Publishing: The Seeds of New Growth

Sometimes change creeps up on you, slowly, without clear signposts marking the shift from point A to point B. Other times, change detonates – blasting a hole in what was and clearing the way for the new.

From my vantage point as a publisher at a scholarly journal in 2010, the bomb of disruptive innovation has gone off. The casualty list in the world of publishing is staggering: newspapers, newsweeklies, journals, consumer magazines.

“Not Gourmet,” I moan! I have box upon box of back issues. Okay, they’re up in the attic. At my parents’ house. I can always go on Epicurious.com, I think. Clearly, so did many other former subscribers.

And publications about publications have closed, including Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews. My hometown paper, The Washington Post, has a list-serv for laid-off Post reporters and editors, appropriately named “Post-mortem.”

I still buy a subscription to the print edition of the Post. I’m not sure why. No one in our house reads it in print. Every day some poor person wakes at dawn to deliver me my freshly bagged newspaper. Sometimes I bring it in and toss it in the entry way along with my daughter’s overstuffed pink backpack and my son’s scuffed Merrells, which he kicks off in the middle of the hall every day without fail after school.

Sometimes it takes several days for the bags to pile up on the driveway before I notice. Then, in a weekly ritual, I pull the papers out of their plastic shrouds on recycling day and carry them to the curb. I’m seriously considering cancelling. But I do still like to read comics in print. Why can’t they size them larger – especially now that I need reading glasses?

I’ve spent nearly 30 years in publishing. I want my hometown paper to survive. So I keep subscribing in a show of support, both as a consumer and a fellow comrade in the industry. I know good information is worth paying for. But, really, it’s crazy to keep paying for something I’m not using, just out of some misplaced sense of kindred support.

I think about this as I hike through Glacier National Park during a recent family reunion. The disastrous fire of 2003 burned 136,000 acres of parkland. It burned so hot that huge swaths of former forest now stand as petrified trunks. Yet between the gray-black stands, new green emerges. The park ranger is telling us about the lodgepole pine. This stately tree grows out of destruction, flinging millions of seeds after a fire. I am transfixed. My kids run on ahead with their cousins.

So what seeds of new life are rising from the charred and petrified remains of the publishing industry? What is the innovative part of the disruption?

Information is different from delivery. It’s the information I want, not the out-moded delivery system of newsprint, dropped at my doorstep at 6 a.m. What if I’m out of town? What about the breaking news that happened too late to make it into print? The Post knows this. Its paper version is a mere shadow of the monster doorstops that used to be dropped on my front porch. The Web is where the action is.

But can publishing make a go of it financially on the Web? Can we turn that creative corner and transform publishing into a viable venture with new media? The effect of the Web on publishing today is as profound – no, more profound -- than the introduction of the paperback to the book market.

It’s break time at a conference on scholarly publishing.

A colleague says, “I heard ad sales were down 40% at ______ journal. They had a 10% across-the-board cut in staff.”

“No! They’re a leader in the field!”

“Yes. And Bob’s division was cut. He’s now out on his own as a consultant.”

I stir my coffee and think how grateful I am for grant funding locked in just months before, as the one-two punch of Web transformation and recession knocks holes in formerly high-flying publications.

We make our way to the breakout sessions. She heads to “Going Out of Print Experiences.” I’m torn between “Third-Party Relationships and the Future of e-commerce” and “Small, Non-Profit Publishing in Tough Times: Part II - Experiments in Generating Revenue,” eventually settling on the latter. The old ways of publishing no longer work. It’s definitely time for experimenting.

Back at the office, I think about the changing arc of my career. Like many an English major, I left Goshen College not sure where my degree would take me. My class of ’83 attracted one of the largest groups of English majors in Goshen’s history. We liked to write, debate, talk about writing, and then write some more. We held off-campus parties where we debated the writing styles of Hemingway, Vonnegut and Woolf. We argued Bronte vs. Austen. As seniors, we were full of ourselves and our potential, as only 21-year-olds can be.

But it was another time of recession. Fewer college graduates were finding jobs in their chosen career path. I was worried. So I added a Communication minor to my academic package. I couldn’t fathom standing in front of a class teaching. I liked journalism. So off I went, setting up an internship at the Goshen News, editing the Goshen College Record, studying the British press in London, and attending an intensive course in political journalism back home in Washington over summer break.

On graduation I wrote to small newspapers from the Midwest to the East Coast. I wanted to be a reporter, I thought. But few were hiring. In a classic case of getting a job through connections, I finally landed a job as an editorial assistant at Health Affairs, a new health policy journal started by a family friend. At least it’s somewhat related to my English degree, I told myself. I may know nothing about health policy, but I’m good with grammar. I can edit.

Twenty years later as Executive Editor, I realized that what I really loved was the process of communicating information. That’s when it struck me. I’m a publisher at heart. Now as Executive Publisher, it’s my job to figure out how to get the best possible information to people who need it at the moment they need it. And the disruptive innovation of publishing today is making me think about information and its impact in entirely new ways.

A big question I ask is: What does a post-print world look like? Print may be around for only a few more years, especially in the scholarly journal market. University libraries are cancelling print subscriptions and going online only. A major university here in DC recently destroyed years’ worth of its print journal archives. It didn’t have the space to store them – and they were all online anyway. Many of their students never step foot in a physical library. The content is accessed via the Web, and students can do much more with the Web content.

When I think how easy it is to find information today, I marvel. When I was a student at Goshen College, we used card catalogues and learned the Dewey decimal system. If a book wasn’t in the library, it took ages to have it delivered from another school via inter-library loan. Now, many a dinner conversation (argument?) at our house ends up with my high school daughter running to the computer to Google a piece of information, or my husband tapping into his smartphone.

Freed from the constraints of print publishing, information will find new forms. I may search for an article or blog post now, but soon I’ll search for a page or a paragraph of information, as smaller and smaller bits are chunked for the Web, each with unique URLs. Large research-based companies are asking journals for the ability to “data-mine” articles so their massive computers can help their researchers “read without reading.” That is, the computer can point to interesting connections in the scholarly literature that may yield ideas for new drugs or technologies.

I think about content now as a series of connections. First you send out a short headline via RSS feed, Twitter or widget to alert readers to your new content. Or, more frequently, Google serves up your headline in a search result. A reader’s interest is piqued--if you write your headline well. He clicks through to a couple-sentence extract, or, if it’s in the scholarly journal world, an abstract. Maybe the reader downloaded an app to get your abstracts on her mobile device. On the abstract page, the authors’ names are hyperlinked to other articles they have written. Maybe the reader is writing a report and just wants the facts, so clicks on the figures-only view.

Perhaps the reader checked out a summary version of an article on a blog. My journal uses our blog for timely commentary, but also to drive readers back to the original articles. Blogs are now serious business. They’re no longer just for wannabe pundits or frustrated, jobless writers, although there are still plenty of those. The format of short information bursts fits a reader looking for continuously updated information. A successful example is the New York Times Prescriptions Blog, [http://prescriptions.blogs.nytimes.com/] launched to keep readers informed during the health reform debate. This blog regularly links to my journal’s scholarly articles, pulling out a nugget of information of interest to the average consumer.

Another reader decides to download a podcast of the article or, perhaps, a conference where the author spoke, into his iPod. Yet another reader is streaming a video of the conference at her office computer. A further set of readers is commenting on the article on a social media network, referring colleagues to related material and pointing out areas for further research.

None of these “readers” has necessarily read the full, original article. In an online world where content is everywhere, it isn’t that people are reading less. Instead, they’re reading less of many more items. It’s the new skimming. It’s reading without reading. In a user study we conducted, a graduate student told us with absolutely no embarrassment that she often only read abstracts when doing a research paper, especially since that was typically the free portion of an online journal article.

I now think constantly about how to deliver these different bits of information and how to connect them together, preferably into a financially viable package. Increasingly, I am competing with user-generated content. So I am now looking at ways to embrace social media and help users pull together the information they really need, not just what we editors or publishers think they should need.

It’s a new era. The green shoots of new media are pushing up past the fossilized stumps of an earlier time. Indeed, this online CMW Journal is one such creative innovation. And a welcome one.

About the Author

Jane Hiebert-White

Jane Hiebert-White, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, is Executive Publisher at Health Affairs, the leading journal of health policy, where she has worked since 1983, after graduating from Goshen College. For ten years she wrote an award-winning column on health policy for Health Progress, a trade journal of the Catholic Health Association. Jane launched the Health Affairs blog, the first scholarly journal blog in health policy; won the Best Journal Column award from the Society of National Association Publications; and in March 2010 spoke at the e-journal Summit of the National Academy of Science in DC. She is married to John Hiebert, a computer specialist, who also graduated from Goshen College and writes fiction.

http://www.healthaffairs.org/ http://healthaffairs.org/blog/