The end of print?

We’ve been here before and each time the answer is no. There’s too much in favour of print to bury it prematurely.

However, we know that particular types of print are under severe threat. The continuing decline of newsprint in particular is well documented.

But what of legal publications? Law journals, particularly the scholarly, look set for an early grave. According to a recent report on Law Review Circulation by Ross E. Davies of George Mason University School of Law, per Inside Higher Ed, the circulation of Harvard Law Review, for example, has declined from 8,760 in 1980 through 4,367 in 1998 to 2,610 in 2008. That’s a whopping 70% decline over the longer period and 40% in the last 10 years.

As if natural attrition wasn’t enough, Law Librarian Blog reports on the 11 February Durham Statement on Open Access to Legal Scholarship signed by a dozen leading US law profs who are actively calling for the end:

The undersigned believe that it will benefit legal education and improve the dissemination of legal scholarly information if law schools commit to making the legal scholarship they publish available in stable, open, digital formats in place of print. … If stable, open, digital formats are available, law schools should stop publishing law journals in print and law libraries should stop acquiring print law journals. We believe that, in addition to their other benefits, these changes are particularly timely in light of the financial challenges currently facing many law schools.

The current economic downturn will also spell the end for many other print publications that have been struggling to show a profit. In a recent poll the Law Librarian Blog found that 89% of respondent law librarians (42% law firm, 40% academic, 14% public) had already experienced or were expecting budget cuts averaging 10%. 82% of the cuts were expected to be applied to their collections budgets – implying an average collections cut of 7% or so. Given how the economy is tanking, that 7% cut looks highly optimistic to me.

And where are those cutbacks going to bite most? Where online equivalents are already paid for out of the budget or where free access materials might substitute, print will suffer severely. For me that says an acceleration in the decline of printed law reports, looseleaf encyclopedias and periodicals.

What will be left? Why the practice book, shorn of all appendices. That’s where the enduring value is.

6 thoughts on “The end of print?

  1. I am not sure how you come to the conclusion that the practice book itself will be preserved.

    Without appendices and updaters these will need to be reprinted and updated more regularly – and therefore go the way of the looseleaf volumes.

    The alternative is that remaining users become anxious about how up to date the book is and its reliabilty and therefore value deteriorates.

    Once law students become used to accessing their study texts electronically, instead of those big College of Law volumes, then I would imagine that will instill an expectation of how they will access all information that will permeate their career.

  2. Neil – I’m talking medium term. I don’t think we’ll see the demise of all legal print just yet. What will endure longer is stuff that’s well packaged and portable and that isn’t available or as convenient to use online. That’s called a book. Sure updating is a big issue, but print on demand will help.

  3. Nick – thanks for this point very interesting. I agree that were certainly not anywhere near seeing the end of Print publishing in the legal field although I can think of one or two academic legal journals that I could quite happily do without ever having to read again.

    I guess the major issue is how you update something like a book or a looseleaf that might be published with a supplement in a format that is accessible and using a pricing model that everyone is going to be happy with?

    In my experience book budgets have often been the first to be cut when firms have looked at cost savings, essentially because they are easy to manage and Looseleafs/Journals are usually “ordered” months/years in advance.

  4. Nick, at the CBA, our journal (the Canadian Bar Review), which has been in existence since the 1920s, switched to an online version a few years back. We now only issue print copies to readers who request them (libraries especially). Between the costs of printing and mailing and the competitive threat from blogs, I don’t see any kind of future for printed law journals. Online blog-like versions, however, could do amazingly well: the power of the brand plus the immediacy of the Internet.

    If you’re interested, I’ve followed up your and Scott’s conversation on this subject with a blog post on the future of the law book at

  5. The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs has just launched its online journal as we believe that this is the way forward for our company. Our Members previously received a printed quarterly journal but we are now able to provide them with regular monthly articles to help them with their careers.

    We agree that printed publications are in decline, not only for economic reasons but also because of better opportunities to share information widely on the Internet.

    We also believe in reducing the amount of ecological impact our organisation has on the environment and cutting down on printed material is a great place to start.

  6. Nick left me a message on my blog post over at the Gazette (yes we are now finally doing that) on e-readers – – saying “You’re asking for a technology-led solution. It’s nice to dream but that’s just not going to fly” – which is only kind of the case – but this is a technological ‘issue’— you can’t have e-books without it.

    I wouldn’t argue for the death of print – TV didn’t kill radio, and it certainly didn’t kill cinema; not even VCRs or DVDs have achieved that – but I’d say certain kinds of publishing more readily lend themselves to e-book delivery, and legal books with their constant updates definitely do. Just factor in the number of barristers/lawyers/trainees/students who buy second-hand/old books instead of the new ones because they can’t afford them. And who’s making money from royalties on second-hand books? It ain’t the publishers, or the authors.

    Paper will never die – but there’s a damn good reason none of the newspapers foresee a far future of paper, and that’s because their model is better delivered digitally. Why not law books?

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