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How print is slowly killing publishers

It’s a textbook example of The Innovator’s Dilemma. The crazy part is we all know it’s a big problem and yet very few publishers are taking evasive action.

I’m talking about the reliance on print, even at the expense of digital transformation and growth. Here are a few reasons why print is a publisher’s silent killer:

Presentation style – A newspaper is pretty much defined by what appears on the front page as well as how everything else follows it in each edition. Books aren’t that different; they have a beginning, middle and an end. Digital content, on the other hand, isn’t as rigidly defined. Have you ever reached the end of a Google News feed, for example? Publishers who have deep roots in the print world are often too focused on how the print product is presented, often allowing it to drive their digital product.

Workflow – Presentation style is, of course, closely tied to workflow. A publisher who built their editorial and production models around print is likely to apply the same existing model to digital. This is the main reason many publishers evolve from static to dynamic content. And when they experimented with digital they often overhauled their workflow with disastrous results. The problem wasn’t due to a new workflow. Rather, a product nobody wanted was created and the new workflow got tossed aside with the failed product.

“It’s all we know, what we do best” – Editorial teams that have perfected print delivery often have problems adapting to digital. It’s foreign to them and outside their comfort zone. One publisher recently told me they’re pulling digital strategies out of editorial and into a small, centralized team; publishers and editors are to think about print and print only. Meanwhile, print revenues continue to decline. It might make the editors more comfortable but it’s also got to be pretty demotivating. Now is not the time to revert to comfort zones.

Opens the door to startups – As The Innovator’s Dilemma teaches us, disruption is great for the startup and often not so kind to the incumbents. It’s actually an excellent opportunity for established publishers to engage with startups but that rarely happens. As one startup founder recently shared with me, “I get the impression the publisher wants to simply copy our technology, not partner with us.”

Print defines your brand – This is probably the biggest killer of all if your brand is directly associated with print. When consumers hear your brand name all they can think of is a print product. There’s no association with digital whatsoever. Newspapers struggle mightily with this one. The solution is tough to swallow: Create a new brand that’s built around and tightly aligned with digital. It’s OK to say “Powered by old-print-publisher”, but the main brand needs to be detached from your existing, print-centric name. 


Andy Ambraziejus

As a publisher working on rebranding and bolstering our e-presence, I find the points listed in Joe's piece today very pertinent. One comment, though, about #2: Workflow, my area. I think the point to emphasize here is that EXPERIMENTATION, within reason, is good. Yes, certain things fail, but as someone said, you learn more from mistakes than from successes. The important point is to keep trying. (JOE,a suggestion for your blog: a piece about experiments that failed and what publishers have learned. Certain publishers are very good at experimenting, admitting mistakes, going forward AND making money.:)


Hi Joe, interesting article. The implication here however is that there is no demand for print. If this were true, I'd agree with your 100%.

Do you think demand from print will (or should) disappear completely?

Joe Wikert

Hi Aalbc. Print will certainly outlive me, my kids, their kids, etc. Horses have survived the last 100+ years despite the availability of automobiles; they're just not used as frequently, especially not as everyone's primary mode of transportation.

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