6 Developments Publishers Should Watch For

By: Howard I. Finberg

This is a great time of year to be a columnist. It’s when you get to ponder the coming 12 months and make a few predictions. Thankfully, the newspaper industry appears to be moving forward. We will no longer be in a crisis mode, trimming staffs and budgets. The financial upturn may leave many of us glancing over our collective shoulders at 2001 and sighing, “Glad that’s over with!” But looking backward is a dangerous thing.

We all need to start looking forward, addressing our needs for this year and beyond. Despite the recession, the digital news-and-information universe continues to shift and evolve, impacting our business world. If we don’t refocus our energies on opportunities, this year will be much harder on us — even after our economic fortunes start to improve.

My major “Digital Output” resolution for 2002 is deceptively simple: Don’t stop thinking about the future. Here are six major areas that will be shaping it.

Peer-to-peer: Napster may be dead, but peer-to-peer (p2p) technology is very much alive. On the Internet, p2p refers to transient networks that allow groups of computer users to connect. One user directly accesses music or other data files on another’s hard drives. Corporations are starting to look at p2p as an effective way for employees to share files without the cost of centralized servers. This technology can reduce our costs while facilitating better communication among employees.

P2p also will become increasingly important as a link between our companies and our suppliers. A Forrester Research survey in October reported that 52% of manufacturers said they were collaborating with suppliers via the Net, a dramatic increase from 40% the previous quarter. Conducting business over the Net would increase productivity and more effectively manage our relationships with our vendors — and our customers.

Consumercentric systems: Our business is all about serving our customers! And we have lots of different customers that we need to serve through a single integrated, enterprisewide management system. Other industries are spending lots of time and energy looking for in-house and outsourced methods to deal with their multichannel customers. Newspaper companies should look beyond single-purpose systems such as circulation, classified advertising, and e-commerce. Even if you need to replace an existing single-purpose system today, make sure you have a strategy to capture and manage future customer relationships and data.

XML publishing: XML (extensible markup language) will be increasingly important to publishers wanting to serve customers across a variety of wired and wireless platforms. HTML (hypertext markup language) is about displaying information. XML is about defining information. Using the more flexible XML, publishers can display information across a variety of devices — computer screens, cell phones, personal digital assistants — without reformatting.

The use of XML eliminates manual methods held over from the hard-copy days, as well as processes introduced with the first Web pages. We need to look at using XML-based methods to manage a company’s entire stock of digital assets — text, video, audio, and images — whether from editorial, advertising, or circulation.

Remote digital publishing: While this might not be a top issue this year, I plan to keep an eye on this technology. It allows us to publish our newspapers to remote sites. There are two systems worth watching.

One is the Adobe Acrobat and/or NewsStand Inc. approach. It takes a complete newspaper and compresses it into a file small enough to transmit via the Net to a customer’s computer. The New York Times is experimenting with this.

The other creates (or uses already created pages) and transmits that material to remote printing equipment. Although one vendor, PressPoint Inc., went out of business trying to make this work, other players include NewspaperDirect, the Xerox Newspaper Network, and Oce N.V.

The challenge in all of these systems might be more human than technological. Rather than taking an existing product and repackaging it for the PC screen or reducing it to a printer page, we need to think about the kind of content that would be unique and valuable for our customers. As broadband Internet access becomes more widespread and printers get cheaper, we need to develop interesting business models to support remote digital publishing opportunities direct to the home.

Wireless for the company: I have already written about using wireless technology to connect employees (and vendors) within company offices and at remote sites. Technologies such as 802.11b (and its faster sibling 802.11a) and Bluetooth should be high on your “2002 watch list.”

Wireless for the consumer: Look for new developments of the most popular handheld platform, the Palm. The Palm OS will become more multimediacentric, providing both opportunities and challenges. Those publishers who think only in “text” or those who have video and audio assets but haven’t found efficient ways to carry out multiplatform publishing will face the biggest challenges.

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