Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The wounded black-and-white elephant in the living room

Sooner or later, the print industry is going to arrive at an impasse. With divisions like the Chicago Tribune’s City News Service closing, and Knight-Ridder on the block, news companies are going to have to face the fact that the business has gone digital. Printed editions of newspapers and magazines already seem prehistoric, especially in an age when anyone with access to a computer can read the newspaper online for free... and any newspaper from anywhere in the world, for that matter. Whether or not the bovine masses will actually do so is another topic entirely.

I wonder when the day will come when print editions of newspapers and magazines are viewed as a higher-end prop for the cultural intelligista. Consider that cover prices for most magazines worth their salt start at around $5; subscription rates make them a bit more affordable, but it’s still a waste of money when you can read an article online, print off your own copy and buy gas and food instead. Even if you factor in the printing costs, it’s still an awfully large margin. You’re not really paying for the writing anymore so much as you’re paying for the packaging and, more importantly, the ads, and frankly, I’d rather spend my money elsewhere than bankroll a perfume-ad photoshoot.

Short of a madman detonating an EMP in the Earth’s atmosphere (don’t think someone won’t try), digital technology, for all its shortcomings, is here to stay, and it would be in the print industry’s best interests to realize this and cut their losses while they can. I’m not into gloom-and-doom prognostications but I guarantee that a generation that grows up with instantaneous news delivery that’s cheap, if not free, will not really give much thought to printed editions, which, frankly, work better as doorstops. Online publications like Slate and Salon are the first step in the right direction, but print, with all its history and gravitas and importance, will trundle around like a wounded elephant until one well-placed shot brings it down.

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