back from San Francisco on the red-eye to meet some east coast obligations, and haven't had the time or energy to compile my notes and observations from the American Magazine Conference just concluded. So what you are about to read is free flowing stream of semi-consciousness.

I intend to go into detail about the messaging delivered by some speakers on the last day about the wrongly deduced "inevitable" death of print. It is neither inevitable nor near true, and I'll tell you fully and clearly why tomorrow.

I must be clear at the beginning here that I am not in any way complaining. I am simply about to offer an observation on something that caught my eye that might be important to recognize, or perhaps it is merely a result of serious sleep deprivation. Observing is what I and other industry analysts and reporters do. The American Magazine Conference was a terrific event filled with important topics about where we are broadly and clearly heading as an industry, but not about where we were or are now, with the exception of awards for current excellence in the analog world and with the exception of the remarks of new MPA President and CEO Mary Berner, who opened the show with a declaration of a strong call to action. Mary stated that we have allowed, "...others to hijack our story. It has become one of doom and gloom, demise and even death. And that conversation is affecting our business." After that correct observation we went on for three days to talk about all things and only things digital.

I will tell you that I asked a good friend and an MPA official for a copy of the agendas of the last twenty years. I think it will be a fascinating exercise to re-read what were our biggest important topics and concerns five, ten and twenty years ago. We all know that we as an industry have experienced unprecedented changes on our revenue and business models. One of the reasons I asked this question was because there wasn't a single seminar, speaker or side-bar about printed magazines as we stand today (except for the offhand comments about its death). In the room were some of the greatest print publishers and editors, from some of the most successful print publishing houses that our industry has to offer. None discussed print.

If all we talk about is what we will do digitally and not how to continue to create a superior print product with great longevity, why then should we be horrified, shocked or surprised that a successful venture capitalist and an Internet giant fluently predicted death of our physical products?

Perhaps as an industry we have so perfected the analog process and no longer need further instruction or insights in cover design or editorial savvy. Perhaps we have so fine-tuned our physical newsstand distribution channels and procedures that they no longer require discussion and amendment. Perhaps the section of our business that still contains 90% of our revenue doesn't need an adult review. Or perhaps those topics belong in a completely different association meeting. I can think of several meetings where that would actually be true.

We as an industry and everyone in it are literally thought leaders. We sell words, pictures and thinking, to inform and entertain the general public. Our public conversations are an important self-identifier. If all we choose to talk about is digital, does that send a message? If so, what message does that send?

Mary Berner's remarks were correct that we have allowed, "...others to hijack our story, ... and that conversation is affecting our business."

 

Discussion

By Gary Ampulski on Oct 19, 2012

Perhaps the industry has reached the tipping point where the "glass half full" guys now outnumber the "glass half empty guys".

Hope has been restored as fear is being replaced by necessity and anxiety is being overcome by confidence that the leadership who created value in the past can do it again. It is clear that the role of print in communication has changed but it sounds like there is a majority of managers who refuse to accept that the industry is dead and they recognize that the skills and technology can be acquired to reinvent themselves, retain customer relationships and enable value to grow again. Conceptually, the second derivative of change has now gone positive and people are busy developing and executing the plans to meet the changing needs of their customers. While the overall financial performance may not have hit bottom yet (since investment is likely to be required), the mindset has clearly changed and been rejuvenated. Digital is only part of it and there is surely more to come. There appears to be acceptance that you can't change the world, but you can change the way you react to it and that can be exciting.

Sounds like many are making that transition. Congratulations to the MPA conference participants for reflecting that .

 

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