The Death of the Printed Word is Grossly Exaggerated

There is no doubt that the print media is having a tough time during this deep recession. When I interviewed Peter Drucker in the final days of 2003, he had some very interesting observations about the print media. In this recession, three years after Drucker’s death, newspapers are suffering the most.,. Electronic media continues to make greater inroads, making newspapers obsolete by the time they hit your driveway at 6 a.m. That explains, in part, why Sam Zell, the colorful and profane owner of the Tribune Company, has declared bankruptcy. (The Tribune Company owns both The Chicago Tribune, my hometown paper, as well as the Los Angeles Times).

But when we were together Drucker took a big picture view of the print media. He also wrote a great deal about this topic, and really put things in perspective. Here he does just that in Management Challenges for the 21st Century:

“It is generally believed that the leading “high-tech” companies—IBM in the sixties and seventies, Microsoft since 1980—have been the fastest growing businesses in the post-World War II period. But the world’s two leading print companies have grown at least as fast. One is German-based Bertelsmann Group. A small publisher of Protestant prayer books before Hitler, Bertelsmann was suppressed by the Nazis. It was revived after WWII…is now the world’s number one publisher and distributor of printed materials (other than daily papers) in most countries of the world (except in China and Russia) through its ownership of publishing firms (Random House in the U.S.), of book clubs and of magazines (France’s leading business magazine, Capital). Equally fast has been the growth of the empire of the Australian-born Murdoch . Starting as publisher of two small provincial Australian papers, Murdoch now owns newspapers throughout the English speaking world, leading English-language book publishers and magazines—but also a large company in another pre-computer ‘information’ medium, the movies.” Murdoch, of course, now owns The Wall Street Journal, a huge property in many respects, and one he had eyed for many years.       

Drucker’s point is well taken: when everyone thought that tech-companies like Microsoft and IBM were the winners of the tech-talk-laden 1990’s, publishing companies (like our own, Pearson—owner of Penguin, Prentice-Hall and the Financial Times), were growing as fast or faster than those companies. That’s a rather remarkable reality when one considers how technology and the first years of the Internet were growing (in 1995 the Internet was growing at something like 2,300 percent per year, so said Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com).

Today all companies are feeling the effects of this deep recession–including publishing companies–but they are hanging in there. You don’t hear of many thousands of employees being laid off at publishing houses. People are still reading books and students are still going to college. Who knows? When the dust clears, it may be the book publishers that fare the best of all.        

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