Publishers should look to the future not the past

We know things are looking tough for pre-digital ‘legacy’ publishers, and have been for some time. But during the past few weeks there have been signs that publishers are moving backwards not forwards, attempting to rely on the ‘old’ way of doing things to point the way forward in a digital world.

This attitude of looking backwards rather than forwards is dangerous because it takes the focus away from the much more important question that urgently needs attention – how can we do things differently in the future in a way that adds value to our customers, while providing publishers with a profitable business model?

Two things are happening right now that illustrate this point:

1. Rupert Murdoch’s paywall

Murdoch is planning to charge for access to The Times and Sunday Times online. Arguments have raged about this, but in essence, it’s not about whether the £1-a-day, £2-a-week strategy is a fair price, too much or too little; it’s about the fact that it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works. As Jeff Jarvis puts it:

By building his paywall around Times Newspapers, he has said that he has no new ideas to build advertising. He has no new ideas to build deeper and more valuable relationships with readers and will send them away if they do not pay. Even he has no new ideas to find the efficiencies the internet can bring in content creation, marketing, and delivery.

The whole concept of charging £1 for access to a day’s worth of news is based on another media’s economics, another media’s distribution mechanism, another media’s business model. It is a step backwards.

2. The iPad as saviour of traditional publishing business model

I’m excited about the iPad. It looks great, beautiful and, yes, innovative.

But for some it seems to have triggered the idea that the re-bundling of unbundled media is the way forward. This is another step backwards.

The fact that digital media is fragmented and unpackaged is its greatest strength. To put it back together and create an enhanced ‘magazine’ or ‘newspaper’ experience on your computer is a move in the wrong direction.

All the great innovations that digital media brought us – search, aggregation, microblogging, the hyperlink itself – is undermined by this strategy.  As Clay Shirky puts it, with digital media ‘the decision about what to bring together into a bundle is made by the consumer and not the producer’ (see the video Clay Shirky on internet issues facing newspapers – link goes straight to discussion at 10 minutes 32 seconds. I should say that the exception, in my mind, is the long-form book format, which the iPad is well-placed to enhance).

The real danger with the two approaches outlined above is that by looking backwards to old ways of doing things you are putting yourself out of the running in the digital advance, and allowing other more nimble and focused competitors an even greater competitive advantage.

In other words, the more you look backward and your competitors look forward, the bigger the gap grows between you. This was brought home starkly last week in the other bit of news that caught my eye: Advertising Age’s report that print veterans looking to move into digital jobs are now finding it difficult:

There are now enough people who have digital experience that digital clients can hire them. They don’t have to worry about hiring from a tangential side of the business, i.e., print. But I think the other part of this, which is equally important, is that some digital clients wonder, if a print person hasn’t touched digital yet, what is that saying about them?

Okay so what’s the answer? Well if you haven’t already taken the step forward, do so now. Start imagining a different future for media. Read some of the great commentators out there who are thinking and acting on new ways of doing things (I recommend Buzz Machine, ReadWriteWeb, Econsultancy, Only Dead Fish and Mashable, for starters).

And (here comes the self-promoting plug) get some digital training.

And maybe look at committing to something even more intensive that ties into your commercial needs, for which I highly recommend the postgraduate course in Digital Publishing that I’m working on with Econsultancy and the Manchester Metropolitan University.

The main point is that to move forward we have to look forward, and that means not relying on business models and formats derived from legacy media.

I would love to hear your thoughts, so please leave comments below.