Going Mobile: An Interview with Rob Durst

Thinking about print products as interfaces to online information

Rob Durst is a Boston-based business and technology consultant who believes that newspapers can remain viable—if they move quickly and use innovations such as “mobile codes.” Anderson University communication professor David Baird asked Durst a series of questions about how print media can adapt to the challenging new environment they find themselves in.

David Baird: Is it a foregone conclusion that the Internet generation will not read a traditional printed newspaper?

Rob Durst: I don’t think they’ll stop reading print periodicals altogether. On the other hand, I believe that they expect a lot more from print than their parents did. If a newspaper is just a digest of information, then they can get that from other sources, like cable and the Web, and for free. If instead they start to think of a newspaper as an interface to online information, then I believe that the number of readers could actually grow. An interactive print interface has a lot of advantages over a Web interface.

DB: Many competing and contrasting visions for the future of the newspaper have been proposed. How would you advise a print-based news organization looking to succeed in the years to come?

RD: Magazines and newspapers should stop treating their publications as fixed products and start thinking about them as valuable, branded interfaces to online content and services. They can do this using mobile codes, which are essentially printed barcodes that readers “click on” using a camera phone—kind of like clicking on a Web link with a mouse. QR (quick response) codes are a good example. They are in widespread use throughout Asia. QR codes contain a Web address, and your phone’s browser automatically connects to that Web site when you take a picture of the code with your camera phone.

DB: Is the technological infrastructure in place for this kind of thing?

RD: Most existing camera phones are capable of reading mobile codes right now using widely available applications—many of them free. Most of the phones in Asia are shipped with QR software, and there is nothing preventing worldwide deployment as a standard feature—like a mobile browser. Many of the new smart phones are also capable of reading existing product barcodes. This opens up a number of additional applications, such as comparison shopping and auctions.

DB: So something as simple as a mobile code can help print survive?

RD: I believe so. It would require publishers to rethink their business model and move quickly to implement a complete interactive print solution. Unfortunately, the fuse is burning, and those who don’t transition from a publishing to an interface model may not survive.

DB: What’s keeping publishers from trying this kind of solution?

RD: It’s actually not uncommon for existing franchises to fail when faced with aggressive, disruptive technologies. Many simply cannot bring themselves to put a profitable franchise at risk, and they instead retreat into denial by raising prices for their dwindling customer base. This can turn into a death march.

DB: Making a major investment in that direction could seem a little daunting to a publisher, considering that no one can guarantee that it will work.

RD: It’s “Tarzan’s dilemma.” You don’t want to let go of the vine that you’re holding in order to grab the next one since it’s proven to be a pretty good vine and has been moving you forward. But if you wait too long, you peak and then swing backward until the next vine is out of reach. A better approach is to use your existing franchise to fund the transition and then manage the old business down as you grow the new one. Then you can fluidly swing from one vine to the next. Very few companies have the management discipline to pull this off.

DB: So do you think that “print” is an asset or a liability today?

RD: I believe it’s an asset. Newspapers have established trusted brands. The real risk is that they will cease to be profitable and will fail before they can transition. Print publications think that they are currently facing displacement by new Web media, but the Web is not totally cross-elastic with print—it has both strengths and weaknesses as an interface. It’s not as portable or user-friendly as print. Even mobile Web content must be carefully packaged to overcome the inherent limitations of a handheld device. However, Web content is interactive, and it can be updated in real time, so it’s always fresh.

DB: How does Kindle-like technology fit into the picture?

RD: E-print is another potentially disruptive technology, and it’s growing stronger. Barnes & Noble recently announced its “Nook,” and Apple is expected to come out with a tablet device soon. This technology is not totally cross-elastic with print either, but it has more of the advantages of traditional print, such as very good readability and portability, as well as many of the advantages of the Web, such as hyperlinked access to online content and products. E-print’s main disadvantages are that it still requires a device and that the content is usually static, in contrast to a Web site, which is usually dynamic and automatically updated. E-print may be more attractive than traditional print to certain audiences. But if properly implemented, interactive print solutions could compete with e-print or at least sustain a broad niche. From a revenue perspective, a newspaper’s branded content could be repurposed for both e-print and interactive print.

DB: Print is a very old medium, but you don’t think its decline is irreversible in this new-media era?

RD: As we are seeing, traditional monetization models for print publications—paid subscriptions and paid-placement advertising—are failing. However, if traditional print publishers can transition to an interactive print model, they may be able to monetize in other ways. For example, interactive print publishers could generate revenue from paid subscriptions for deeper idiosyncratic content (such as local sports content) and mobile-code-based, pay-per-click advertising (the “Google” model). They also could use variations on the “Amazon affiliate” model, which generates revenue from sales leads or a percentage on the sale of products. If these monetization methods are sufficient to support a profitable publication, and I believe that they could be, then interactive print publications could flourish by leveraging a publisher’s brand equity into this new format.

DB: How would this new business model affect the practice of journalism and the news product itself?

RD: Publishers would need to start thinking of the printed page as an interface instead of as a snapshot of the news. Once you decide how you are going to monetize, then you can focus on how to package information to effectively target the interests and purchasing demographics of your reading audience. This is a lot like producing the home page of a Web site. A good example is the home page of the Huffington Post, which is structured to draw you into deeper content. The mobile aspect of interactive print also lends itself to leveraging mobile social media, such as Twitter.

DB: What specific steps should newspaper publishers be taking right now in order to preserve their franchise?

RD: I would recommend that they spend some time thinking about how to transform their franchise from a “broadcast” print model to an interface model and then establish an action plan to effect that change. If they move quickly, they won’t have to “let go of the franchise vine” first, and they’ll be able to manage the transition. If they wait too long, however, they run the risk of spectacular failure. It’s never a question of if change will occur but rather how and when. As the publishing industry has seen, change is already here. Hope is not a strategy. A doomed strategy would be to wish that it were 1950 again and retreat into denial. A winning strategy would be to embrace the change and figure out how to manage and monetize it by leveraging the existing brand.

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David Baird has taught journalism at Anderson University in Anderson, Ind., since 1990.