The Shift to New Media Cannot Be Gradual

CJR Survey of Magazines on the Web

CJR: Huge culture gap between print and online

In the B2B publisher’s dream world, the transition to online media would come as a natural evolution from print. The vocabulary, the ethos, the culture, the methods would all be organic extensions of print.

Reality, of course, is brutally different.

The shift to online media is not an extrapolation of the past but a sharp break with it. Until traditional B2B publishers accept and adapt to this reality, they will remain stuck in the past.

So far, it seems, they’re still looking backwards, to judge from two recent surveys of magazine personnel. One, from the American Society of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) and the Medill School at Northwestern University, focused on B2B publications. Though the other, from the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), looked exclusively at consumer magazines, its findings ring true for B2B.

The ASBPE/Medill study, announced February 26, found that editors feel unprepared and undertrained for working in new media. Moreover, they think that their publishers lack the vision necessary to succeed online. More than a third of them had no company training at all in the past year, and two-thirds found what training was offered to be inadequate.

The CJR survey, released March 1, looked more broadly at the relationship between print and online cultures within magazine brands. It found that the print side of magazines receives disproportionate attention, with the online side suffering as a result from lower editorial standards, inadequate online experience among staff, and restrictive or poorly defined editorial missions.

Not surprisingly for an organization of editors, the ASBPE sees corporate management as the problem, and tends to cast editors as victims. But it might be healthier for editors to share at least some part of the blame. If they sit back and wait to be trained, they are doomed. What training they may be given, if ever, will be limited in scope and quality. Editors need to take responsibility for their own training, and not wait for others to show them the way.

But as both the ASBPE and CJR studies show, the larger problem is with the organization as a whole. The ASBPE study seems to suggest that the solution is for those organizations to offer more training. But the CJR study underscores that the problem is not insufficient training but old-media bias:

“Magazines often privilege print publications over their Web counterparts. According to one respondent, for example, the Web version is ‘largely seen as inferior, compared to what runs in the magazine’ despite enjoying a readership five times larger, ‘because of a vestigial elitism as to its being more important if it runs in print.'”

The problem, of course, is that for most publishers, the bulk of their money is still coming from print. Since they want to keep the cash cow in the coal mine alive for as long as possible, their goal is a gradual transition to online.

And that, of course, is just a strategy for failure. You can’t serve two masters at once; you have to choose one. Moreover, you can’t adopt online media gradually. Trying to do so is really just choosing to keep print as your master.

Publishers, start by trying this: Tell your print editors they are online staff first and foremost.

And don’t just say it. Act on it.

“Web-first” is a strategy many have talked about, but few (such as IDG and Vance) have implemented. Talk has to be matched by action. Change the work your editors do accordingly. Make the transition, as one CJR respondent put it, “from a print publication supplemented with online articles to an online publication supplemented with print editions.” Follow the model described by another respondent: “Instead of developing stories for print and online and then republishing them online, we now do the opposite–develop for online, and . . . pick the strongest articles to appear in print.”

Editors, a word to the wise. Don’t wait around for your company to follow this or similar advice. The lure of the cash cow is simply too strong for them to reorient operations from the substantial but declining revenue flow from print towards the small but growing income from online. Learning your way around blogs, podcasts, online video, and social media is not like taking on vector calculus. Just jump in and start training yourself.

The ASBPE and CJR surveys should be a wake-up call to publishers and editors alike. It’s time to change masters.

2 thoughts on “The Shift to New Media Cannot Be Gradual

  1. Well put, John. There is nothing like identifying models, then doing it yourself, making mistakes, then doing it over and over until you get it right.
    Before publishers start looking to hire “digital natives” they should read “The net generation, unplugged” in the March 6-12, 2010 The Economist. “Many of his incoming students have only a superficial familiarity with the digital tools that they use regularly . . .”

  2. Pingback: Should Journalists Learn to Code? | B2B Memes

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