Print’s not dead, it’s just evolving

“Is Print Dead?” was the provocative title for David Parkin’s Leeds Media Breakfast Briefing the other day. If the answer had been yes, I guess we’d all have had to wolf down our croissants and get back to work. Thankfully as a newspaper business editor turned online start-up entrepreneur, David treated us to a more sophisticated  perspective, and a more leisurely breakfast.

David and I trained together on the Newspaper Journalism course at the University of Central Lancashire. It was the 1990s, but only just. Al Gore was still busy inventing the Internet, and only halfway through term two did Professor Peter Cole obtain some Amstrad word processors so we could ditch our manual typewriters.

On qualifying, I quickly succumbed to the lure of noo mejah, but David stuck with ink and paper for a decade longer, rising to become business editor of the Yorkshire Post. He quit less than a year ago to launch The Business Desk for Yorkshire and has already set up a second office covering the North West from Manchester.

David and his team are clearly making an impression among their target audience of regional business leaders. They’re successfully translating all the basics of good journalism from paper to screen, and relishing the same aspects of online that I love too:

  • freedom from press deadline tyranny – a big frustration as a newspaper journalist, says David, was “inability to get the news to our customers quickly,” especially as “evening” papers now hit the streets by mid-morning
  • the intimacy with a niche audience – for the Business Desk this means high quality readership for advertisers and high quality comments, like when Ken Morrison retired and senior regional business-people added their own tributes on the site
  • … and the instant return-path of online comments and web stats – “as a newspaper journalist I hoped and guessed who had read a story. Online you can see who’s doing what minute-by-minute and react.”

David still sees a role for newspapers as vessels for more reflective writing, and even as mementoes of major events like 9-11, though this seems at odds with the gutting of editorial budgets on smaller titles forced to go free to survive in the new landscape. Many media brands born in another age still seem to obsess about whether online is there to support print or vice versa. Which is the bubblegum and which is the baseball card? Do their readers really care either way?

And I’m not sure that David really engaged with the challenge from a number of breakfast briefing questioners, including me, that print retains a sensual superiority over electronic media. Need a flexible, sub-milimetre-thin, 1200 dpi interface? One that costs pence not pounds? You look in the R&D lab, I’ll be in the chip shop.

As I’ve said here before, I’m convinced that newspapers have gained a lot already from new media and they could be on the brink of another breakthrough – driven this time by print on demand, personalisation and seamless return-paths, such as mobile barcodes. My bet is that they’ll also learn from bloggers to be less lecuturing, and more local. For a deliciously disruptive vision of how to do it, take a look at the hand-drawn, limited-edition and all-round gorgeous Manual Newspaper project.

But here’s the biggest contradition of all in the Business Desk’s story. Denied coverage of his launch by the erstwhile colleagues with whom he now competes, David deployed some smart guerilla marketing tactics to introduce the new service to the commuters of Leeds and Manchester. His chosen media: printed coffee cups, printed beer mats, printed napkins, printed posters.

Is print dead? No, but it’s certainly evolving…

Newsprint bird

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