Not a problem

Clay Shirky eloquently states the problem facing the newspaper industry:

People committed to saving newspapers [are] demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves – the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public – has stopped being a problem.

With advertising revenues nosediving, proprietors are culling journalists to maintain profit margins but with no clear idea of how to make the web pay.

The need to find new business models that work in the digital age may be less urgent in other publishing sectors, but it is no less important. Many of the services offered by the incumbent law publishers were designed to meet needs that the web (of increasingly open and inter-connected information) is now better able to serve in new ways, and they have consequently been experiencing a steady decline in subscriptions as users opt for alternative, more appropriate, lower cost or free services.

Responses assume the old model still has relevance; some are misguided or even suicidal: pricing up existing services, developing more walled gardens, establishing me-too communities and diversifying away from their core competencies. For how much longer can they continue to ramp up prices to maintain profits? How long before free access not just to primary law sources and news, but also to quality guidance and commentary, seriously undermine the viability of their business? How long before they acknowledge that the 20th century law publishing model is broken?

They are putting on a brave face in the face of the storm, still reporting profits and professing confidence in their products. One wouldn’t expect otherwise. The problem is, as Shirky says, that publishing is no longer a problem. We are all publishers now.

6 thoughts on “Not a problem

  1. Nick is the 20th century law publishing model really broken? Anybody who reads/uses/publishes Chitty on Contracts or any of the other major textbooks that are usually missing from Library shelves will probably disagree.

    I do believe that many Law Publishers will struggle with their revenues in the next year. Especially if the trend for Law Firms to cut costs continues. I think we will see many Law Publishers diversify their offerings so LNB don’t describe themselves as a publisher anymore and I would expect other “publishers” to follow the same route. However there are a core number of products that Law Firms simply cant do without although even these are beginning to be squeezed!

  2. Jimmy – “there are a core number of products that Law Firms simply cant do without although even these are beginning to be squeezed” I think says it. I don’t have the numbers, but I think subscriptions to almost all staple products have been in decline for some years. And the response? Ramp the prices up so we make the same profit from them this year. That’s unsustainable. More digital services/go all Web 2.0y? Good, but don’t expect everyone to want to play in your garden by your rules anymore. Diversify? Fine, it’s one way to survive, but most of the new products are not “publishing”.

  3. Nick, you’re absolutely right. Case in point I saw a product today that certainly wasn’t publishing but was being sold by a “major” legal publisher.

  4. Good piece Nick but I wonder if even you are not fully considering the impact of the digital age on the legal sector. Surely it spreads much wider that simply legal publishing.
    The web will force law firms to reassess how they do business and transact with their clients. One good example is the provision of legal documents online, Pannone have just launched a new system that helps clients build their own documents that are then checked by Pannone. This streamlines the process and takes cost out for the client, these type of developments are required to continue to compete in the new technological environment but they require a significant change in the way law firms’ thinks about client relationships and the value they can add.

  5. Nick- I think it is easy to add to the noise about the demise of print. Newspaper, legal and other publishers are of course facing large challenges in the face of new models. Revenues and profit margins are squeezed and we are facing volatile times. But it will be a sad day if quality newspapers such as the FT and publishers of well-respected, much used texts are no longer able to continue. I don’t see that day any time soon: publishers continue to add high quality editorial in the case of certain newspapers; and a rigorous, time-intensive review of content, editorial, production and design processses that are not often imitated by bloggers and other providers of open access information. I would make the case that there is room for different types of information and information providers and that readers will make their choices. Even in the midst of the current turbulent economic environment and perhaps especially so now, legal publishers are continuing to carve their path. Readers need sources they can trust, with high quality objective content. It is certainly important that the more ‘traditional’ publishers learn to adapt and evolve in the online environment, but it is too easy to predict their irrelevance.

  6. Sian – I haven’t suggested traditional publishers are irrelevant; most I’m sure are thinking hard and looking forward. But it’s clear that the need to adapt and evolve is urgent as 20th century models break down. That’s affecting some formats and some sectors more measurably and more rapidly than others, but there’s no hanging about as the future will be here pdq.

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