I've had discussions, none too recently, with colleagues who defended practices like higher prices and windowed releases for eBooks as credible options for publishers looking to maximize near-term value. At the time, I struggled with the concept that a media business would take steps it knew would put it out of business.
Over time the idea has begun to make sense to me, but not as a strategy. Instead, it can be an explanation of why many book, magazine and newspaper publishers act as they do in the face of significant digital change.
Earlier this week, Mathew Ingram of GigaOm drew upon work by Jack Shafer and Philip Meyer to write about the "squeeze scenario" that media owners could use to get out of a business they couldn't or didn't want to sell. As reported by Ingram, Meyer describes the "squeeze scenario" as one in which an:
"… owner would jack up the price of his product (as many newspapers have been doing) while at the same time cutting back on the content and the quality of the product by laying off staff, shutting down expensive features like investigative reporting."
Ingram puts it plainly: "Unless you are reinvesting, you are in liquidation."
To me, "reinvesting" often comes down to retooling workflows in ways that free publishers from a narrow set of content containers. The need for greater flexibility was captured by Adrienne LaFrance at the Nieman Journalism Lab, in a post titled "Does your newsroom have a smart-refrigerator strategy?":
"As user interfaces evolve toward touch, it’s easier to imagine screens sprouting on new surfaces. [Whurley] also says that the “completely different” world on the horizon will affect information first, which means it will affect journalism first."
To grow (and not just survive), media companies need to think about use-cases for content consumption that don't yet exist. They need to create content repositories whose digital assets can be searched, chunked and recombined for dissemination across a burgeoning array of platforms.
A handful of traditional publishers appear to be doing this now (I don't count those spending big on apps among them). For the rest, the next few years may be the ones in which they "come to take the harvest for the seed."