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The path for print is clear – innovate smartly or die most certainly

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

The debate about the future of print media continues unabated in a wireless world with factors beyond pure economics coming into play. These factors could be particularly relevant given Africa’s specific geo-political and social developmental imperatives.

Here’s an interesting thought: What will the print newspapers and magazines that survive in an online world look like? Nothing like what we’ve seen; if trends observed in the US are anything to go by.

I have quite a few reasons for postulating that print publishing will never quite die out. But this isn’t a column about that. I’m not Clay Shirky, and I don’t really wear ash and sackcloth all that well.

If the Internet-guru types were to be believed, print publishing is dead and gone. Forever. It’s only a matter of counting down towards the inevitable end now.

And yet I find that print still manages to persist even as the Internet continues to disrupt its previous monopoly on the flow of information (which is really how newspapers made money). Social networks now break news quicker than any news outlet. Services like Craigslist have completely disembowelled the old cash flow model for print, called classifieds. And anyone who knows their way around a WordPress Storyboard can potentially be as powerful a publisher (in terms of the number of people reached) as The New York Times or The Guardian. Gawker Media, Boing Boing or are all web media organisations whose reach extends far beyond that of overwhelming majority of most established print newspapers.

Make no mistake though; print as we know it is dying. The day of the old type of newspaper or magazine is gone.

After three weeks of observation and discussion in the US (which serves as a bellwether for all things online), my conclusion is the print business simply can no longer afford to sustain itself. To survive, most print publications will have to supplement their income from somewhere else. Much like the relationship between sharks and pilot fish (if I may be allowed so unfortunate a metaphor), publications will have to marry themselves to a steady source of income.

There are many different ways for print publications to get another source of income and each publication will have to adapt according to the circumstances in its area of business.

Three models of innovation struck me as being the most likely to succeed the print apocalypse. I recently visited a few media organisations in the US that have adopted these forms of innovation to succeed in the new media environment.

The St. Petersburg Times and ProPublica are both funded in the same way – via very rich and very generous benefactors. The St. Pete Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, a school of journalism founded in 1975 by Nelson Poynter, who owned and published the paper. In his will, he stated that his share of the paper should belong to the Institute, and it has remained thus until today. The paper essentially runs not unlike a trust fund. As much as the company revels in its safety net (including a multimillion dollar expansion across the bay into the city of Tampa), I had the sense this gave the St. Pete Times a sense of torpor when it came to innovation.

ProPublica is sponsored by the Sandlers, a rich banking family, (which also funds the progressive Centre for American Progress think tank). Since its inception in 2008, the investigative journalism site has gone on to win two Pulitzer Prizes in investigative journalism. 

The Staten Island Advance, the community newspaper of Staten Island, a borough of New York City, has taken on two different innovations – it has become hyper-local in its coverage, splitting its papers into the four Shores of Staten Island, which each shore, divided according to the four points of a compass, receiving detailed news of its district. (Why hasn’t this been implemented effectively in Johannesburg? Think of it. Why wouldn’t it work?) This model is actually designed to provide targeted advertising opportunities for small businesses, which will be able to advertise specifically in their areas.

The Advance also expanded its facilities to the tune of $38 million and bought a new printing press. Today, it not only prints its own paper, it also prints for a dozen other local newspapers.

WFLA-TV, with the Tampa Bay Tribune, have combined different media products so that they can support each other, in much the same way that Bloomberg LP has combined its terminal service (that provides information to market traders) with its news service. WFLA-TV, the Tampa Bay Tribune and all share resources in an integrated newsroom and all three are owned by the same parent company. However, not even these innovations could save the Tribune consortium. Just like nearly everyone else in the print industry, the organisation’s newsroom shrank during the recession, forcing the journalists working in TV, print and web to have to learn to work in all three environments.

The same prognosis may not quite apply to South Africa. Indigenous language publishing seems to be taking off in a big way at last, and the Internet’s poor penetration in the continent means our print publications may find that they will be immunised from the web’s influence for a while yet. But nonetheless our papers would do well to take note of what works in America and for what reasons.

The US has a lot to learn from Africa as well – they would do well to look at our innovations in mobile publishing technology and crowd-sourcing, something which would help develop interactive journalism. DM

Sipho Hlongwane was on a media programme in the US, sponsored by the US state department, in which he exchanged ideas with a variety of media organisations.


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