In Praise of the Print Media

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the imminent demise of the print media. With the economy in the toilet, subscriber bases shrinking, advertising rates declining, and demographic shift moving many publications’ readers ever-older with no younger readers to replace them, it’s looking grim. Some cities will be losing their only daily newspaper. Even the New York Times is in danger of going bankrupt. Even with advertising rates putting pressure on net-based publications, online publishing is here to stay. Is there room in this world for printed tech publications?

Back in the pre-internet days, magazines, newsletters, and catalogs were a very important part of the computing world. They were the computing enthusiast’s lifeline to what was happening, along with various computing clubs and user groups, where computer users swapped disks and ideas. Being a computer user back then was an uncommon and sometimes-lonely life. But from the time that a few university and corporate users started to push the boundaries of the early internet, and the first modems came screeching to life, letting geographically-dispersed geeks connect on BBSes, thus began the information revolution. Once the internet started to go maintream in the mid nineties, the reason for many of the computer-oriented publications to exist started to evaporate.

The zines and newsletters went first, cheerfully replaced by newsgroups and web sites. Then the popular print magazines started dropping off. Byte ceased publication in 1998. InfoWorld in 2007. PC Magazine in 2008. Some print magazines (or their corporate parents’ substitutes) survived a migration to the web, some didn’t. Mail order vendors have been happy to steer their business to the web — but haven’t really loved the way that decreased barriers to entry have increased competition and driven prices down — but the printed computer parts catalog is now mostly dead, and largely unmourned.

Two separate phenomena are contributing to the changes in the tech media landscape: first is the information revolution, which has made publishing cheaper, easier, completely interactive, and more instantaneous. But less obvious is the effect that the mainstreaming of computing is having on the tech media. Back in the 70s, there were very few computer users, and they were highly technical. They pretty much had to write their own software, and in many cases build their own hardware too. As time went on, computing became more accessible, and more popular, and users became more insulated from the traditional computing experience. There are more hard-core technical computer enthusiasts now than there ever were, but there are also now hundreds of millions of ordinary computer users. Computing news, at least the more superficial stuff, is now of mainstream interest. Also, since computers can be used for so many things, the definition of a “computer enthusiast” is now divided into dozens of subcategories (programmers, gamers, musicians, photographers, Facebookers). In short, we’re in a world that’s tailor-made for the web, and a challenge for the print media.

Let me just chime in here to discuss my biases. I’ve never been much of a newspaper reader, but I’m a dedicated magazine fan. I’m a fanatical news junkie, and spend at least a couple of hours every day catching up on the day’s news and views online. But I get the most pleasure by sitting on the couch with an old fashioned dead tree magazine and reading a mixture of short and long-form news and analysis. This love affair with the periodical started in childhood with National Geographic World and Boy’s Life. In high school, I loved Popular Mechanics and Omni. In my adult life, political and business news gained importance, and I’ve become a dedicated fan of The Atlantic Monthly and The Economist. I rely on the internet for most of my technology and science needs, and the only tech-oriented print magazine I still read is Wired.

Where Wired fits into this landscape is a worthwhile thought experiment. The internet’s immediacy and ability to target thousands of micro-niches make it perfect for breaking daily news and discussions of problems and solutions. But many people don’t like to read long-form prose on a computer screen, and even with the Kindles and eBook readers on the horizon, this is unlikely to change for a while. Wired’s focus on long narrative stories and investigative pieces on general interest technology and science subjects plays to a print magazine’s strengths. To expand on that idea, publications that focus on timely but not time-sensitive, long form analytical or investigative pieces are probably best prepared to weather the coming apocalypse.

Early in OSNews’ history, we considered creating a print publication as a sister to the online version. This was based on two realities: print tech magazines were still widely read (due mostly to short-term inertia, it turns out), and the advertising world was still firmly focused on print advertising campaigns, making advertising in print much more lucrative than on the web. In hindsight, we made the right decision not wasting our time making a printed OSNews. Readers have adjusted their habits, and advertisers have largely come around, though online publishing is still vastly less profitable by circulation than traditional publishing was in its glory days. (Alas!)

So what lies in the future for computing and technology publishing? I believe that the shakeout is mostly complete. The internet is a far superior medium for most technology content. As fondly as we may remember the defunct tech pubs of the past, their time is gone, and we would never give up the news sites, forums, and blogs of the present, with all their benefits. A few printed publications will survive, especially the ones that lend themselves to being read for pleasure while lying on the couch or sitting on the can. But the aesthetic of the computing subculture of the past is gone largely because computing is now part of the mainstream culture, like it or not.


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