As Hemingway once put it, change tends to come two ways: gradually, then suddenly.
That's certainly been the case with print publishers and digital. The potential for online channels to transform every aspect of the field, from the way content is created to to the way it is distributed and monetized, has been clear ever since the advent of the Internet. Nonetheless, most organizations evolved gradually and many continued to act print-first even as the format declined, primarily due to inertia. This has even led to some venerable publications shutting down as they were unable to cope with the changed business models.
Print used to be king. No longer. Recently, the scales have rapidly and clearly tipped in favor of digital: three-quarters of The New York Times' subscribers are now online-only, annual revenue from digital channels has reached the $1 billion mark at Gannett, and digital ad revenue has surpassed print ad revenue at McClatchy.
Put simply: the time has finally come when print publishers have gone digital-first. This is in part because print circulation figures have been dropping, but also because digital has proven to be an exceptional format for publishers: it reduces distribution costs and creates economies of scale; allows for real-time updates and editing; and enables rich storytelling across a wide-range of devices.
That's why the digital-first shift can be seen not only in the subscription and revenue figures, but also in the ways organizations are behaving across-the-board. Specifically, here are five recent indicators from legacy publishers that digital has finally taken precedence over print:
1. Gannett Published Its Election Results Online Only
The infamous Chicago Daily-Tribune headline "Dewey Beats Truman" was so memorable in part because of the importance placed on newspapers at the time: the morning paper was the ultimate authority on elections and it was shocking that such a vital source could be wrong.
How times have changed. For the 2018 US midterm elections, Gannett decided to not even publish close election results in its papers; rather, it directed people to visit its online properties. The move was important not because it changed behavior but because it acknowledged it: audiences now turn to digital channels first to get up-to-the-minute news, and so the publisher embraced this by focusing its print coverage on broader topics such as turnout.
2. WIRED Has Eliminated a Print-Only Subscription Option
The print-digital subscription bundle is nothing new: for quite a while publishers have delivered digital access as part of a print subscription or have offered it as an add-on.
What is new is WIRED's approach. The publisher is now offering audiences two options: print and digital combined or digital-only, with both being around the same pince.
While this may just seem like small change in wording, it's actually an important shift: the organization has made print the add-on and is now treating digital as the primary subscription format.
3. The New York Times Has Changed Its Editing Approach
Becoming digital-first isn't just about external approaches, it's also about internal priorities and organization.
Case in point: Last year The New York Times transformed its editing approach, eliminating its a free-standing copy desk and a number of editing positions. Why? Because the paper wanted to make its editorial process faster and more nimble to in order to meet the needs of online audiences.
As the newsroom's leaders put it: "We have taken some critical steps in remaking our editing system for the digital age. This transition will affect all of us. It involves every aspect of how we produce, edit and promote our stories. It will require a wider range of skills from reporters as well as editors, from those concerned mainly with digital and from editors now focused primarily on print."
4. Condé Nast Has Consolidated Its Operations
Of course, a digital-first approach extends well beyond editorial: it impacts every aspect of an organization, from sales to marketing.
This can most clearly be seen in the way Condé Nast is reorganizing itself. Whereas in the heyday of print it may have made sense to split units among geographies, it no longer does. In the age of digital, audiences and advertisers are no longer constrained by the same boundaries, and so publishers must adapt.
That, along with a need to cut costs, is why Condé Nast is combining its international and US arms, seeking a CEO with global experience, and merging the operations of various geography-specific versions of it publications, such as Condé Nast Traveler and Vogue.
5. Glamour and Teen Vogue Have Gone Online-Only
Finally, there's the ultimate digital-first strategy: eliminating your print offering completely.
Glamour's editor-in-chief explained the move by saying: "[We are] doubling down on digital, expanding video and social storytelling with new and ambitious projects. Our storytelling and service will continue to reach Glamour's audience on the platforms they frequent most."
In other words, the organization came to the same conclusion as many others recently: readers have transitioned from being print-first to digital-first, and it is time for the publication to finally do the same.