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InfoWorld folds print after 29 years


Tom Shea, writing in these pages 25 years ago, had it almost right. His article "Subscribe to Magazines with your Microcomputer" in January 1983 described Publishers Aide -- a "magazine subscription fulfillment" company that planned to let home computer users "key ... in a code" to access subscription data from the company's IBM mainframe.


"I believe magazines will, in time, be computerized," Publishers Aide President Michael Ciuffreda told our readers. "You'll just go buy a tape that you'll display on your TV screen when you want to view it. It will then become a permanent part of your library."

Not bad for an article written before the advent of a public Internet, the World Wide Web, or e-commerce. Sure, "magazines on tape" sounds a bit like something Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (who famously described the Internet as a "series of tubes") might have come up with. But the idea of connecting to readers online is there, as is the notion of using technology to streamline manual processes. And that thought process leads directly to the current state of affairs, in which online publications, now including , are supplanting their print counterparts.

At this point, hardly anybody argues that online publications are transforming the publishing business and causing headaches for traditional media companies. One look at the financial statements of media firms such as Gannett or The New York Times, which are struggling amid declining readership and eroding print ad revenue, says all that needs to be said.

The question that's harder to answer is "Why is it happening?" And that's the question we set out to answer in this, our final print edition.

It's no surprise to readers that one of the most important things that "happened" was technology.

You can see the first inklings of the coming content revolution in that same 1983 issue of InfoWorld, where Derek Wise reviewed Wordvision, a US$50 word processing program for the PC that was "designed to be sold in bookstores and needs no vendor support." At a time when putting out a weekly magazine still required typesetters who could work with the ATEX publishing system, paste-up artists who assembled typeset copy and art, and photo editors who obtained photos for print, inexpensive desktop tools such as Wordvision were starting to put the power to publish into the hands of ordinary people.

In time, desktop publishing tools such as word processors and, later, e-mail and digital photography, transformed the business. They obviated expensive, specialized systems such as ATEX and empowered reporters to do more of the work of producing the magazine, said Dante Chinni, a former Newsweek reporter and a senior associate who researches the magazine industry for the Project For Excellence in Journalism. "Those little things changed the economics of the magazine business, but we adapt very quickly and forget how different things really are," Chinni said.

With its deep ties to the technology community, InfoWorld was quicker to embrace those changes than most. Our magazine had been "on-line" since at least April 1983, when it announced a deal with Compuserve to place weekly software reviews on their system.

"It's an experiment in the future," said Editor in Chief Maggie Canon at the time. "We realized that is where the future is -- electronic publication."

But a controlled, subscription-only environment such as Compuserve couldn't fully prepare , or any publication, for the tidal wave of change that would sweep over the publishing industry in the early 1990s with the advent of the World Wide Web, which made text and graphical content available to anyone with a Web browser.

The Web transformed both the way information was transmitted, and readers' expectations for it, said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Still, in the past decade, magazines and newspapers with both print and online components clung to processes that were designed around the rigid requirements of print publication, rather than flexible "always on" nature of the Internet, said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and creator of NewAssignment.net.

Given the expensive proposition of having to maintain parallel print and online operations that serve different needs and the continued high cost of print publication, countless magazines and newspapers have been forced to consider abandoning print altogether.

More recent refinements in online information delivery, such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication), have accelerated the transformation of news consumption among readers. RSS -- which allows Internet users to subscribe to news feeds from various Web sites, then aggregate them on the desktop -- lets readers zero in on specific topics that interest them and filter out the rest.

In the same vein, technologies such as RSS have empowered a new generation of self-publishers -- bloggers -- to democratize the reporting process and provide readers with direct access to subject experts without the filter of editors and reporters. And some of those blogs have established competitive brands with substantial readerships, using nothing more than a PC, an Internet connection, and some free software to challenge established magazines and newspapers.

But technological change is nothing new to the field of journalism -- and nothing to be feared, Rosen said.

"From the very first, journalism has been about communicating ideas across big territories. Technology -- whether it be Roman roads or the global Internet -- has always been part and parcel of the profession. That means when technology changes, journalism has always been forced to change, too.

"Journalism is an old practice that keeps getting rebuilt because the technology for doing it keeps changing," Rosen said.

By Paul F. Roberts
InfoWorld (US)

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