Rising costs force more digital innovation

The cost of publishing, especially of printing and paper, is skyrocketing and will go even higher in 2023, dramatically forcing the pace of media transition to digital from the print newspapers that still drive a great deal of income.

That question of trading paper dollars for digital cents we talked about a decade ago is coming back, but it’s about costs now. Newsprint prices have risen more than 50 percent in many markets if you can get supplies. Paper mills are converting from newsprint to boxes. Printing costs — including maintenance of aging and capital-intensive presses — threaten to make newspaper (and in many cases magazine) printing and distribution uneconomical.

That cost pressure will force the pace of digital transformation. Many publishers — despite what they’ve said for years about their commitment to digital-first — still cling to print, both for understandable revenue reasons and because they can’t break away from the historic cycle of daily publication. That means some of the fast-paced transitions will be disastrous.

Scandinavian publishers are experimenting with outsourcing print entirely, reducing publication days, and going weekend-only on paper. The Independent in the U.K. abandoned paper years ago and hasn’t looked back; it’s one of the few truly digital publishers to emerge from the newspaper industry.

Next year, those who moved fast over the past five years will come out on top, and those who didn’t will struggle, fire staff, and disappoint customers and advertisers with clunky sites, second-grade apps, and increasingly thin newspapers they’ll still try to charge the earth for.

Other predictions:

— Mental health will be a big issue for journalists in precarious jobs. You might find the new journalism mental health support group The Headlines Network useful.

— Consumers will revise their subscriptions and become even more sparing than the 1.1 average reported now. Must-have sites like The New York Times will come out on top in that scenario, and local and regional sites will start to fail even more than they have so far, replaced by products like Axios Local and innovative local Substack-type sites. Vanity investigative and podcast and video projects are over, but well-costed, targeted products are in.

Finally, the holiday period is an excellent time to read a business book or two, including The Innovator’s Dilemma, no matter what you think of its reputation. I also recommend John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity. For immediate answers and advice on journalism and transition and getting the hell on with it, read Swiss industry analyst Lucy Küng. Download them: It’ll be an investment in yourself and in journalism.

Peter Bale is newsroom initiative lead of the International News Media Association.

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