In earlier posts I have talked about the strategic challenge faced by print publishers as the action moves to the web. In the web, readers have too many choices and it's hard to get enough page-views to justify content costs unless your coverage is exceptional. So the answer, it would seem, is to "cover what you do best and link to the rest", as Jeff Jarvis preaches – i.e. publish a few unique things and link to other publishers for everything else. That way at least you can keep your audience loyal, even if you don't profit from everything they read. And with reduced content costs, it may even be profitable.
The problem is that this doesn't work when your content costs are fixed, as happens when you need to fill your print edition. I've called this "the publisher's dilemma". But what happens when your print edition runs to the ground and you have no choice but to end it?
This is what happened today to Mediaweek, which is shuttering its print edition and losing 18 of its 58 editorial posts. Freed of the shackles of fixed print costs, Mediaweek could now concentrate on linking to the best media-related content and covering only what it does best. Its brand and remaining editorial strengths would give it an edge.
But will it? We'll have to wait and see. The move may make sense financially, but organizationally it is a major challenge. For generations publishers have seen themselves as content providers. Any move away from this and towards aggregation could feel like a defeat and hurt an already low morale.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. Almost forty years ago, Theodore Levitt chastised the American railroad industry for being too wedded to its product (rail travel) and ignoring what its customers needed (transportation). Today, publishers risk being too wedded to content and not seeing that what their readers want is coverage.
Through aggregation, publishers can deliver that at far lower costs. Yes, profits will be lower; but the alternative may be no profits at all.