The Coming Digital Tipping Point

The Coming Digital Tipping Point

Newsweek and other print media are not the only entities rapidly approaching the digital tipping point – the point at which the demand for digital sources of information trump traditional sources.
(Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

A few months ago, I was gung ho about the prospects of developing a sleekly designed publication featuring compelling stories about Extension that could be placed in doctor’s and dentist’s offices and other locations around my state to better ensure that people who had never heard of Cooperative Extension would.

After reading David Carr’s New York Times piece exploring the headlong decline of Newsweek’s fortunes, I’m not as sure about my idea’s prospects for success. But this only scratches the surface of the insights I gained reading this article. Many of the issues Carr raises are relevant not only to Newsweek and to print media in general but to the future of Cooperative Extension and, for that matter, higher education in general.

In exploring the future of print media, Carr touches on one of the central themes of this weblog: Nothing in this new information order is sacrosanct, not even those institutions, such as Newsweek, that seemed sacrosanct in the last century.

Consider what’s happened within the last generation: Magazine editors once imposed rather brutal discipline on staffs numbering in the hundreds to do what technology is now equipped to do in real time — to aggregate information.

Faced with this sea change, Newsweek and other print media have undertaken valiant and, in many cases, highly imaginative efforts to reinvent themselves. Even so, as Carr observes, Newsweek Editors’ Tina Brown’s recent decision to run a cover depicting two supple female lips primed for an asparagus stem, while clever, reflects — arguably, at least — a desperate struggle by Newsweek and other printed media for relevancy.

Despite all these efforts, though, Carr perceives that Newsweek and other print media may be lurching ever closer to “the edge of the cliff,” ominously reflected in a recent report by the Audit Bureau of Circulations that news circulations are down 10 percent.

Many of print media’s brightest minds perceive something fundamental at work in the marketplace: the tipping point, the final shift from print to digital delivery.

Carr even speculates that Newsweek and other magazines may be on a downward spiral that not even its digital iterations may reverse, bringing them ever closer to what Carr, with a bit of Gibbonian flair, describes as “the imminent end of the print artifact.”

In the midst of this decline, as in all periods of decline, a handful of optimists express hope that this downward spiral will be reversed at some point.

Yet, this tipping point appears to be occurring in the places where news magazines like Newsweek once held pride of place: doctors and dental offices, until recently oases of magazine consumption.

Carr recalls a recent doctor’s visit in which he noticed that every waiting patient, without exception, was glued to a smartphone screen.

There are some ominous lessons here for Cooperative Extension, and not only because of our century-long investment in printed publications. Aren’t we rapidly approaching our own tipping point — the point at which people will opt for digital sources rather than the traditional forms of outreach delivery that have defined Extension work for the last century?

Among many memorable quotes, Carr serves up one that should give all of us pause: “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you put on the cover of your magazine if no one will look at it.”

Likewise, couldn’t someone argue just as legitimately that it doesn’t matter how Extension educators conceive and present their programs if growing numbers of information seekers are opting instead for digital sources?

Carr raised another point that has stuck with me: the insistence of one Newsweek financial analyst on the enduring value of the Newsweek’s brand.

“Every bit of this research tells us that it is a solid, global brand,” contends Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/Interactive Corporation, which remains the sole corporate underwriter of Newsweek.

Haven’t we heard similar arguments in our ranks? Haven’t we been reminded time and again that despite all our challenges that we still possess a brand name that remains viable?

Granted, I still place tremendous stock in our brand. But Newsweek’s dilemma nonetheless should serve as an invitation for a long reflective pause within our ranks.

Look at it is this way: If we, like Newsweek, are fast approaching a tipping point with no strategy for addressing what lies beyond how valuable is our brand name — really?

4 responses to “The Coming Digital Tipping Point

  1. Very interesting post. I am afraid I am contributing to the decline of printed information. I do think in Extension we need to pay careful attention to be sure we are connecting with our clients, wherever they are, and that we are listening so we can remain relevant and swift in helping them gain the information and tools they need to meet their challenges. This requires us to pay attention at different levels rather than necessarily putting the power at the point of the traditional program advisory board but also hopefully expands our audiences to those previously unattained. The face-to-face isn’t eliminated, but we need to become more effective in utilizing the opportunities provided by social media and the networks it provides in making those connections and furthering our brand. And I am still reminded, at NETC this past spring, during the opening sessions when members of LSU’s central leadership spoke of not losing the research upon which today’s findings are based (because they aren’t digital) and of having an emergency plan to use to provide education and information in times when digital media is not accessible.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • MissionExtension

      Great response – thanks, Karen! I like how a colleague of mine describes it: We have to plot an exit strategy. Actually, perhaps exit strategy is a bad work. Whatever the case, we’ve got to develop a plan for managing traditional media and outreach methods while we phase in new media, not to mention, methods based on them. My concern is that there are plenty of Extension professionals who still think they blithely continue doing things the same old way for as long as they desire – a recipe for extinction. But, of course, I’m preaching to the choir. 🙂

  2. I work for a farm magazine, which is owned by a large publishing company, which in turn publishes magazines in dozens of markets. For sure many of our company’s magazines face the same imminent challenge as is chronicled here with Newsweek. On the one hand, a majority of our readers of our farm magazines, well in excess of 90 percent still prefer to get information in the printed form. Understandably, more than 90 percent of our revenue comes from the print side. On the other hand, the average age of the American farmer is 58-plus years. The current generation is rapidly being replaced by a generation of farmers who are high tech and low drag–they understand computer technology and know how to apply it profitably to their farming operations. Our company has invested lots of money and lots of time to develop alternative delivery systems for our farm information, and based on the downward spiral of so many big and small publications, justifiably so. Many print bastions, like Newsweek, the NY Times and many more much less glamorous publications are in the unenviable position so aptly described decades ago by Winston Churchill. It’s rather like holding a wolf by the jaws, one can’t hang on forever and letting go too quickly could mean some nasty bites.

  3. Pingback: Who gives a twit about Twitter? | Enabling Change and Innovation

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