Primacy

Josh Clark, commenting on iOS’ Newsstand:

Looking out five or ten years, will print be the winner among these platforms? Nope. So why should we rely on print’s design conventions and workflows now?

Or for that matter, why should any single platform’s design conventions—web, phone, tablet, print, you name it—have primacy? Each of these devices should have their own conventions

There’s absolutely no doubt that today we are in a complete re-imagining of industries. Conventions that served us for the last century are on the cusp of being upheaved. Like the industrial revolution before it, everything is about to be changed. The last 35 (or so) years have been the transition period from the industrial revolution. It’s been about getting computers and the internet into people’s hands. Now we have a crop of young people coming of age who have never lived without a computer1.

As businesses change and adapt to technology, the easy approach is to view it as a new delivery platform and shove what you’ve always done onto that platform.

The problem with that line of thinking is that with every innovation comes a new set of benefits and potential solutions. If you try to shove your old conventions of doing business into the new technology (probably after fighting it for many years), you will fail in the long-run.

The hard approach is to strip your business down to its core, ask yourself “what is it that we really do,” and rebuild everything from the ground up. This is really hard.

Let’s strip down the approach of print publishing.

Why Print Publishing?

People like to read, and in their spare time they want to read interesting and relevant stuff. 50 years ago, magazines and newspapers were the only way to find great writing about a particular topic. It’s trusted, convenient curation for the masses, delivered to your doorstep.

Geeks today have largely supplanted the need for print publishing by discovering interesting blogs on what they’re interested in. For the masses though, it’s still the easiest way to find something to read that is interesting and well-written.

Time-Based Issues

Magazines and newspapers are delivered on a fixed timeframe, daily, weekly, monthly, etc. This is purely a remnant of physical printing, where it took time to deliver the content to the presses, actually print it, deliver issues to where they can be purchased, etc.

The fact is, writing happens all the time and is ready to be pushed to readers with the flip of a switch. This is Josh Clark’s biggest gripe with iOS’ Newsstand:

Issues also create an artificially imposed embargo. Why do I have to wait a week to get an article from Time if it’s already been written?

It’s also the problem that blogs solved over a decade ago, and even print publishers who have moved to the web have embraced. The NYTimes.com website is constantly updating throughout the day. Why is Newsstand embracing the old model? In a way, it should be a glorified RSS reader/Instapaper hybrid.

Advertising

Marco Arment has been arguing recently that putting advertising in paid products is ridiculous:

I don’t need to know why $4.99 is insufficient to pay for 15 articles on my iPad. I just know that it feels like a premium price for such a relatively small amount of content.

The fact is, physical print has a lot of overhead. Not only do you have the content creators (writers), but you have layout designers, editors, bosses, business analysts, janitors, offices, sales staff, delivery teams, etc. I bet $4.99 per person is insufficient to cover the overhead of all that, so it’s subsidized by advertising.

However, the beauty of digital is that much of the overhead gets stripped away, made “skinnier” as Seth Godin calls it:

So many things that would have been money losers then can be profitable today.

Too often, we look at the new thing and demand to know how it supports the old thing. Perhaps, though, the question is, how does the new thing allow us to think skinnier.

Will there be lost jobs? Probably. But digital allows for less overhead. It lets four guys in a garage build the most successful iOS game ever. It lets Maciej Ceglowski start Pinboard and earn a Google salary on his own.

All industries will have to adapt to new technology conventions. They’ll fight it for a while, eventually they’ll even let what they do appear on the new technology – but the truly great Condé Nasts and NBCs of the next century will be the ones who stop giving old conventions primacy and start completely rethinking how they do what they do.

  1. Full Disclosure: I am one of these people []
October 30, 2011