Back from the Dead: The Challenge of Digital First

Resurrection of Lazarus by Gustave Doré

“‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’”
—T.S. Eliot

If you’re wondering why it’s been deathly silent on this blog for the last six months, there’s a good reason: Last fall, I crossed over into the penumbral land of print, on a mission to lead lost souls into the light of new media.

Or to put it more plainly, I took a job with a legacy publisher to help it go digital-first.

What I’ve learned should not have surprised me, but it did: Digital-first theory is vastly easier than digital-first practice.

How the transition plays out will vary with the circumstances of each company, of course, but the main hurdle is the same for all legacy publishers—the all-consuming demands of the print process.

Let me try to explain.

One writer with a solo blog is easily, readily digital first, if not digital only. The case is quite different for one print editor with a blog who must also manage a monthly print cycle, sending copy in multiple passes through copy editors; coordinating proofreaders, authors, and art departments; following detailed production schedules; and struggling to fulfill over-specified and stultifying year-long editorial calendars.

(It’s difficult for me to describe this challenge in a way that I, at least, find convincing. That no doubt explains why I so profoundly underestimated it, as so many others have done.)

For editors imbued with the print habit of mind, it is easy to misunderstand the digital-first concept. Their first thought, typically, is that the phrase simply means “do everything the way you always have, but publish your content online before you do so in print.”

If only it were so simple. Digital first is not about where you publish first, but about adopting a completely different outlook, a different process, and a different time scale. It’s not just about publishing digitally, but doing everything digitally.

It may take a while for print editors to understand and accept this concept, but the concept in itself is not the challenge. The problem, again, is not the theory, but the practice. No matter how profoundly you understand and believe in the digital-first outlook, acting on those beliefs is highly challenging when the structures you work in are founded on the principles of print.

To make the transition, you must break the print pattern, demolish the structures. Perhaps you can do so gradually, like slowly bending a willow branch, but, regardless, at some point you must reach and accept a breaking point—after which almost everything is profoundly different.

To prosper in the digital future, in other words, legacy publishers will simply have to break with their print pasts. Whether than means abandoning print altogether I don’t yet know. It is a question I will be thinking and writing about in coming days here on B2B Memes.

Though many of its inhabitants don’t yet know it, print is indeed the land of the dead. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t, like Lazarus, rise up from it. I, for one, am trying.

5 thoughts on “Back from the Dead: The Challenge of Digital First

  1. Pingback: Bethune’s Back | ASBPE National Blog

  2. Hi John,
    First let me say that I’m thrilled to see you blogging again.

    Second, let me say that I share your pain.

    I’ve tried numerous approaches to helping teams make the transition. And I keep learning the same lesson over and over and over again: anything short of a brutal split from the past leads to defeat.

    Or, as you said, “to make the transition, you must break the print pattern, demolish the structures.”

    I’m afraid I’ve learned the hard way that you can NOT “do so gradually, like slowly bending a willow branch.”
    Moving slowly just prolongs the pain. Working too hard to get everyone on board just delays the inevitable.

  3. Thanks, Paul. I may be back, but my blogging reflexes are atrophied–hence the delay in approving your comment.

    What complicates the digital-first transition is the institutional element. There is a built-in (and understandable) bias in a legacy publisher to keep focusing on print–if only because that’s where the money still comes from, even if in ever-dwindling amounts. It takes immense corporate will to break that bias.

  4. Wait till they need to stick the content onto all the different devices that exist now, and those being invented as we speak. Then the theory of print first becomes a whole lot easier than the practice. Like the practice is impossible. And verily you’ll have a host of reluctant converts to the digital first way on thinking, and they’ll soon grow to adore it.

  5. Hi John,

    Nice to see you blogging again. I tried the “do everything you did before just put it online first,” approach with some limited success. Some editors were happy to change their habits but others struggled. They were, and are, so entrenched in print thinking that the online portion to them seems like the “extra” work instead of the primary work. As long as we have a significant number of print subscribers, and legacy editors, I think we are going to struggle with that. That said, I am not disappointed with our progress.

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