E.U. Policy Protects Print Market, But at What Cost?


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I read several books during my summer vacation. And each time I came across a passage about a person reading a newspaper over breakfast, I checked the copyright page at the front of the book. You just don't see people casually reading the paper over coffee anymore-at least not in the U.S. It's a quaint vestige of an earlier, slower time.

The daily newspaper has been replaced by the internet. People don't even casually eat breakfast anymore. They grab a coffee, probably at a chain such as Starbucks, and chug it on the run. They get their news on their mobile devices or laptops. Newspapers can't keep up with the go-go pace of the modern world.
News happens way too fast now, and reports are just as likely to break on Twitter as they are on your favorite news site. Perhaps, a thoughtful person will turn to an established news site to gain some context and detail about the latest breaking story (whatever it is) when he has a rare free moment. But mostly, we don't seem to have the attention span to deal with turning pages, scanning headlines, and actually reading. It takes too much time, and we need to get onto the next oh-so-important thing in our day.

Print journalism is struggling in the States, as the big media companies that usually own it try to squeeze out profits any way they can. This usually involves cutting back on those pesky employees-in this case journalists. And while they may please shareholders with headcount reductions (Don't you love euphemisms?), the product is bound to suffer if you don't have the bodies on the ground doing the hard work of journalism.

Journalists are not given the time to do essential research or ponder the implications of a story. We just snatch the facts as best we can and throw our thoughts onto the page as quickly as we can type them. Fact-checking and even copy editing just slow things down and add cost to the process.

The result is lower quality, fewer readers, and ultimately, plunging ad revenue. It's a scenario we've seen play out countless times. Many newspapers have shut down. Others are shadows of their former selves.

Yet, as I traveled through Europe on vacation this summer, I was surprised to see newsstands chock-full of print magazines and newspapers. Surely, my casual review of newsstands hardly constitutes a scientific review of the state of the European media business, but when-at a newsstand at the Frankfurt Airport-I saw multiple publications, all focused on the Android phone operating system, it made me pause. Apparently, there is still a thriving magazine market in Europe that you just don't see in the U.S.

One of the reasons for this could be that the governments of Europe have fiercely protected traditional media in the E.U. I was shocked to learn that paper books are taxed at a much lower rate than ebooks, and in fact, the E.U. was actually suing France and Luxembourg for creating an equal tax on physical and electronic books. Apparently that violates E.U. law.

I suppose that's one way to keep your print business thriving, but for how long? Like many other attempts to hold back digital progress, I have to wonder how productive or wise laws that favor traditional delivery channels over digital actually are.

The question is: Should the E.U. use tax policy to protect established business models over newer ones? What would have happened (if it existed at the time) had the E.U. protected typewriters over computers or horse-drawn carriages over cars?

At a session at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston in June, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and author Andrew McAfee said that trying to stop or slow down digital progress because it disrupts existing industries and eliminates jobs is a terrible idea. He called it a prescription for economic suicide.
Yet, that's exactly what E.U. policymakers appear to be doing. For the short term, it produces newsstands overflowing with print products, but over the long haul, it very likely produces the result that McAfee predicted-a constrained economic situation.

As painful as change is, and it has proven extremely difficult for print media, it is foolish to fight the inevitable. In fact, the early adopters of changing market conditions are the most likely to be successful in the long run. Unfortunately, too few media companies have heeded this, and laws like the ones in the E.U. just perpetuate the problem.