When old media use terms like ‘digital initiative’ they reveal how really old they are

Yesterday, the Magazine Publishers of America reported that during 2006, their members (consumer magazine publishing companies) had announced over 150 digital initiatives. These “digital initiatives” include the launching of “online social networks, enabling user-generated content, and (introducing) more blogs, mobile applications, podcasts, and video content for websites and cell phones, reaching and serving their readers across all emerging digital channels.” Many of these are very creative ideas and I have mentioned several on this blog. However, I can not recall them being referred to as “digital initiatives” until now.

From now on, I guess MPA will announce the launch of magazines as new “analog initiatives.”

The intent of highlighting such “initiatives” by magazine publishers is obviously well-intentioned. And many of those “initiatives” are quite impressive. However, by using the term “digital initiative” to describe them, the MPA broadcasts a perception that its members view the Internet as a foreign world — a place where one must send scouts and launch initiatives.

Granted, the name “Magazine Publishers of America” does paint one into a corner. Nicholas Negroponte, a famous digital thinker who once invested personally in the launch of the analog initiative, Wired Magazine, wrote a prescient essay in the January, 1995, issue of that magazine called “Bits and Atoms”. Read it and remember this was 12 years ago. 1995. It was published in a magazine. In it (once more, remember, he’s writing 12 year ago), Negroponte explains how even smart people place a different value-system on “atom” things vs. “digital” things. He writes, “Companies declare their atoms on a balance sheet and depreciate them according to rigorous schedules. But their bits, often far more valuable, do not appear.”

It is now 12 years later and where are we? Several “digital” companies that didn’t exist when Negroponte wrote his essay have market capitalizations far beyond that of any “atom” media company. And we’re supposed to be impressed with the launch of 150 digital initiatives? That’s crazy. I read about 150 new digital initiatives a week merely by subscribing to the RSS feed of TechCrunch and PaidContent.org.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I am a great lover of magazines. I strongly believe in the future of magazines. However, since before Negroponte wrote that essay, I have never perceived of the “digital world” as a foreign place. Magazine companies are great creators of brands and engaging experiences. Magazine companies are filled with the most creative, passionate people I know. However, as long as they are run by people who view “digital” as being something you approach with “initiatives,” they are stuck in 1994.

(Disclosure: My company is a former member of MPA and I am a fan of the organization. The organization is comprised of consumer magazine publishing companies. Our company is a member of two other associations that focus on other facets of the magazine [and bit-media] world.)

Update: Susan Mernit blogs today about a new digitial initiative — although she’d never use such a term — from TV Guide: Jumptheshark.com. She’s impressed. And when Susan is impressed, I’m impressed.

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