Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What Is a Dead Tree Edition? 7 Ways the Meaning Has Evolved

To celebrate the seventh birthday of the “Dead Tree Edition” blog this month, here’s a look back at how the meaning of the phrase “dead tree edition” has changed since October 2008.

The "experts" concluded that the Web
had blasted a fatal hole in print.
Since the early days of the Internet, “dead tree edition” has been slang for a printed publication, but the phrase no longer carries the baggage it used to. Linguists would say that the phrase’s denotation is little changed but that the connotations are vastly different.

In 2003, William R. Tracey wrote succinctly that the phrase was “derogatory cyberspeak for the paper version of a periodical that appears in both paper and electronic (Internet) forms.” “Dead” highlighted what the digerati thought printed periodicals soon would be, and “tree” underscored the supposed environmental horrors of turning a renewable resource into a product.

The meaning was largely unchanged five years later when this blog was launched, at a time when a digital-only publication promoting print media was still an ironic oddity. The name was meant as a badge of honor: “Yeah, I’m a print geek; you gotta problem with that?” But some folks in the traditional publishing and printing industries were not amused. (See “Can You Trust an Anonymous Blog with an Aggravating Name?")

Not dead yet:The wound wasn't fatal. New
shoots and leaves demonstrate print's vitality.
Here are seven ways the phrase’s meaning has changed since October of 2008:

1) Books: The most obvious change is that “dead tree edition” now includes books, not just periodicals. E-books had been around in some form for years. But they didn’t start making a splash – and spurring the inevitable predictions that they would soon put Gutenberg out of business -- until the Kindle 2 was introduced in 2009.

2) Digital publications: Back in 2008, many of us ink-on-paper types worried that digital editions would soon replace printed ones. It’s not happening. Printed daily newspapers are withering away, but not because people are switching to digital newspapers. Digital magazines (as opposed to the web sites of magazines) have mostly been an overhyped bust, especially now that smartphones have largely usurped tablets. E-book sales grew exponentially for a few years, then plateaued at somewhere around 20% to 30% of the book market.

3) Human nature: Publishers used to assume that once people “went digital,” they would never go back to print. Human behavior turned out not to be so black and white. People who wouldn’t think of getting their news from a newspaper rather than their phone see nothing incongruous about leaning back with a fashion or hobbyist magazine. Consumers who load up their Kindles with novels and biographies still seem to turn to print for other genres of books. A few folks are print or digital diehards; everyone else expects digital when they want digital and print when they want print.

4) Greenwash: Consumers are far more aware these days that electronic devices host a plethora of hazardous materials and that the “coal-fired Internet” consumes massive amounts of power. Many a company has dropped its “go green, go paperless” promotions of digital alternatives, knowing that its dubious claims won’t stand up to an in-depth environmental assessment or challenges from the likes of Two Sides. And perhaps more people now realize that paper manufacturing more often discourages deforestation than causing it.

5) “Dead tree” magazines forgot to die: In 2008, magazines were widely predicted to be headed down the same toilet that was (and still is) swallowing the newspaper business. But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion: Magazine publishers transformed into “magazine media” companies, sporting leaner and more niche-oriented print brands that acted as launching pads for successful digital ventures. Gone are the glory days of huge newsstand sales and bloated, advertising-subsidized circulation. Yet magazines have found their place in the multimedia publishing world as premium products that deliver steady profits.

6) The digital-media business is no picnic: Digital products were supposed to liberate publishers from the old evils of paper prices, postal rates, and "expect 6 to 8 weeks for delivery." But instead of a new utopia, we've wandered into a strange land full of its own ills -- low ad rates, banner blindness, ad blockers, and a continuing scramble to keep current with technology. And don't forget such lurking monsters as Google, Facebook, and Apple that can bankrupt publishers with a single change of algorithm or policy. Compared to pop-ups, interstitials, and other effluents that are desperately trying to monetize page views, the good old right-hand ad page facing a left-hand editorial page looks like pretty nifty technology.

7) Digital needs print: Publishing people used to have silly debates about print (“It’s dead”) versus digital (“turning dollars into dimes”), but find that such either/or thinking doesn’t fit the real world. Web sites that are associated with a respected print publication have a huge competitive advantage over those that don’t, especially in fields where credibility and search engines are crucial. Many publishers find that the economics of long-form journalism (what we used to call “articles”) don’t work on the web unless there’s a print publication that helps cover the costs.

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    4 comments:

    BoSacks said...

    I prefer to think "dead tree editions" as off-line media. It's not in any way derogatory and simply delineates the difference of media products, style and capabilities. A more elegant phrase for a more civilized age.

    Anonymous said...

    It's noteworthy, too, that when Food Network (among others) wants to expand its brand, it goes into the print magazine channel.

    Anonymous said...

    Mr. Tree, I think it is time for you to step out from behind the curtain and lead the MPA, the only true association in this industry we can count on for traversing through these transformative times. We need your voice, direction, commitment to print as the core, and of course your humor doesn't hurt.

    All those in favor.....

    Anonymous said...

    Aye!