Friday, October 17, 2008

"Old" Media or "New"? The Answer is "Yes"

Model railroading media is a bit of a two-headed beast. On the one hand, many model railroaders tend to be technology-savvy. OK, let's face it, we're geeks (at least many of us). On the other hand, the hobby also attracts an older demographic that is often not as computer-friendly. So for every cry of, "Just publish everything on­-line", there's an answer of "I like my paper magazines".

Personally, I don't think this is an either/or question. Certainly, circulation for all genres of printed media (not just model railroading publications) is down with the advent of the Internet. But I don't agree with those who claim that printed magazines will disappear in the next few years. And the reason I believe printed media will survive is that there is still an important difference in user experience between on­line media and printed publications. That difference might be described as "hunter" versus "gatherer".

In my experience, using on-line media is a hunting expedition – I'm usually looking for specific things that pique my interest. I'm not likely to read every forum posting, for example. Instead, I'll look through the topics to find the two or three that interest me and look only at those. Part of this is the sheer volume of chaff, but some of it is just the times, places, and tools that pertain when I am consuming this media (sitting in front of the screen).

Conversely, for me the printed publication lends itself to a "gatherer" approach. I'll thumb through all the pages of a magazine and linger briefly on a wider variety of topics, including some that might not otherwise interest me during a more purposeful "hunt". I can browse through a book or magazine while waiting at the dentist's office, before retiring, or while in the euphemism. For me, this less-structured, more exploratory way of consuming media is vital: it exposes me to new ideas and different approaches I wouldn’t necessarily delve into through more directed on-line reading.

And importantly, much of the on-line material is inherently self published – there usually are no editors for web pages (more's the pity). For me, editors often add value by contributing rigor, context, and focus. I appreciate printed publications partly because most have passed through an editorial step (although sometimes with the smaller publications it's hard to tell!). I also think there's value in the structure of a book or printed magazine. The author's and editor's construction, pacing, and organization add flavor and meaning to the objective facts.

So my basic premise is that print won't die anytime soon – partly because it provides a different kind of experience (at least for those like me). What I think will happen is continued evolution of both on-­line and print media in model railroading. As an example, I think Kalmbach has done a decent job of extending their Model Railroader and Trains brands into cyberspace. This is challenging for a publication that has historically depended largely on print ad revenue to survive. And make no mistake, business plan transformation is orders of magnitude tougher than the nuances of on-line fonts and formats. [As an aside, one of the major issues roiling the newspapers isn't primarily that readers are abandoning them – it's that Craigslist and eBay took the classified advertising!] Kalmbach has had some on-­line stumbles along the way, but the company is miles ahead of its model railroading publication competitors. I think they have done a reasonable job of bringing some of their editing and publishing strengths to the Internet. (And it's interesting to note that as Kalmbach incorporates more ads to create a viable revenue stream on­line, there are complaints from users. We do want it all, and all for free, don't we?)

On the Internet side, consider Joe Fugate's new ad-supported electronic magazine, Model Railroad Hobbyist, set to premier in January. On the surface, it's a pure "new media" model. But Joe has a long history not only as a video and web technology practitioner, but also as an editor and publisher of enthusiast printed publications, both in model railroading (the LDSIG's Layout Design Journal in the late '90s) and in other fields. I think (and hope) that Joe will bring some of the editing discipline typical of the print world to his e-zine venture. In my mind, Joe has the skills and experience to build this into a unique and successful publication.

I think we'll find that the ultimate result isn't wholly either/or, on­-line or print. We'll see blending and crossover. As a writer, I've got a foot planted firmly in each camp, with future articles scheduled for publication both on-­line and in print. I do spend a lot of time looking at the screen … but there are times to settle down with a great printed book or magazine, too.

The Inspirational Layouts series returns in the next post.