Kill the leave behind for the long tail?

I had a very stimulating conversation with an editor today and we talked about the motivation to take everything that’s ink on paper to an online platform.

So the question I had was, do those who salivate after the long tail value of content (be assured I am a champion of this) really think that the printed product will lose its audience?

After all, as the popular argument goes, why would anyone pick up a magazine or a paper, when they could read the same content on a mobile device or on a laptop? 

My short answer to that: “experience.”

Anyone could duplicate the story, or even enhance it, for an online audience. But it’s no substitute for the print experience. Content that can be folded, torn, highlighted, photo-copied, taped to a wall, or slipped into a folder can never be substituted. Even on a digital reader.

Then there is our appetite for short-form and long-form journalism. Our brains are wired to shuffle between short content and in-depth stories; our eyes are trained to scan headlines, sidebars and  info-graphics; our bodies trigger automatic responses to seeing large bold headlines of shocking news (like this and this).

To those who say, “yes, but newspapers are filled with yesterday’s news,” my response is that sometimes, the story the day after, put together by thoughtful editors, is what we really want. Could we forget the front pages of thistory –on 09/12?

  • When that United Airlines flight splash-landed in the Hudson, were you content having followed the tweets in real time? Or did you crack open the paper the next day to see how the ‘miracle’ unfolded?
  • As of this morning, the wires and other online media updated us on the passing of Ted Kennedy -a story that all ink-on-paper publications missed for obvious reasons. Would you skip the “old news” in tomorrow’s papers, or will you dive into those broad contextual pieces, timelines, photos, eulogies?

As I told my friend, the problem we are facing is people buying into idea (urban legend?) about people’s reading habits , and partly in the fancy notion that the opposite of the (printed) leave-behind is the (digital) long-tail.

I should be the last person to say this, but digital is not a great replacement for all communication. Some times it is a really bad choice; cutting back on newspapers will be a self-fulling prophecy feeding the idea rather than responding to the notion that “no one really reads!”

One thought on “Kill the leave behind for the long tail?

  1. I bought a copy of the New York Times today, which had most of its front page devoted to Ted Kennedy’s death. The news was more than 24 hours old at that point, but there’s nothing quite like holding a compilation of memories and facts in your hands and having some of it rub off on your fingertips. That experience, as well as the depth of knowledge compiled in one place, was worth the $2 I spent.

    Most of us no longer buy a newspaper for its immediacy. But if a publication can compile the rich, insightful information about something — no matter the time frame — people will still buy it. Magazines still do this well. Newspapers are learning.

    Of course, David Simon (former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of ‘The Wire’) predicted back in the 1970s that newspapers would soon become more like magazines. It was the way the world was headed. More than 30 years later, the industry is in almost exactly the same place.


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