Print versus digital become irrelevant the longer time goes by and the technology improves
The debate concerning print versus digital in publishing has always seemed crazy to me, like debating radio versus television. I’ve always seen digital as its own, separate platform. Nonetheless, we continue to get these debates.
It is interesting to compare the print publishing versus digital publishing arguments to that of both photography and film making. Those that argued against digital photography early on usually talked about the quality issue: film photography was clearly superior to digital. They were, and to a certain degree remain, right. But digital advocates, at least at first, talked about what they could do in digital that they couldn’t in film. Photo manipulation, for one thing. Also, the easy of shooting with a digital camera – versus a massive Panovision camera, for instance – allowed cinematographers to do new and interesting things with the camera.
Then there is the issue of technological advances. With each year both still and motion picture digital cameras improved to the point where the quality of the image produced became less and less a reason to shoot film.
But the comparisons between still and motion picture photography and publishing only go so far. With movies, the audience sits in the same theatre to view the end product – whether shot on film or digitally. The same goes for photographs, most are printed, either in a darkroom or printer, but the end result (image on paper) is the same.
With publishing this is not true. A print newspaper or magazine is a far different thing than the digital equivalent read on a tablet or smartphone.
The documentary Side by Side recently has been added to Netflix’s offerings, and I would strongly recommend it to publishers interested in the subject of digital publishing.
Directed by Christopher Kenneally, and produced by Keanu Reeves (who is the onscreen narrator), the documentary looks at the growth of digital technology in movie making – from early films by the Dogme 95 group which included Lars von Trier, to today’s 3D filmmaking of James Cameron. It shows that filmmakers who were advocates for digital at first recognized that there were quality issues with digital filmmaking, but that digital gave them things film could not – ease of movement, economy, etc. Eventually quality improved and those who were steadfast against digital filmmaking eventually came around (at least most of them).
What drove digital photography and filmmaking forward was the artists themselves. Vendors selling into the industries were pushed hard to improve their products and worked closely with the cinematographers, editors and filmmakers to improve the cameras, as well as the editing software necessary to produce world-class films.
Today, most publishers see digital not so much as a way to produce new products but as a way to save old ones. Also, the big tech companies that sell the devices see the market as driven by the the end user, not the content producers. Today we are lucky to see one new tablet released each year by Apple, maybe one minor update to iBooks Author. Watching Side by Side one gets jealous of the fact that the big vendors seemed to helping the filmmakers push the technology relentlessly forward – they were partners.
But I also see similarities between the such of Side by Side and publishing. Today we have digital-only advocates that are pushing the new platforms forward. When they don’t like what they are getting from their vendors they create their own software solutions.
We also can see that while print publishing has an incredibly long history, the history of photography using film (or glass plates) also is a long one, going back to the 19th century. One comment made in Side by Side is that photography on celluloid simply can not go any further, it has advanced as far as it can. Is this true of print publishing, as well? Will there be major breakthroughs in newspaper or magazine printing that will be a game changer? Doubtful. Conversely, will digital publishing continue to evolve, advance, grow? Undoubtedly.
I see the growth of digital publishing as being very much like that of digital photography, but only in slow motion. This is probably a good thing. I happen to love print, and have loved being in print professionally for over 30 years. But I don’t love the cost structure of print, nor many of the companies that doggedly found first the web, now mobile and tablets. Who gave away digital advertising to save their print pages, then gave away their digital products for the same reason.
I still read print magazines, and print newspapers when they are thrown at my hotel door. My own little experiment in interactive eBooks, Talking Digital, will see a print version released next month via Amazon. But in order to do this I had to pull out all the multimedia content, all the fun stuff, then the price will be going up, not down. Doesn’t that say something about the print publishing medium?
If you are a Netflix subscriber, you’ll find Side by Side in the documentary category under new releases. Here is the trailer: