Imagining the Day When the WSJ Print Edition Folds

And Other Thoughts About the Endgame for Newspapers in a Fully Digital Age

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"Dow Jones will reassess its news delivery"
-- New York Times headline, July 14, 2006

"Wall Street Journal folds print edition in media-world stunner"
-- New York Times headline, date to be determined

Wow, they're going to do it. Or at least they're going to think about doing it. That's the first
Many traditional media executives can't admit that they will have to explore the possibility that there are more reader-friendly and cost-efficient ways to produce and distribute their content than in print.
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thing that came into my mind on a recent Friday morning when The New York Times reported that the parent company of The Wall Street Journal had created a committee "to reassess the ways it delivers news across all its print and online properties."

Vision of Dow Jones
Granted, I was operating on very little sleep, having red-eyed back from L.A. But as I read the piece, I was hit with the vision of Dow Jones emerging from this process with the bold and aggressive decision to make The Journal the first major newspaper to convert fully to a digital model.

It's not as heretical or stunning a concept as you might think. I strongly believe that print has a future; it's hard to imagine a world without glossy lifestyle monthlies because there's no better delivery system (yet) for their photos and stories. But certain forms of media that are currently print-based, particularly daily newspapers, must explore the possibility that there are more reader-friendly and cost-efficient ways to produce and distribute their content.

Traditional media executives
It's still surprisingly difficult to get traditional media executives to admit this. But their resistance seems based on an emotional attachment to ink on paper, a deeply held -- if largely indefensible -- sense that a newspaper's soul is inextricably linked to its format.

Which is nonsense. Scary as they are, some things must be confronted, including our overly romanticized notions of what a newspaper is.

I don't have enough insight into The Journal's economics to say when (or, with confidence, whether) the day will come when a print-to-digital conversion is economically feasible. Could be two years, could be 10. But most newspapers are faced with roughly the same dilemma: Print dollars are flat or down but still account for the bulk of revenue and profits. Digital is growing by double- or triple-digits, but off a relatively small base, and online advertising isn't valued as highly as print. Even those who believe a digital takeover is inevitable don't want to admit it because it puts their existing revenue streams at risk too soon, before they've built the ark that will carry them safely to a new business model.

Long-term perspective
From that point of view, it seems batty to suggest that Dow Jones -- despite its early aggressiveness and success on the web -- should consider folding a 117-year-old print daily that has more than 2 million paid subscribers. But from a long-term, brand-centric perspective, it would be negligent for the committee not to crunch the numbers to determine when and if digital delivery will surpass the efficiencies of printing (at 17 U.S. plants) and distributing a paper product. The web has content as well as cost advantages, being a better tool for tracking stocks and breaking news.

The Journal has a head start. It already has the largest paid-subscription news site on the web with more than 768,000 customers, and CEO Rich Zannino said a few months ago that he would reorganize the business "around markets rather than channels of distribution."

Paul Ingrassia will lead the Dow Jones committee as VP-news strategy and will take a senior editorial role when the project is complete. His promotion was announced along with a retirement date (end of 2007) for The Journal's managing editor, Paul Steiger. The Times said Ingrassia "will play a significant role in determining the journalistic future of The Journal." And the rest of the newspaper industry as well.
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