The Second Coming of Print

We have all heard the great pronouncement that “Print is Dead”. This has reverberated through the press for a number of years and many have written about the impending doom of print media. I would say print WAS dead, and now we are starting to see a second coming. Perhaps not a triumphant, messianic second coming, but a second coming nonetheless.

Print was dead when it thought it could compete with “free” (i.e. the internet). It gave away its largest assets and its biggest competitive advantage: content. It learned the same lesson that most people did playing this game. It is hard to write checks for something that you give away. It just doesn’t work out so well over time. Print media lost its way by trying to compete on the playing fields of others and it lost. Print lost its ability to sell advertising, capture and hold on to readers, and ultimately, its relevancy.

A few players corrected course quickly (the Financial Times comes to mind), but most rode the learning curve all the way to the bottom. Over this time period a few things happened. First, old blood left or got fired. Second, the deterioration in value made them cheap assets. Third, print started to find its way by a lot of trial and error. Let’s start with the last period.

Simply put, trial and error is a great way of learning when you aren’t the one paying for it. Over the last fifteen years, traditional media companies tried a lot of different things and most failed and destroyed their value. But some things worked and now we have a pretty good body of case studies on what works, pay walls, different levels/grades of content for different outlets, pricing models for digital, etc. This experiment was bad for the legacy print companies, but great for the next generation of print companies. This leads to the next point: assets are cheap.

By historic standards, print products are cheap. The Wall Street Journal sell may have marked one end of the valuation scale six years ago and Jeff Bezos may be marking the other side, but the vast majority of the transactions for print media assets over the last six years have been cheap (Media General, Tampa Tribune, and the list goes on and on).

During this period of great value degradation, a lot of talent left the game either by force or by choice. When organizations have so much talent turnover a few things happen: old ways of doing things get lost in the shuffle and new talent takes over the reins. Both of these happen for better and for worse. The bad talent, that has nowhere else to go, is promoted for their patience and diligence. Good talent has fewer obstacles in its rise to the top. Some good practices and processes get lost, but new thinking gets put in its place. When I take a step back and look at the bigger picture here, I see a rejuvenation of the space.

I see new talent and new money (Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos, to name a few). I see a pricing reset, which allows for further investments into the respective organizations. I see a solid foundation built by trial and error on what works. I think this is a good foundation for a second coming.

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