Over the past 13 years, Eat the State! (ETS) has provided Western Washington with left-leaning political commentary as a free bimonthly print journal. However, the weak economy has forced the paper to rethink its business model, and many other small publications are in the same boat.
Last month, after having difficulty meeting a $6,000 fundraising goal, ETS recognized that its current publication model is not sustainable. In the future, ETS will only print endorsement issues around elections. The paper’s last regular print edition will be released April 1.
The switch to digital comes with some trepidation. Supporters who paid to keep the paper in print might feel betrayed if the print edition disappears. More fundamentally, ETS worries that losing the print version may limit who will be exposed to its viewpoints:
On the Web, people tend to read what they’re already familiar with. Over the years, thousands of people have discovered their first free copy of Eat the State! by chance in a coffee shop, movie theater, or library… Also, there are still plenty of people who don’t have reliable Internet access or otherwise choose not to rely on the Web for all their news and commentary. Many people just prefer reading newsprint.
Michael Andersen, a journalist and founder of the upcoming transit/bike publication Portland Afoot, agrees that something is lost when publications go digital: “There’s a stronger brand experience when you’re holding something in your hands,” he said. “The bond is much stronger with an object.” Plus, print is a push technology: “If you hand it to somebody, they’re going to look at it at least briefly. That’s something almost no digital product can offer.” Portland Afoot will be a 4-page monthly publication accompanied by a wiki-based Web site.
In addition, many advertising dollars are still tied to print. According to Mark Glaser of PBS MediaShift, even as print publications like ETS move online, “…there are also online publications that are starting to do print versions too because they can make more money with print ads. For now, many local advertisers still like to see their ads in print vs. online.”
From print to digital
Switching from “print first, Web second” to primarily digital is more complicated than just just moving all the content online. ETS needs to “start over in terms of our publishing conception,” said co-founder Lance Scott. “We need to think from an online standpoint.”
For instance, ETS will need to figure out a new publication schedule. Not limited by the constraints of print, ETS can publish immediately, when content is most relevant; but it may also want to spread stories out to give readers an incentive to return to the site.
PC Mag is an example of a successful print-to-digital transition. While hardly a “little guy” like ETS, the magazine also appeals to a niche audience. Said editor-in-chief Lance Ulyanoff of the switch:
The actual transition to all-digital was a years-long process. In fact, we probably began changing our publishing model as early as 2005 when all of our reviews were delivered online first. Over time, all of our content switched to online first, features and solutions were last. As we did that, we also slowly shifted more and more of the staff to online or print and online combined roles. By 2008, we had just a small group of people solely devoted to print. When we ceased print publication in early 2009, our staff had already transitioned. As a result, our process barely changed and we laid off only one employee.
“My advice to ease the transition is to stay in touch with the readers and make sure you are serving their needs and reaching them,” Glaser added. “If they are all online, then going online-only can work. If many of them prefer print, then that’s probably what you’ll need to provide them.”
Portland Afoot founder Michael Andersen thinks it’s important for publications to know the advantages and disadvantages of online versus print. Newspapers and magazines frequently publish the same content in both media without recognizing the value in distinct content tailored for each medium. And print could learn a thing or two from the Web. Attention spans are shorter, and readers are less eager to consume lengthy features than they used to.
The future of print
It’s unlikely that all papers will be Web-only in the near future – at least the Web as we know it today. “I’m not sure that all publications will eventually be online-only; it really depends on the audience of the publication and location of it,” Glaser said. “Tech trade magazines seem to have mainly migrated online, but print newspapers are booming in smaller towns and in India.”
The long-term future may be a hybrid of tactile and digital, depending on the adoption of the tablet. As Wired’s Chris Anderson told David K. Israel of Mental Floss in a Feb. 3 phone interview, “the tablet offers an opportunity to achieve [the benefits of print] and even greater impacts because it has all the kind of visual splendor of the printed page plus the interactive elements, with much more efficient economics, of digital distribution.”
Michael Andersen agrees that inexpensive tablets will be widely adopted in 10 years, yet holds out for print. “Companies that have already sunk a lot of investment in, say, printing presses will still find it useful to use them. But I doubt there’ll be many people like me, investing in new print-driven enterprises.”
image by Matt Callow
Helen Pitlick has been a student in the MCDM program since spring 2009. She works with social media as an intern at Foodista.com, and in her spare time she reviews craft beer