While we may not be on the brink of flying to work every day, the promise of a pocket-size communications device is already here. Cell phones, pagers and electronic organizers are on the verge of being transformed into lightweight all-in-one products that will be used to answer e-mail, make phone calls, surf the Web and get real-time updates on stock prices and sports scores.
Which leaves ink-on-paper media in a curious place.
Today, the advantages magazines and newspapers can boast of are affordability, portability and accessibility. But how long will it be before cell phones, pagers and palm-sized computers meld into a medium that threatens those advantages?
Already the most successful publishing companies deliver line extensions of their print brands -- i.e., news, information and entertainment -- over the Internet, on TV and radio, and through books. While that bodes well for magazine groups such as Time Inc. that are one division of a multimedia empire, it dulls the outlook for ink-stained entrepreneurs.
That's not to suggest magazines and newspapers won't be around in the 21st century. As has been noted thousands of times in recent years, no new major medium has obliterated its predecessors. But it can't be denied that print media will face their greatest challenge ever from the rapid rise of the Internet and new personal communications technologies. How the publishing industry responds to that threat, and the moves it makes to retain readers, advertisers and even employees, will determine whether magazines and newspapers remain powerful cultural influencers or are marginalized in the decades to come.
Just as children at the turn of the last century grew up with newspapers on their doorsteps, today's kids have wires coming through their walls to deliver the news of the world. The challenge for publishers is to adopt a media-neutral stance that allows them to keep their businesses tied to whatever distribution forms the consumer demands.
The newspaper industry has long argued that it would benefit from the aging of the Baby Boom generation because older people traditionally read more newspapers. The flaw in that logic is that newspapers have been the medium of choice for older people only because they came of age in a time when those daily journals were the most credible, reliable way of keeping track of the world. But for consumers who today gather information and opinion from nightly news programs, cable chatfests, talk radio, Internet discussion boards, newspapers, and weekly and monthly magazines, it's not a sure bet that any one medium would triumph over another as the population ages. The media world is so fragmented, consumer choice so great, it's difficult to imagine that any one medium will ever again dominate.
While it's true that TV didn't kill radio, it did transform the medium when it rose to become the primary popular medium. Magazines and newspapers today face a similar world.
Newsweeklies have been threatened by the availability of daily news, but now even daily newspapers find their role threatened in the age of instant information. They also find their advertiser bases, particularly lucrative classified sections, threatened by electronic challengers.
In response, nearly every newspaper and magazine has established a Web site. Editors struggle with such issues as when to break news online and when to hold it back for the next print edition. Publishers, meanwhile, search for the best formula for selling online ads without cannibalizing print revenues. Do you give away the online space free to print advertisers, package the two mediums together or price and sell them separately?
Print's strength remain its ability to analyze and put into context the news events of the week. Monthly magazines offer readers specialized information, or writing that entertains, explores, criticizes. The need for that depth of information will not go away. The question is whether print will remain the best way to deliver it.
It's clear that as the Internet rises, print is among the most threatened of all major media. In a consumer survey conducted for Advertising Age by Applied Research & Consulting, consumers with home Internet access were shown to be less likely to use magazines or newspapers as a primary information source when shopping for a new car, financial services, travel or fashion. More disturbing for publishers was the fact that consumers from teens to seniors are comfortable with the idea of using the Internet in the future to read books, magazines and newspapers.
The challenge to publishers is to continue to employ the most talented people to produce the best words and pictures to keep the nation informed and entertained. If content is king, talented writers, reporters, photographers and editors are the crown princes, providing not just facts and figures but context and