Digital Is The Master Copy

Mitch Joel argues print is not dead.  Perhaps not yet – but it is mortally wounded.

I may be treading beaten ground here, as I’ve written before on living artifacts – but Mitch got me thinking on this subject again and I think I can present an even simpler viewpoint on why things like print newspapers and CDs are relics of the last century.  The reason is simple:  digital is now the master copy.

The truth is that the tangible versions of media are temporary and less useful copies of their digital masters.  You’re paying for the medium, not the message – and there’s no logical reason for that when there are more efficient ways to get (and share) the message.

Newspapers and magazines

Printed editions are merely temporary copies, they are:

  • Disposable and ultimately end up thrown away
  • Not sharable in a way that scales
  • Not really “news” by the time they are printed
  • Inefficient and wasteful
  • Merely a copy of the digital master
  • Static

Digital is the master copy and is far more valuable than making lots of static copies and physically delivering them.  It is terribly inefficient, and the whole idea of physically delivering words on paper is a quaint notion.  Consider:

  • Digital copy can be shared at scale, instantly – not just from publication to user, but user to user
  • Discussions are inspired globally from each article
  • Digital news is searchable, scanable and dynamic
  • Digital news is archived forever
  • You can print off as many tangible copies as you’d like at your whim
  • Everyone is viewing the same master piece of data, which can also be updated to reflect changes/corrections
  • Ability to copy-paste instantly
  • Long-term revenue off each story as it is not dead merely after one day

There is almost no value in print news – other than dwindling ad revenues.  There is still tremendous untapped value in the master, digital copy that is only beginning to be unlocked.  The web makes both old and new content come alive.  Newspapers need to reorganize and focus on making the master (digital) version more valuable.  Some ideas for getting started:

  • Single stories matter, the idea of a “paper as a whole edition” is dated – place greater emphasis on sticky content so it gets shared.
  • One popular story to a site could generate more visits than the rest of that day’s content combined – figure out ways to capitalize on content that goes hot.
  • Taking advantage of the long tail is huge – each piece of content should be making newspapers incrementally more valuable on the web – get content into an SEO-friendly CMS with descriptive URLs, properly tagged and titled pages, etc.
  • Reuse, re-purpose, remix, mash-up and get creative with archives to keep older stuff fresh.  Also link to older content in newer stories.
  • Simplify those complex and unintuitive newspaper websites – build cleanly designed sites, have conversion goals and calls to action for readers.
  • Make the search functions useful – seriously, this is a big pet peeve of mine in particular as both a PR professional and blogger who frequently needs to search newspaper websites for content.  Make content easy to find and easy to link to – this only makes the content more valuable.
  • Aggregate all conversations, tweets, blog posts, and trackbacks on each page of a story.  Take ownership of that story for your publication and the attention, traffic, links and focus that come with it.
  • Stop thinking in terms of medium, think in terms of message.  It is okay to just publish digitally – this is the master copy anyway.  At the end of the day the digital version still has life while the printed version is trashed.
  • Build community surrounding your content, build a tribe behind your paper, build personal brands of writers so their content is heavily followed.

Seth Godin makes some sage points about what we would miss if print was gone:

Woodpulp, printing presses, typesetting machines, delivery trucks, those stands on the street and the newsstand… I think we’re okay without them.

The sports section? No, that’s better online, and in no danger of going away, in fact, overwritten commentary by the masses is burgeoning.

The weather? Ditto. Comics are even better online, and I don’t think we’ll run out of those.

Book and theater and restaurant reviews? In fact, there are more of these online, often better, definitely more personal and relevant, and also in no danger of going away.

The full page ads for local department stores? The free standing inserts on Sunday? The supermarket coupons? Easily replaced.

How about the editorials and op eds? Again, I think we’re not going to see opinion go away, in fact, the web amplifies the good stuff.

Agreed with Seth on all counts.  Print news is clumsy and you can’t possibly go through much of it in a day and be efficient – RSS and organizing content using the web and social tools makes things so much easier – I am on top of trending topics globally from all sources in one place.  There is nothing about print to me that is better than the digital copy.  The web is more influential than print anyway.


What’s the first thing you do if someone hands you a CD?  Make a quick copy of it into iTunes, no doubt.  That digital copy joins your music library where it is safe (CDs can become scratched) and be shared via all your mobile devices.  The CD is now just another copy, and in fact the ripped version on your system is the master.


  • Get scratched
  • Are cumbersome
  • Easily lost
  • Exponentially inflated cost


  • Sharable
  • Sortable
  • Portable
  • Fit in your pocket
  • Cheap to purchase
  • Free to distribute

These two mediums are totally analogous.  I’m not just saying this from the perspective of a music fan, I actually have released an audio CD.  I’ll be honest, I enjoyed doing it as an artist to have my music in a tangible format.  I broke even on costs, but in retrospect would I do it again?  Not a chance – it’s just too much work and too expensive to bother with when it’s just going to end up as mp3s on the web anyway.  I might as well put it in the most efficient format from step one.  In fact, since I have done this in an open format, my music has taken on new life.

I probably have enough leverage from mp3 downloads (I have tracked my numbers) and blog/social media mentions I could put together a good pitch to a label to sell/promote my music in the future if I wanted to go that route.  But I have chosen to pursue music as a hobby and because I enjoy it, and so I’m not trying to profit off it.  But even if I was trying to profit off it – I see no value in having CDs of my art – producing them just takes time away from being in-studio actually working on projects.  Mp3s are the superior format in all aspects.  The only format I would prefer is vinyl, but even still that is not actually the master copy – vinyl is just a pressed waveform of the master digital audio file.


For photography, graphics, movies, documents, music, newspapers – essentially all media — the digital is the master copy.  It actually has been like this for years, but until recently the end user not had direct access.  Now that everyone not only has access to the master copy, but tools which make manipulating it simple, the master copy is by far the most valuable.  It is easily backed up, thrown into the cloud, organized, shared, sorted and searchable, making it far more useful.  You can make tangible copies where necessary – but in all cases your media loses significant power if a tangible version is the only copy.

The most efficient and valuable medium is the one without friction, which enables infinite possibility for the best content and the potential to instantly reach every single person interested in said content.  Digital is the master copy and the copy with the highest potential value.  And, the value isn’t in locking it down, it is in setting in free with a strategy behind it.

Related posts from The Future Buzz:

Newspapers Still Have Much to Learn About the Web

Web Clips: Worth Far More Than Print Clips

For Music and News Industries, Power is Now With the People

Related posts from around the web:

Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable (Clay Shirky)

The Amazon Kindle is the Great White Hope for Monetizing Print Media (Micro Persuasion)

SxSWi: We Media (Conversation Agent)

image credit:  do u remember