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Publishing crosses the digital divide

Date

Andrew Masterson

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Screen team: (From left) <i>Issimo</i> Nick Cooper, software engineer, Veronica Ridge, editor, and Jay Cooper, multimedia and design.

Screen team: (From left) Issimo Nick Cooper, software engineer, Veronica Ridge, editor, and Jay Cooper, multimedia and design.

Some things, according to common wisdom, are simply uncontestable: petrol prices will always increase, Kim Kardashian will never shut up, and print media will surely die.

This last contention, however, has recently started to look considerably less cut and dried. Since the start of 2014 at least three highly influential US digital publications have plunged – against the tide – into the world of print publishing.

The news has certainly raised eyebrows in media boardrooms around the world, but according to Australia's most influential digital publishers a wholesale return to ink and paper is about as likely as Justin Bieber singing opera.

Online image from <i>Issimo</i>.

Online image from Issimo.

In January, two respected niche digital publications, Politico and Capital, both owned by publishing duo John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, announced plans for bi-monthly print editions.

The mastheads cover policy and politics in Washington DC and New York, respectively. The paper editions will concentrate on in-depth stories and profiles, complementing the bulletins and blogs of the digital versions.

Announcing the decision late last year, Politico editor Susan B. Glasser said the print editions would help ''fill a dangerous vacuum in the rapidly transitioning world of journalism''.

<i>Issimo</i> magazine.

Issimo magazine.

According to Glasser, digital publications are failing to give enough emphasis to long-form stories and thus neglecting to hold America's rich and powerful to sufficient account.

However, critics of the move have suggested that printing six glossy issues a year is a marketing exercise, that the print editions serve primarily as souvenirs – coffee-table reminders of the online main game.

Such an analysis seems unlikely to account for the recent decision by US current affairs stalwart Newsweek to return to print a little more than a year after abandoning the medium in favour of a wholly online presence.

Newsweek's exit from the print arena at the end of 2012 was widely seen as symbolic of the general decline in the viability of paper publications. The decision to re-enter the field, with the stated aim of building to a print run of 100,000 in the first 12 months, has surprised many. The first newsstand edition is scheduled for mid-March.

In announcing the decision, the magazine's editor-in-chief, Jim Impoco, told The New York Times that the magazine would abandon its role of competitor to Time and model itself instead on The Economist. The latter, in print since 1843, is one of the few serious news mastheads that have seen print sales increase in recent years.

Eric Beecher, CEO of Private Media, controls Australia's most prominent independent online-only stable of publications, including news outlet Crikey and business site SmartCompany.

As much as he'd like to, he does not see the moves by Politico, Capital and Newsweek as signs of a general drift back to print.

''My heart says yes and my head says no,'' Beecher says. ''The collapse of the business model of newspapers and magazines whose revenues are built around advertising is unstoppable. If you can configure your print business model heavily around cover price, that's feasible. Or if you use print as a marketing tool for online, that's feasible. But with a handful of exceptions like The Economist, print is increasingly becoming the exclusive domain of ageing readers and tiny residual niches of advertisers. It's a relentless trajectory which has no interest in emotion.''

According to one of Australia's newest entrants into digital publication, print will continue to decline simply because it can't inform and entertain as well as online storytelling.

Veronica Ridge, a former Fairfax senior editor, runs a tablet-based magazine called Issimo. Having sprung fully formed late last year from the fruits of a Pozible campaign, Issimo is about to publish its third issue on iTunes in March. Subscriptions are going gangbusters, Ridge says, and she has no intention, ever, of offering a print version of the title.

''Absolutely not,'' she says. ''My reasoning is you can put so much more into a digital publication. Print publishing is one-dimensional. It would be like chucking away your mobile phone and just relying on the landline.''

Ridge admits to being a late convert but now embraces digital publishing with missionary zeal.

''My loyalty is still to storytelling rather than to any type of media,'' she says. ''But you simply can't capture the essence of a story in print like you can in digital.''

Ridge points to the current buzz-phrase in digital publishing: snowfall journalism. The term derives from the title of a groundbreaking long-form digital piece published late last year by The New York Times. Fans say the piece redefines the possibilities of journalism.

Critics such as The Atlantic magazine's Derek Thompson aren't so sure. ''It's something like magic,'' he wrote, ''a visceral adventure story about a deadly avalanche that feels more like an interactive documentary that happens to have paragraphs than a newspaper story that happens to have interactives.''

Perhaps, however, there is room for both styles of journalism – the onscreen bells-and-whistles variety, and the newsstand ink-and-paper type.

''I don't think one medium actually kills the other,'' Ridge says. ''Digital is not going to kill print, any more than TV killed radio.''

On the other hand, don't expect Crikey to appear on the corner-store shelves any time soon.

For Beecher there is no value in paper mastheads, ''unless your advertisers are selling funerals, wills or retirement cruises. The audience for print is dying and only a tiny proportion of their children have an interest beyond digital media.''

An old newspaper hand himself, he admits to occasional dreams of re-entering the print world but adds: ''Only after a lot of drinks late at night. Then the next day brings you back to reality.''

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