Digital first means different things to different people. But one thing is clear: The term indicates a decision to place digital ahead of print media, for whatever reason it’s employed. Financial Times, a British financial newspaper with international interest and distribution, made an important statement about protocol with their “Digital First” announcement in early 2013. With print a struggling medium, and digital fast overtaking it, the nagging question gets louder every day: Should you have a digital-first strategy?
Digital First as Real-Time News
Lionel Barber, editor for the Financial Times since 2005, explains that his take on “Digital First” is real-time information. In an interview with Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review, Barber explained, “Print has always been a snapshot in time. When I talk about digital first, it’s…the news now…” Digital offers real-time ability that no print medium ever could. Visit CNN.com now, and then again in a few hours, and the top headlines might be entirely different. In fact, they most certainly will be. There’s no way for print to compete with that.
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“Digital First” Has Different Definitions
Starkman pointed out that the American definition of “Digital First” varies, and isn’t quite the same as that of the Financial Times. For some, it means totally free content. For others, it indicates a shift from print being the core from which everything else springs, to starting with digital and building out from there. Barber makes an important point, too. When you begin with digital, everything else can spring off logically. Digital is efficient, and publishers can reformat for print with relative ease. Working in reverse, formatting what was created for print into digital-ready copy, takes more effort. If digital is where the bulk of your readership is, it only makes sense to start there.
Assessing the Benefits of Digital First
Regardless of why it’s employed, a digital-first (or digital-only) strategy can reduce overhead. Paper copies are becoming a special territory for newspapers and magazines, and they’re expensive to produce. A select group of Wall Street businesspeople might sit at their desks and start the day by literally turning the pages of the WSJ. But more readers are likely to read the Journal on a tablet or smartphone. Print can’t match the options of digital. There are apps, mobile sites, and primary websites, and cross-platform marketing makes the brand visible everywhere. And then, of course, there are videos, and other interactive media opportunities that are impossible with print.
But Again — is Digital First Right for Your Publication?
There’s no denying the appeal of digital. But some people do love their newspapers and magazines. Flipping pages is almost a ritual, even a luxury or indulgence. Some experts believe that reading comprehension increases with hard copy, but that’s a topic of tough debate that usually ends up in the middle. Scientific American explains it’s the tactile experience that print-copy readers are after. So choosing to be digital first requires a bit of investigation. You have to know your audience. You have to examine your budget. And you have to know just how deep you’re willing to get into digital. If you’ve got a thriving print production and lack the skills to make the most of digital, a digital-first strategy would effectively be taking a step backward.
Print was certainly king once, and there are many people who never want to see it die. But the numbers can’t be ignored; readers use digital in all its forms. The possibilities are so great, it seems there’s something new every day. Digital first seems to make a lot of sense, even if you produce and sell a high volume of print copies. In time, it’s fairly logical to make the leap that digital will be the primary source, with print evolving into a special product for a niche market.