PDF as the new model for newspapers? Not likely

This blog has about three readers who are probably waiting for me to rip into this MediaLife magazine article about publications that are delivered online as “digital versions”. That’s because, these three readers know I used to be rather hostile (I’m not going to point to all of them, but the rants started in 2002) to the whole notion of digital replications of print publications. However, I’ve mellowed as digital versions have become less like PDFs (which the article insists on calling them) as more things like embedded video of hyperlinks are now included in them. I’ve even found several instances where I’ve recommended they be used to display a printed product online or to distribute a digital replica of a magazine to a special audience. Also, as I’ve noted, they can be delivered via RSS.

However, I don’t believe even their most zealous evangelists (of which, those three readers of this blog I referred to above are among) argue that they’re going to replace newspapers (or magazines) or are a replacement business model for them. They are an additional means to distribute several forms of expression some people lump together and call “content,” however, even their in their most perfect incarnation, they are still (and this has been my long-time beef) a replication of an old media for those who can’t handle new metaphors.

They appeal to people who want to see what the print version of the publication looks like — International readers, for example — but the information and “content” found in a newspaper and magazine can be better distributed and read online using other technologies and interfaces and experiences and metaphors than those provided in a PDF — no matter how souped-up and flash-enhanced it is.

Again, I’m not arguing that digital versions of magazines will not find a place — especially when my predicted 8×10 wireless iPod-like device appears — and the long-heralded ‘e-book’ platforms actually happen — or when that e-paper that’s supposed to fold up and fit in your pocket happens.

In the meantime, the key sentence of that article is this quote (my bolding): Publishers see real potential as the PDF is highly portable and easy to print on short notice.” This has, primarily (sorry guys) been a technology pushed by publishers, not pulled by readers.

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  • Great article, Rex. Thanks for posting! A couple thoughts:

    1.) You’re right – digital publishers (like us) exist to extend print brands, not to eliminate them.

    2.) You’re forgetting one key component that creates a “market” for digital replicas – that’s the current (albeit questionable) standard set by BPA. Once BPA relaxes those standards, I think we’ll see more demand (and rightfully so) for products that aren’t married to the print appearance.

    3.) By creating an “afternoon edition” without print costs, the Toronto Star kind of straddles the fence between online news (fast) and print news (not so fast).

    4.) Here’s the line from that article that made my blood boil: “We have people reading it at work and at home, and there is some anecdotal evidence of people printing it off and reading it when leaving the office,” he says.

    Anybody that does anything online today and has to rely on “anecdotal evidence” is missing out on the analytical capabilities of the medium. Our customers know everything their readers are doing – how much time people spend on each page, how many people print each page, etc. – and anyone relying on “anecdotal evidence” will never be able to quantify the success (or failure) of their online initiative.

  • I read the same article. I don’t like PDFs for reading newspapers. But I will tell you that I have become hooked on my electronic Wall Street Journal. They send me an e-mail every day with a link to every article in the print paper (with a paid subscription, of course). It’s still hard to read it if I’m not in front of a computer, but it is there waiting for me if I don’t have time to read it right then (unlike print versions, which I tend to throw away when I get behind on reading).

    It struck me the other day, while reading the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition, how newspapers, in general, have ramped up their efforts to be seen once again as the “cool hunters.” I think the baton was passed to bloggers for a while, but some tended to rest on their laurels and just regurgitate what the print media had found. It seems to me that more in-depth journalism time is now spent on digging into what used to be a brief mention in a sidebar. (And I love it. I can’t say I read the newspapers much for current events as I can get all of that information faster elsewhere, but I still love to read a well-written, in-depth story about something that’s just plain cool.) 😉