There has been a lot—a lot—written about the impact of the Internet on print publications. Most of it has focused
on how the Internet is siphoning away readers and advertising dollars from newspapers and magazines. In these commentaries, the Internet is seen as a competitor or replacement for print media—an aggressor that is stealing jobs, putting writers on the street, and sinking levels of journalistic accountability to lows not seen since the days of yellow journalism a century ago.
However, these comparisons are spurious. The Internet is not a competitor or replacement, but rather a medium that is new and revolutionary (even though it’s been a mainstream tool for 15 years or more, its very nature is to continually reinvent itself so as always to appear new). Like other revolutionary technologies before it, it is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and play. It is creating desires, lifestyles, markets and habits that we could not have conceived of until they came about. In the 1960s, the world of tomorrow featured flying cars and robot housekeepers. No one ever predicted that the future would include an interactive world-wide computer network through which we exchange ideas, images, sounds and information. Like a clever Madison Ave. advertising firm, the Internet has us saying “I never knew I wanted this. What did I do before I had the Internet?”
The purpose of magazines and newspapers has never been to put ink on paper. The purpose has always been to convey information, whether that information was entertainment, news or visual information in the form of photography and images. The printed page was simply the best format available. We should use the Internet to achieve that same goal, and it’s a medium ideally suited to that task. But it can’t be achieved by forcing the printed page onto the computer screen, or by cutting and pasting print media’s business models.
However, this is exactly what we have tended to do with each generation of new media. For example, the first television commercials sounded just like the radio commercials of the day, with perhaps a still image of dish soap as the announcer droned on—a far cry from today’s clever and innovative visual displays. It was only when we realized that television was a unique, new medium that we began to utilize it at its maximum potential.
Print media professionals—or should we say information professionals—should stop trying to force their paradigm onto a fundamentally different media, just because both print and online channels share some common building blocks like “words” or “pictures.” They should instead embrace the Internet for what it is—dynamic, vibrant, rapidly changing and unique—and definitely not print. Nevertheless, there will always be an important role for print media, and always a large segment of the population that utilizes it.