The Future of Digital Content: Sailing to Digital Shores

Big Data. Pinterest. Ebooks. Mobile. HTML 5. Open source. The Facebook IPO. Content marketing. I could go on and on, but these are just a few of the terms that started floating through my head when I began thinking about writing my end-of-the-year column.

It's hard trying to sum up what's been a big-no- huge year in the digital content world. Depending on your job title, you might think 2012 was the year of Big Data, or the year ebooks finally went mainstream, or the year social media went from being a fun way to kill some time to an essential business tool (but a risky addition to your stock portfolio). And any of those conclusions would be right.

It's funny that an industry that spends so much time wondering where its next proverbial paycheck is coming from is also experiencing so much growth. Every time you turn around there's a new social network, a new must-have app, or an (erotic) ebook that's burning up the charts-and yet, we continue to worry about the future of the digital content business.

So why, with such rapid growth, is the industry still struggling to make ends meet?

It's no surprise to anyone when I say that monetization models haven't kept up with the technology. While programmers and engineers keep pouring out of universities ready to invent the next Facebook-or maybe having already done so-the students coming out of M.B.A. programs, apparently, aren't quite so innovative.

Let's face it: Content commerce is boring. It's more fun to build an app than it is to figure out how to build a sustainable business model-or worse, rework an existing business model to fit the demands of a digital economy. In fact, one of the biggest stories of the year-which still isn't finished playing out-has been, essentially, a fight over pricing models.

The Justice Department's lawsuit against Apple and five publishers alleges that the companies conspired to keep ebook prices high through the use of agency pricing. Agency pricing is nothing new; in fact, it's embarrassingly old school. It's no great shock that book publishers are still clinging to relics of the print past to get digital customers to pay top dollar. In fact, they seem to have the dubious honor of being the media industry that is least willing to change. Television networks have embraced alternate distribution channels-think Hulu and HBO GO-and iTunes has all but taken over the music business. And with the success of the Kindle and other e-readers, you might be tempted to think the book industry has found the digital champion it needs, but a certain DOJ lawsuit would prove you wrong. (It was Amazon, after all, that the agency pricing was designed to thwart.)

Meanwhile, newspapers and magazines are finally starting to find their way to digital success. Early in 2012, The New York Times Co. reported that subscription numbers were up after instituting paywalls across many of its properties-though revenues were down initially. Then in October Newsweek announced that it would be giving up the print ghost entirely, and going digital-only in 2013-relying largely on subscription revenues from its mobile and web products.
We all know by now that the big problem for many publishing organizations is the burden of legacy costs. Big office spaces. Big editorial teams. These are costs that don't burden startups. But this won't work as an excuse for much longer.

If a publication such as Newsweek--with 80 years' worth of fine journalistic tradition--can make the difficult decision to go all-digital, then there's no doubt that other publishers will have to do the same soon or risk becoming irrelevant--even if it means trimming staff numbers. No one hates to see journalists and editors tossed out on the streets more than I do, but the truth is, there are new opportunities abounding for these publishing industry castoffs. New online-only publications are starting everyday-and old-school publishing execs are often behind these new initiatives. Take Open Road Integrated Media, Inc., for example. It describes itself as "a digital publisher and multimedia content company," and behind this company are the co-founders Jane Friedman (former president and CEO of HaperCollins Publishers Worldwide) and Jeffrey Sharp (a former Hollywood producer).

In the short term, traditional publishing professionals may still be sailing dire straits. But if they can see their way through to the other side, the digital shores hold untold opportunities.