Digital First, Not Foremost

John Paton

John Paton: Misguided, or misunderstood?

In all the recent debate on the merits of the digital-first strategy for publishers (neatly encapsulated today by Mathew Ingram), there is one strand of discussion that never quite comes to the foreground. Though the phrase digital first is often contrasted with digital only, for many—mostly the critics, but perhaps some of the advocates as well—the implicit message is the same: “Digital rocks! Print sucks!”

To my mind, that’s not what digital first means. The point of the phrase is not about which medium is better. It’s about which medium people use. And that medium is sometimes print, sometimes web, sometimes social, sometimes mobile, sometimes video, sometimes audio. Digital-first is about distributing content through all those media in the most efficient way possible. Digital is first, but not necessarily foremost.

The idea, as I see it, is not to privilege digital media over other forms, but to use a digital workflow to move seamlessly and efficiently from one format to another. That, of course is easier said than done. Alan Mutter puts it plainly:

“Publishers today are struggling to pivot to a new business model that they call ‘digital first’—whatever that means—while managing through the seemingly relentless decline of their existing one. Mastering either of those tasks individually would be daunting. The challenge of doing both at the same time is nothing less than epic.”

As Mutter points out, one reason that newspapers have failed so miserably at the digital transition is that they “unimaginatively tried to export their formerly successful print business model to the digital realm. ” That is, they employed a print-first strategy. And the print model is simply too rigid and too ponderous to be the starting point in modern publishing.

This, I take it, is what Digital First Media CEO John Paton, much criticized of late, is getting at when he said that his “digital first strategy is centered on the cost-effective creation of content and sales and not the legacy modes of production.”

The ultimate goal of digital first should not be to substitute one medium for another, but to achieve medium independence. Technology is shifting ground daily, and the way people interact is changing with it. As publishers, if we want to interact with them, we have to be able to deliver our content when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. Such dexterity is only possible by going digital first.