Printing press at villa d'Este
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If you’re familiar with publishing, then you’re familiar with the challenges facing traditional publishers to move from being print-focused to content-focused, thereby enabling the delivery of content through multiple output channels (print, online, phone, tablet, etc.).

To be content-focused, content developers must first consider the utility or customer use being addressed by the content and only after that determine the most effective delivery mode (print, online, mobile) and packaging option (book, article, app).

But what happens instead is that print, having been the only mode of content delivery for so long, has become the mode of content creation as well. Publishers create content for print.

When other modes of content delivery and distribution became prevalent, print became the input to those modes.

If the creative process is predicated on print, then all other outputs are a post-process that occurs after content is ready for print.

Why is this a problem?

  1. Print is slow. Many publishers are waiting until they have final print pages before they start other product types.  This includes finishing steps that are solely related to the appearance of the content in print and add no value to its existence in any other form.
  2. Print is limiting. By focusing the content creation process on print, publishers are not always considering how to best present content in other forms, fully taking advantage of the capabilities those forms and delivery mechanisms introduce.  Instead of considering the content and its mission up front in the creation process (i.e., What user/customer need is the content intended to address? How can it best do so?), only the “print mission” is taken into account.
  3. Print is inflexible. Being inflexible means that, by being limited, you’ve introduced immovable (or burdensome) constraints to your content. For example, the thought process becomes “How can I make this two-dimensional table more interactive?” rather than “What is the best way to communicate this data to the customer?”  In the former example the content creator will incrementally innovate on the baseline “table” standard instead of starting with the customer need and considering the best presentation method.  Radical new forms rarely come out of incremental innovation.
  4. Digital is in demand. Customers increasingly rely on digital sources for information. To many, print has become the adjunct. By maintaining a cultural center around print, publishers continue to miss new opportunities for their content and instead provide space for non-publishers to fill those customer needs.

Perhaps the most disturbing issue with print becoming an input is that content creators are not always aware of how deeply print requirements have become embedded in their thought processes. It’s almost impossible for some publishers and editors to envision content separate from presentation (delivery mode and/or package). This situation leads to a cultural rift when content-centric thinkers naturally evolve at, or are hired by, print-centric organizations.  They can meet with great organizational resistance.

One primary source of resistance is that print-focused staff, and the processess that have evolved over centuries to support print, focus on print’s immutable nature. Near perfection is required prior to distributing printed content. While no one advocates that quality be thrown to the wind in other delivery modes, the measures of quality, the culture of correction and discussion, and the ability to change content even after it has been distributed, all contribute to a different definition of quality in non-print modes.

This is further complicated by the fact that print is usually the primary contributor to revenue, although print revenue is often flat or marginally shrinking. Experimentation with new content thinking and delivery forms produces only a small fraction of print revenue (if the experimentation yields any revenue at all in the short-term).  In addition, there are often no rules or established business models to guide product development.  Since it can be hard for advocates to garner resources, content focused projects are often pushed off the radar or into skunk works — contributing even more to an “us versus them” mentality.

Hence the cultural divide.  Neither side is wrong in their own context.  They’re simply speaking different languages and value different things.  Unfortunately, each is also attempting to apply their language and practices to the other, judging each other’s value with the wrong measuring stick.

But since print has become an input, it has a lot more muscle than it should.  Other potential content products inherit print’s DNA and can’t help looking like their parents.

There are many ways to break this cycle, but none of them are easy. They take a combination of leadership, education, experimentation, and, in some cases, trial separation.  But we need to remember that this isn’t about print versus digital.  It’s about content and flexibility. It’s about the evolution of customer preferences and expectations.

The issue isn’t which output formats will win.  The issue is will we, as publishers, be able to produce content in the ways in which our readers require and desire it?

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Ann Michael

Ann Michael

Ann Michael is President of Delta Think, a business and technology consulting and advisory firm focused on innovation and growth in membership organizations, scholarly publishers, and professional information providers. Ann is Past-President of SSP.

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27 Thoughts on "When Did Print Become an Input?"

Insightful and well-argued, Ann! The phrase “how deeply print requirements have become embedded in … thought processes” jumped right out at me.

Even when digital revenues increase, re-tooling requires investment in a new workflow, and I’m not sure that an extensible vision that feeds all formats is well known.

My sense about this evolution, generally, is not that editorial functions are dropping out, but that they are being re-ordered in the process and are sometimes accomplished in new ways (offshore, post-“production”). This means that we shouldn’t need bluelines early in the “content” generation process but, rather, that they could be part of a print-specific output stream, judged on a separate P/L.

I’d propose a day-long seminar in which publishers, vendors, and others present, debate, and redesign optimal workflows for content creation that are extensible and support various types of output: print (books and journals); POD, tagged chunks, periodicals, databases, devices, PDFs for aggregation and custom pub, and more. (It should be noted that PDFs are based on the same print-prep steps, so are, ithemselves, connected to the same, less agile print process.)

If we conduct analysis and reach consensus as a community—and can model the fincancial implications of the utlimate scenario(s)—publishing executives will have the information needed to confidently recommend retoolling. Staff will have a clearer understanding of their role relationships, and this should reduce internal friction.

That’s an interesting idea for a seminar.

In reading your comment about editorial functions not dropping out. It occurs to me that the issue is somehow this evolution occurred where editorial = print. At least that’s how many editorial shops think or act. It’s unfortunate because their expertise is needed to frame far more than print.

Thanks for the great post!
Content always needs molding by an editor–there’s no way around it. The question is, Who is now doing this editorial function now that publishing is moving beyond print?
Historically, the first editors in print media were the typesetters, because they had the tools and skills to actually publish the content. The current situation is similar in that regard: print editors may lack the tools and skills to publish the content using digital media, so the editorial function is being taken over by those who have those tools and skills. However, do the people publishing the content actually have the expertise to frame the content properly? They are taking over the editorial function, but are they really editors?
In this regard, the digital output of many publishing houses is suffering. Editors are going to have to learn new skills, and publishing houses are going to have to understand that merely having and knowing how to use a printing press does not make one an editor.

Kuhn described this talking past phenomenon in his “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” but it features prominently in technological revolutions as well, in fact in all social revolutions. It is a form of confusion due to the evolution of basic concepts. The problem is that the new concepts lack form while the revolution is in progress.

Your article exemplifies this confusion nicely (this is not a criticism). You start off describing print as the physical process. But soon you are using “print” to refer to “a mode of content creation.” Apparently this is a way of thinking, or design, or something, one which you do not explain. In fact I doubt that the concept you are trying to express can be explained at this point, yet it is used frequently here in SK.

Given that this core concept of “print based thought” is vague and ill defined it is no wonder people are confused. It is really defined by contrast with the new possibilities, which not everyone sees. The revolutionaries who use this concept talk right past those who do not understand it.

But this semantic confusion does not mean the conflict is superficial, or “merely semantic” as the saying goes. Rather it is a deep struggle of competing, and conflicting, ideas. The new concepts are ill defined because they refer to a world that does not yet exist, and may never exist.

The important thing is to recognize why this confusion occurs. Patience helps.

David –

All I can say is WOW and if you’re going to the SSP Annual meeting I’d love to meet you!

In my opinion your second paragraph is a big part of the issue. Print has become a mode of creation without any of us ever getting to vote on it. It was the only one there for so long. Somehow we lost sight of “content” and only saw print.


I would prefer to say that content has only now become visible as a separate concept and we don’t yet know how to look at it. This is not unusual in technological revolutions. Early cars looked like buggies, just with motors and tillers. Today’s digital publishing is an early car.

Us hypertext folks have been fighting this battle for a long time. I was delighted when the Web came out, then dismayed when people adopted a busy magazine like standard page. Linking is still generally viewed as a way to go from one page of print to another, rather than as part of the content.

Sorry I will not be at SSP (don’t body port much anymore), but happy to talk to anyone here asynchronously via

Forward thinking is definitely the way to go, and adjusting one’s workflow to yield content in a flexible form that can be used for many different purposes seems to be the wisest path at the moment. That said, there’s still an apparent strong desire from customers to stick to the “print way of thinking”. Many, if not most journals are still predominantly read by people downloading the pdf and (gasp) printing it out onto paper. There’s probably a limit to how much you’re going to want to invest in exciting new display technologies until your customers show an actual willingness to use them. This is still an area in transition, and probably an early stage of that transition.

I was also struck by your thoughts on quality, on correction/revision and how that impacts something that’s seen as the report of record for research. I’m thinking in terms of something like PubMed, which wants the final, official version of the paper for their records, and demands that version remain static, with any corrections or changes added as additional “Erratum” documents. Publishers are not the only ones who may have to adjust to these new more fluid ways of delivering information.

Great point about PubMed and the like!

The interesting thing here is that investing in workflow in the correct manner also can enhance the print and print-derived outputs (supplemental materials for online, etc.). It isn’t just about exciting display technologies (although that is a piece and it would be nice to give those technologies something exciting TO display!).

There’s also great economic value in setting up the most efficient workflow as possible. We’re still grappling with this–for some products, we end up doing redundant work for online, print and book versions of the same material. Ideally, we’d do this work once and end up with one set of material (at this point as XML) that can be easily channeled into all these categories and more.

Interestingly, it may be an in area of publishing that has been most stuck in the print metaphor where we’ll see some real progress. In his keynote at the Mark Logic User Conference a couple weeks ago, Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, said that with the advent of tablets, and specifically the iPad, Wired is taking a whole new look at its workflow. Whereas in the past, print magazines were produced by one staff and then “tossed over the wall” to digital staff to make online versions out of them, they are now creating all versions by one team at one time. That way, an illustration that might still wind up as a single color image in the print magazine might be a collection of images online and a video on the iPad — all conceived and created at once, up front. The print version becomes one output of a rich, complex creation process, not the _start_ of that process.

One reason this can work, he said, is that the whole economic underpinning of what they do has shifted dramatically, with the cost of distribution of the electronic versions going virtually to zero. They are envisioning a future in which subscription can actually pay the _whole_ cost of producing the magazine, not the 10% (or something along those lines) it does now, when printing and distribution costs, and the waste associated with them, are so high.

We’ll start to see more and more of this happening. Although the _logic_ of this has been obvious for quite a while, the _economics_ are finally coming around.

News sites have moved on from “print first.” Getting photos and links to video up–and usually that means online–Task Number One. And doing that first subtly influences what a reporter does next: writing. As for the different mediums (paper, e-reader, PDA, computer), the opportunities here to expand the ways in which stories are told–well, I find it exciting.

Really interesting post and comments. So is the situation, then, that publishers have well-established workflows for print, improved and perfected over many years to give scientists what they want – the clearest, most correct version of their reports of their work? And, having established these, other forms of output (online, et al) have come onstream for readers before the publishers, or anyone, have developed tools of the same degree of precision to represent to the scientist’s satisfaction, what they wish to report?

It would be great to wave a magic wand and for publishers to be able to offer scientists the option for dissemination of their article in any available format, from a staid print journal (or downloadable PDF) to an iPhone-optimised version. But is the technology there yet to deliver this, to a specification that would suit a scientist in conveying her (his) results?

Actually, the scientists are ahead of the publishers, and the publishers can often do more than they realize they can do. Coincidentally, SSP sponsored a webinar on incorporating interactive visualizations in online journal content last week, and three good examples of this were shown–a Nature article with 3D interactive graphics embedded in a PDF (and viewable in the standard Acrobat Reader), an article from the Optical Society of America done in collaboration with the NLM, and a Cell Press article done in Elsevier’s new Article of the Future. All incorporated sophisticated features–but in all three cases (less so with Cell’s) they were still pretty much “add-ons” to the print journals or their print-based online counterparts. For the Nature article, for example, the article went through the normal production process and then the 3D graphics were added afterwards. OSA/NLM took a different approach, linking out from the article to datasets and visualizations. Cell/Elsevier’s format is more standardized, and has gone live in all 12 Cell Press journals. These approaches aren’t quite the same as the Wired “conceive and create all functionality up front” approach I mentioned in an earlier comment, but hey, it’s progress!

You are correct in what you write about that Nature PDF, Bill (I have the T shirt). I agree that publishers are doing innovative things, not least the one I work for (Nature Publishing Group). As you write, we need robust workflows to do a lot of things, such as the examples you give and many others, so that they are not “one offs” or otherwise challenging in themselves to do. The process needs to be under the hood. Scientists are indeed ahead of some games, but there are other things that publishers can do for them that they can’t yet do as effectively (eg quality control and dissemination).

Integrating the workflow of press-like and more digital versions is certainly crucial at this stage, but ultimately we want to move in directions that abandon the press metaphor. If the core role of a journal is to communicate the progress of a community then several things come to mind.

The most obvious is mapping, which is an emerging field in itself. Here is a simple sketch of a map that might show how various research papers fit together:
Others are working on different approaches. See for example: Journals may be logical candidates for developing and maintaining such maps, some of which will be 3D.

There is also the issue of tracking work in progress (conferences, etc.), or even in planning (RFPs, awards, etc.), instead of waiting for publishable results. Communication of progress is an ongoing need.

One of the biggest needs that journals serve is that scientists are supposed to know what is going on in their immediate field. Most grant proposals require a demonstration of this, so do journal articles for that matter. There are a host of new digital tools emerging that can help do this difficult job, tools that go far beyond simply publishing the best articles. The question is what role do journals have in fielding these tools?

Excellent points, David. Let’s remember what “journal” originally meant — keeping a record of the activities and thoughts of a community of interest so that everybody can know what’s going on. I believe that is how Izaac Newton et al. would have viewed what we now consider the granddaddy of today’s STM journals. And isn’t the job of “journalists” (whom we no longer associate with “journals,” at least scholarly journals) to pay attention to what’s going on, document it, and even help guide people to what’s important? For the past few centuries, print was the only way of doing that, for either the participants or the observers/commentators. But now it’s become an _impediment_ to doing that.

Print being an impediment — yes and no. For example, how much vital data has been lost forever by databases not being funded/maintained? Print does not degenerate or become inacessible because it is on today’s equivalent of a 3 1/4 inch floppy disk so nobody can access it.

I agree completely that we need tools in place to disseminate (varyingly rich) content in any medium, not “only” print. And disseminating content in print should not impede that process, but be one output of it.

But this is not the same as saying “print is useless”. It is pretty good at some things.

I certainly would never want to imply print is useless! And you’re absolutely right in looking at it as an output. By “impediment” I specifically meant being able to “keep a record of the activities and thoughts of a community of interest so that everybody can know what’s going on.” Print used to be the only way of doing that — that’s what the original journals were for — but given how such communities work and communicate today, print _is_ an impediment to capturing that.

Agreed, Bill. I think quite often in terms of “newer” web and other technologies, our wishes and ambitions run ahead of our ability to fulfil them without bugs and hard-to-sustain workarounds. But I agree very much that we (I won’t use the word “journals” but “content-disseminators”!) need to be pushing forward as far as possible to assist scientists to communicate as effectively as possible in whatever medium – which includes archiving and keeping a record of changes made to any form of “content”. That is what we are here for.

Sorry—I didn’t read through the comment thread, but I just wanted to say great post. This basically sums up all my frustrations with a print-first workflow and outlines all the obvious problems associated with it.

I’ll be linking to it regularly.

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