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By Thomas Baekdal - May 2011

Print to Digital is only the first step

It is very interesting, in more ways than one, to watch the print industry's struggle to move from print to digital. Not only do they have to make the transition, they also have to do so much more than simply posting their content on a website.

You have social media, sharing, linking, working with data, new forms of articles, infographics, videos, user involvement and the list goes on. Not to mention the concept of using content in more than one place.

But there also seems to be a sentiment in the newspaper industry that you just have to shift from one format to the other. Once they have everything sorted out, and they have become digital, they will be able to go back to just writing articles (now in digital form).

They see the shift as going from A to B. Once they get to B things will just work out. A being print and B being digital.

Here is the thing though about the internet. There is no B!

Everyone who have been publishing online for the past 10 years will all tell you the same story. There is no right way to publish. The internet is constantly evolving. The platforms are changing. The formats are in a constant state of flux, and tools you use can change from one moment to the next.

The newspaper industry are used to change happening over a very long period of time - we are talking years. Sure they might make some supple design changes now and then, but they almost never change how they print the newspaper or how it is being delivered.

Just take a look at the print version of a magazine like Vogue. Compare one from 10 years ago with the one they make today. They are almost identical. The publishing profile are similar, and the paper it is printed on feels the same too. They have never really changed.

It's no wonder they are struggling to embrace the fast changing digital world. It is a completely alien way of working for them.

Compare it to what has happened online.

10 years ago, most people were making traditional websites by setting up pages manually in applications like Dreamweaver. Then came blogging, which wasn't just one platform, but many different ones. Nobody is blogs on the same platform they did 8 years ago. The systems no longer exists.

The came varies forms of semantic content used to distribute the story - RSS and ATOM feeds being the most widely known.

The came micro blogging.

Then came social channels. They completely disrupted the structure and format. Most importantly, it destroyed the concept of having a clear path through you website. People would go to whatever page other people had shared. They didn't care about your front page or category pages.

Then came many strange forms of micro-social-blogging+content platforms - like Tumblr and Instagram.

Now we are moving towards a no-format content strategy. In which the data itself is the content - outputted in a format and channel that best suited the situation. Some times being an article on a page, other times a post on a mobile, other times from inside an app.

Or just take this site. In the past 4 years, I have used 4 different commenting systems, 3 different custom made CMS systems, 2 different database systems, 7 different tweet buttons, 5 different image formats, and I have changed my publishing strategy 3 times.

And is actually behind the curve because it doesn't work on mobile devices (although 42concepts does). I need to rethink it again, because I am currently locked into a specific format - and that is not good.

There is no B on the internet. The web is shifting. You cannot compare how we published 10 years ago, to how we publish today. It is completely different. We used to create sites. Then we created articles, and now we create streams.

Newspapers who talk about shifting from print to digital miss the point. "Digital" is not something you can shift too. It is itself constantly shifting all the time.

This is going to be the biggest problem for newspapers. It is not about moving from one platform to another. It is about getting rid of the platform and constantly change, adapt and experiment.

The move to digital is not something you can do as a project, or something that can be fixed with a deadline. It is a culture of turning change into your new state of the status quo.

To survive in this world, you need to embrace the concept of total flexibility. To create a publishing system that isn't restricted to a specific output, or a certain format. Just look at all the newspaper publishing systems that doesn't even support linking.

You need to stop thinking about "I need to write an article", and instead think about the best way to create a story.

Newspapers are not the only ones that have to adapt to this new world of change. Book publishers have to do the same thing.

Most authors say, "I need to write a book." But by doing so they are already locking them into a specific output - as in creating mainly text in the dimensions of 5.5" x 8.5". But what if that story is better told as a serious of video podcasts each 20 minutes long, published over a 2 month period?

Or just look at the new children's books for the iPad. They are not really books anymore. They are more in the form of storytelling games.

If you want to conquer the internet, change is the number one thing you must do. The goal is not the act of changing, but the process of changing. It never stops, and it never ends.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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