Voice of the Industry
Addressing the Death of Print Pundits at AMC-MPA
By Bob Sacks
Published: October 22, 2012
I am going to attempt to address a few of the pundits who declared the death of print at the AMC conference in San Francisco last Tuesday morning. In doing so, I am sure that my long term readers will appreciate the unusual irony I find myself participating in with regard to my analysis and review of the future of our business. I will try to be as succinct as possible and still place before you the necessary historic details.
Somewhere, literally in the last century, I started speaking engagements to printers and publishing organizations. The earliest talk I have on record was in 1992 at Judd’s Shenandoah plant in Virginia. The title of that talk was called Managing Expectations, a discussion of work-flow issues between various departments of the printer and the publisher.
By 1994 I had developed an understanding of new digital processes, and I coined the phrase “El-Cid?” What is El-Cid, you might ask? Here is a direct quote from my 1994 talk. “El-Cid is Electronically Coordinated Information Distribution. El-Cid is our ability to deliver information to multiple platforms in an instant, and on a global basis. That is what your new publishing paradigm will be and must be if you intend to survive in this industry. The future of Publishing will be the ability to access to all the information there is, all the time, quickly and reliably.”
From that humble beginning and in the same 1994 lecture I went on to describe electronic paper. I said, “Soon the best of both media (print and electronic) will be united through the use of thin, lightweight displays that simulate the form and flexibility of traditional paper while providing the immediacy and versatility of a computer screen. Many researchers are in pursuit of this new vision of El-Cid. When they are successful, their efforts will change the face of all publishing, including books, magazines and newspapers”.
So in 1994 I was projecting an iPad like device that didn’t become a reality until 16 years later when Apple’s Wi-Fi version of the iPad went on sale in the United States on April 3, 2010.
Over the years, some people wrongly began to assume because of my digital predictions, that I was predicting the death of print. It went so far that for a long period of time publishing associations thought it humorous to hire Professor Samir Husni and me to debate our positions in public about the future of our industry. I stated that our future would revolve around a digital distribution process and Samir felt that it would continue as a printed process.
So there you have the short history leading up to this next ironic stage of punditry. Hopefully you can see that I never said print was dead or dying. It isn’t. But I have consistently stated all along, since the middle 1990s that in the future, the predominant way that people will read will be digital. We can and will have both.
Now it seems somehow that I am in the forefront of predicting the non-death of print.
In 2007 periodical publishing revenue was in the range of a 47 billion. It is my contention based on research by mediaIDEAS, a company of which I am a founding partner, that by 2020 our revenue will be around 37 billion dollars and of that, about 60% of the revenue will be digital.
Now we get to the AMC guests’ who predicted the death of print.
Ben Horowitz, is a technology entrepreneur and co-founder of a venture capital firm called Andreessen Horowitz. His take on the situation is that print will disappear completely as the next generation of consumers become the dominant generation. He went on to say, “Babies born now will never read anything in print.” He told the crowd of publishers that they need to, “Face the reality that print will eventually go away." To his comments I suggest that we all remember that venture capitalists don’t invest in mature industries like ours. I interject the thought that it is not an area where a venture capitalist need venture. Warren Buffet a successful non-venture capitalist, but a true capitalist all the same, has just recently invested billions in print enterprises. The point is that there will be billions of dollars to be made in print for quite some time. One way of looking at it is that they will be old dollars and not new dollars. Those old dollars will represent by 2020 perhaps 38% of what we used to make. But the math suggests that at 12 billion in revenue print is not a near death situation. And let’s not forget that 62% of publishers’ revenue will be digital. Publishers need fear nothing but not having a quality product.
At the AMC we heard several other speakers such as Norman Pearlstine, Chief Content Officer for Bloomberg, who said that older audiences are passing away and people born in 2012 and beyond will never be print enthusiasts, essentially cementing the end of an era. Another speaker, Dr. Jeffery Cole, a director of the Center for the Digital Future at the Annenberg School, presented similar thinking saying that print will eventually go away and that, other than fashion titles, the majority of others will see their printed roots begin to completely break down by the end of the decade.
My take on this comes from Upton Sinclair who once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Print isn't dead or dying; it is evolving from a commodity to a luxury. As a luxury there will be much less if it, but what is left will be of extremely high quality in both the physical product and the editorial content. Will it take a different business model to survive? Yes, I believe it will. As I have said many times before, businessman and venture capitalists mistake a change in dominance for death. Loss of dominance is not equivalent to death; it just looks and feels that way after 600 years of supreme domination. The facts are the facts. There are billions being made every day in print, and there will be billions made in print for the foreseeable future. Will we eliminate print totally? I think not. It will have a soft spot in the hearts of many. It will be a collector’s item, perhaps one of the last products made by craftsman, who appreciate such fine work. Yes, printed products will take a serious back seat to the digital communication business, because at the end of the day digital is and will be faster, timely, profitable and ubiquitous.
This, of course, means we have serious competition ahead of us for those who wish to remain in the print side of our business. We will actually have to earn our living and our longevity with creativity and excellence. That’s OK. The only thing that matters is the superiority and intelligence of our products and the perceived value of our content. Let’s get back and focus on producing products that are treasured, because they are worth buying on any substrate.