Publishing, conflict, and chaos

The publishing-tech battles continue, but how much of it is just noise for the sake of noise?

The war, if it can be called such, between publishing and tech buzzes on. Last week presented us with a warning from Nancy Dubuc, the CEO of Vice Media Group, that the squeeze” on news publishers “is becoming a chokehold”.

Vice is set to cut 55 jobs in the USA, and another 100 elsewhere. This comes hot on the heels of Buzzfeed closing its UK and Australian branches, Quartz, a business news website, announced upcoming closures of offices in London, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Washington DC, and the Economist Group is cutting seven percent of its global workforce as its 1843 magazine transitions of digital-only. In broader context, 36,000 newspaper jobs have been lost between 2008 and 2019, with the UK losing 245 local newspapers between 2005 and the start of 2019.

Vice’s cuts were mostly to their digital side of business, which accounts for 50% of the staff costs but only 21% of revenue. The coronavirus has intensified the tensions between tech and publishing as revenues fall despite record traffic for news publishers.

I have a question, however: Was anybody using Buzzfeed as a serious news source? Well, clearly not, but why would you? It’s completely at odds with its branding and/or public perception. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t a valid source of information and news – those journalists probably worked as hard as any other journalist. But you can’t cite Buzzfeed as a news source in any serious capacity. Regardless of Buzzfeed’s veracity, using it as a source is likely to draw raised brows if not outright scepticism. Whether that’s an accurate respond or not, the fact of the matter is that Buzzfeed is synonymous with insipid listicles and branded quizzes about determining which kind of acid matches your personality according to your zodiac sign.

Did anybody know what the 1843 magazine was? I think I’d heard it advertised on one of the Economist’s podcasts, which I’ll listen to every so often when I want to convince myself that it’s worth making an attempt to get a grip on the omnidirectional clusterfuck of modern economics. I don’t know if it’s been any help at all, but what the hell – if self-improvement is masturbation, then this is granting me the capacity to masturbate at work first thing on a Monday morning, and so much the better.  

What were those local newspapers printing? Was it anything anyone around them couldn’t find elsewhere? Was there enough local news of real value to sustain the costs of running a paper? Local newspapers embody a different time when local information and gossip was, for lack of a less patronising term, more relevant. Efforts to keep up with local news are not to be denigrated, but the world has expanded for everyone. Forgive me if I sound callous here, but what’s happening to the local corner shop is of interest to the owner and, outside of a couple of anecdotes, few others.

A lot of publishing is switching to digital – it makes sense in world where we access most of our news through phones and laptops on the commute to work. While consumers might, and generally do, prefer books, the circumstances in which we exist make digital ebooks by far the most efficient method of reading and transporting. I live in London, don’t know if anybody’d realised yet but we don’t have a much in the way of space – and it’s getting smaller all the time. I have about three boxes of physical books. One of those boxes is full of books that exist on some nebulous to-read list, some of them were picked up years ago on the cheap, others are presents. Those books make up the bulk of my worldly possessions. I’m not adding a fourth box if I can help it. Conversely, my kindly has 200 books and growing. It fits into my jacket pocket. Despiter the fact that ebooks are actually frequently more expensive than their hardback or paperback counterparts, I will more often than not stick with the ebook because it is simply more efficient to do so. How many boxes, how much space, would those 200 books take up? I do not have it. Nobody I know has it.

If we’re effectively locked into moving away from print books over the long term for practical reasons, how much heavier is the pressure to move toward digital-only for news outlets? Nobody sane keeps a copy of The Sunday Times or The Metro around for 10 years. The stories get read and then the paper goes in the bin. That’s a lot of waste. It makes sense to reduce that waste.

Academic publishing is also moving towards an increasingly digital-only service. Subscriber lists to some of the more niche journals are tiny. Frequently the authors will need to pay for colour printing. Why bother? They know that the majority of consumers are accessing their content through the Internet and that those journals are going to be in full colour online. There is no point to spending potentially hundreds of pounds printing a journal in colour if there are only going to be ten copies of that journal in physical circulation and 90% of your readers will access it via weblink.

To some extent this may not be an entirely bad thing. The separate set of processes that go into making something ready for print and ready for online, and all the associated admin, aren’t necessarily difficult or lengthy in and of themselves, but in an industry that, seemingly across the board, has only a vague grasp on the concept of time in any realistic sense, are just more accumulated grains of sand in a pot that has long since overflowed. Provided some idiot doesn’t just throw something else into the theoretical breathing space, not having to deal with the print process might save some poor editors a lot of accumulated time and stress.  

Don’t get me wrong, Amazon and the like are predatory and over-sized, and their warehouses are like something out of a dystopian sci-fi sweatshop. They could certainly do with some restraints, but I also wonder if the publishing industry just didn’t respond to the changing world fast enough when it was changing or if they just failed to respond in the right way. It seems, like there was an attempt to push against the flow of progress and change – characterised particularly by the drama between Apple, Amazon, and most of the main publishing houses back in 2012. If anybody had any doubt about the outcome of that, the publishers lost. Hard. Perhaps it’s hindsight, mixed with some of my characteristic disdain for anything and anyone that attempts to resist change, but to my mind it was inevitable that attempting to fight ebooks would fail. They were the change and if they’d lost then something else would have come along and destabilised the neat little pyramid publishing has erected. I don’t see this happening any other way – there’s more to consider here than price alone.

I’m not celebrating the apparent decline of print publishing – I work in publishing, so this effects me directly. For books, at least, this strangulation hasn’t even happened, the ebook market has stalled at about 20%. However, the industry seems to have a real problem with clinging to the past. Every time something changes, it seems like it’s time to sound the death knell and bring out the dirges. Is it? Probably not. Is this ideal? No. Do I have an answer? Of course not. Will publishing collapse? Of course not. But the truth is that fair amount of these changes just appear to be the symptoms of a changing world. From the loss of local news outlets to the loss jobs in global corporations, while not ideal, the contraction of the industry is probably at least somewhat expected. Will publishing change further? One way or another – of course.

One comment

  1. […] Last week I commented on the story that indicated the ongoing destabilisation of various parts of the publishing industry, with news outlets taking a lot of punishment as they navigate their way between what seems to be an eternal rock and hard place. This week, I want to continue that with a brief look at some of the problems with funding in publishing.  I’m by no means an expert, but this is roughly how it looks from down here. […]

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