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A publisher’s reflections: Life in a post-panic world

I’m in my fourth decade in the publishing business. From the first week I set foot in the door of this occupation, I’ve been hearing alarms about the death of fill-in-the-blank. With all due respect, I’m over it.

Newspapers, magazines, books, the written word – they are not dying. They’re sharing the audience with more options. The way I see it, hanging on to the discussion about what’s going away is a distraction from the hard work of moving forward. I’d rather be in conversations about the fun stuff going on and how to be part of it.

I went to Oxford, Miss., last week to attend a conference hosted by The University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Billed as a gathering of industry folks “looking for solutions to today’s publishing problems,” it’s called the ACT Experience — Amplify, Clarify, Testify. It’s a little like a publishing PechaKucha except each presenter gets 30 minutes instead of 6 minutes, 40 seconds.

I hadn’t been to an organized gathering of publishing people in a while. Following trends via news feeds and e-newsletters is hardly a substitute, and I was looking forward to an actual 3-D discussion. I couldn’t wait to hear from a former publisher of The New Yorker, the multimedia director at Vanity Fair, the co-founder of Blindfold magazine, and the creative minds behind one of the biggest women’s magazine in the Netherlands, among other folks doing very cool things in the magazine world. I was, however, wary of the theme: “Never Underestimate the Power of Print in a Digital Age.” Would we be recycling the death-of-print conversation again?

Thankfully, no. What happened instead was invigorating and encouraging. While some of the issues and admonitions were familiar, there was a different undercurrent. As I listened to one speaker after another, the ideas shifted fluidly from print to digital to QR codes to mobile to watermarking to . . . whatever. There was a lot of talk about storytelling, content, passion, quality. It wasn’t platform-agnostic so much as platform-pluralistic.

BoSacks holds forth.

By the end I was thinking that, after all these years, maybe we are ready to get on with things. And as I’ve thought about it since, I think maybe a corner has been turned, one where we folks in the business of producing paid content can quit obsessing over what we are losing grip of and invest our energy in getting a grip.

I scribbled pages of notes while I sat in the auditorium. Here’s a small sample:

“Loss of dominance is not equivalent to death, it just feels that way.” — Bob Sacks a.k.a. BoSacks, the inimitable media blogger.

“The human story by terrific writers wins any battle in any market.” – Michael Capuzzo, who with his wife Teresa publishes Mountain Home magazine.

“Mediocre content is fading fast in print.” — Bob Sacks again, warning us that there’s no room for so-so print content anymore. His advice: “Stop whining about the death of print, which isn’t happening, and get back to the business of producing content people want.” The future is all about fewer, better, more expensive print products.

And here’s my favorite quote of all from the Act 3 Experience:

“Make something worth printing.”

This comes from a third-generation printer. His name is David Fry, chief technology officer at Fry Communications, and he was one of several printing-industry representatives who were talking about ways their business is adapting in today’s marketplace.

If it’s good enough, if it’s something your customer wants, it’s worth the tactile, permanent experience of print. It’s worth paying for and holding on to. “Make something worth printing.” It kind of all boils down to that, doesn’t it?

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