The common wisdom is online services won't kill or cannibalize magazines and newspapers, they'll complement them.
Such presumptions can be dangerous. I still don't see a fundamental threat to the existence of ink-on-paper products, but two recent events have re-routed my mindset.
The first is the latest round of paper price hikes scheduled to take effect this fall. The newsprint hikes, along with rising postal costs, are already doing serious damage to the publishing business. The high price of paper has been a factor in newspaper closings (the Baltimore Evening Sun being the latest example), magazine sales (Mirabella, Family Life, Premiere), layoffs, cover price hikes and circulation declines.
With the cost of introducing a new title to the nation's already overflowing newsstand racks prohibitively high and the chances of long-term success frighteningly low, savvy young entrepreneurs are increasingly bypassing the risk in favor of testing online or CD-ROM publications. Even if they flop, maybe $1 million has been poured down the drain, not $20 million.
Marginal magazines-those that are fourth in a three-book field-now have a more appealing option than shuttering shop. General Media International already decided to take science magazine Omni into cyberspace, leaving behind only a token print effort; others are sure to follow suit.
The second event that shifted my thinking was more personal.
I've always believed magazines have certain inherent qualities-tactility, portability-that make them more appealing to read than text on a cold, hard computer screen. Online services show their strengths in other ways, through two-way capabilities and user control, for example.
But while browsing on America Online on a recent Sunday, I came across the full text of Time's latest issue, scheduled to hit newsstands the next day. I immediately began scrolling through a series of articles on Microsoft chief Bill Gates, my interest piqued by NBC's report on the new-media "tycoon" just two days earlier.
After reading the main story and sidebars, I jumped over to Time's online bulletin boards to toss in my thoughts on Mr. Bill and see what others were saying. I also sent an e-mail to Philip Elmer-DeWitt, the author of the main piece and the voice of Time's bulletin boards. He was online and responded instantly, beginning a real-time dialogue about Gates.
The overall experience was more gratifying than just reading the magazine would have been. I had consumed the articles, contributed feedback and discussed the main story with its author, closing the loop on the communications circle before the print copy was even trucked to newsstands.
As a personal test, I decided to read the stories anyway when Time arrived at my office, to determine whether I found added value in the layout, headlines and photos despite having already consumed the text.
Since Monday was a holiday, this meant waiting until at least Tuesday morning for the issue, two days after my online experience. By Friday of that week, I was still waiting. My copy never arrived, having been lost in the mail or "borrowed" before it reached my desk.
The strange thing is, I don't feel like I've missed anything. As an editor of both a magazine section and an online service, I find that very disturbing. But I also find it strangely inevitable.
One magazine executive told me recently-off the record, of course-that he suspects his title's online edition is nibbling at newsstand sales. His realistic solution was not to back away from new media, but to seek out a way to offset the loss by generating new revenues online.
Print publications are far from dead. They're not even in need of life support. But they sure as heck must have a queasy feeling in the pits of their stomachs. And it isn't going away.
What do you think? E-mail Scott Donaton, executive editor-interactive & new media, at email@example.com, post a note to the Digital Media section of Interactions on the Advertising Age Web site (http://www.adage.com/), or fax your comments to (312) 649-5331.