11.26.2008

Digital is an option, not a replacement

Two seemingly disparate things have come together in my mind that help to amplify a point that I think is lost in the rush to declare most forms of hard media dead and to anoint digital anything and everything as the new king.

First came yet another Jeff Jarvis-related firestorm, this time over a New York Observer profile in which he is pitted (wrongly, he writes on his blog) against mainstream media types like the New York Times' Bill Keller. Jarvis is earning a lot of ink (digital and otherwise) because some see him as gleefully dancing on the grave of print journalism. I don't think he is, but I can see why some people think it, and that brings me to the second thing that hit the news today.

Atlantic Records announced that for the first time, digital sales brought in more than those of compact discs. While on first blush that would seem to support the arguments of those who say digital is (slowly, quickly?) killing all other formats, I think it really points out something more interesting: Fully half (or, 49 percent if you want to be specific) of the sales of Atlantic's music products came in the form of CDs. Despite the fact that we are rapidly moving toward a digital-only world, half of the company's customers choose to buy their music on discs of plastic.

I buy more of my music digitally these days than I do otherwise, but I make a decision every time I do buy music whether to go digital or disc. It's exactly the same decision I made back when I was in college and CDs were becoming the norm, only in reverse. If it was an impulse buy that I didn't imagine I would be listening to years later, I would buy it on the cheaper, admittedly inferior cassette. If it was something I knew (or at least suspected) I'd want to keep around for a long time, I'd pay the premium for a CD. Today, I'll get something on digital for a quick reward, but I'll still opt for a CD for the long haul. The superior sound quality, security and storage of a CD far outweighs the convenience of zero storage space that an MP3 offers.

The same thing applies to papers. While Jarvis and others are quick to say that newspapers as we know them are dying off, what they seem to miss is that many, many people still get a lot of their news from words printed on paper. (This is a very small sample, but check out this poll at Old Media, New Tricks blog. Even some of these most-plugged in netizens get their news from a print paper). Steve Buttry of the Cedar Rapids Gazette acknowledged this during a recent online chat. While the digital audience is growing that is where he expects to see the company's growth, "the print edition of The Gazette has a huge audience and large revenue stream that we think will support a healthy business for many years to come."

When I get up in the morning, I like nothing more than to scan headlines in the local paper while having a cup of coffee. The last thing I want to do is get right back on the computer to try to nose around news sites. You simply can't scan or sample on screen the way you can with a paper spread out on the breakfast table. But later in the day, online news is all I peruse. It would be a shame to lose one of those outlets.

The key, then, is for all media to look for ways to improve and bolster the core product while embracing digital outlets as an enhancement. Heck, the digital outlet might soon become the core product, but that doesn't mean the paper product should go away, just like CDs don't necessarily need to completely give way to digital. Choice is the key. The economics of offering choices are the sticking points that need to be worked out, but there are niche markets available all across the spectrum for those who figure out how to do so.

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