Year in Review: 5 overblown story lines

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One in a series of posts examining the best (and worst) of 2010. 

At its best, 2010 was a year in which new technology spurred digital makeovers and innovation in social media and other technology-driven areas. There were also some notable flameouts, along with some story lines that just didn't live up to the hype. Here are five of them:

The Death of Print

The reports of print's demise continue to be greatly exaggerated. What could possibly replace the tactile experience of reading the Sunday paper over the course of an afternoon? But ever since Warren Buffett declared that "newspapers have a terrible future," the print-is-dead chorus has been growing steadily more raucous. The past few years have been bad for print, to be sure. But the evidence now suggests a glimmer of hope.

The decline of the last few years is slowing, which is more of a sign of life than of death. The Wall Street Journal is doing robust ad business. At year's end, the future of The New York Times looks a lot better than it did two years ago. Annual costs are down, the expense of the dividend is a thing of the past and there is improvement -- gasp! -- in print revenue. Further, the Audit Bureau found that from April through September 2010 the average weekday circulation at 635 papers declined 5 percent compared with the same period six months last year. The free fall appears to be over.

There is a sense of optimism. Print -- particularly the newspaper industry -- has been locked in two-dimensional thinking for some time now. No longer. Publishers are taking the challenge seriously now, thinking creatively, experimenting.

Apple’s Flash ban

What in the world was Steve Jobs thinking when he tried to publicly strongarm Adobe, a popular company that Apple has had good relations with for decades? Did he really think he was gong to win that one?

Jobs doesn't lose too many intellectual skirmishes, which made it all the more odd that he'd lend his capital to restrict Flash-based applications on Apple devices, which was almost certain to draw backlash. Jobs argued that Adobe was lazy, that the future was HTML5 and that they had a difference of vision.

It didn't work. The developers revolted, wanting the right to choose. To Apple's credit, they heeded the backlash and reversed course after only four and a half months. Strategically, from a PR point of view, Adobe handled the snub flawlessly, playing the underdog. For the first time in recent memory Apple was cast in the role of galactic overlord. And that's not a good space to be in if your base is the creative class.

Paywalls

Paywalls were a big buzzword this year, but the reality is that success stories remain few and far between. Publications that provide vital business information like the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal are worth paying for because they actually pay for themselves. But can The New York Times pull off a metered paywall model in early 2011? Could a general news site make the pay-to-read model work?

There were plenty of high-profile paywall flameouts in 2010. Newsday spectacularly crashed and burned at the beginning of 2010, with only 35 super loyal readers subscribing in the first three months. The Valley Morning Star took down its paywall after only eight months; it had been charging 75 cents a day or $3.95 for a monthly subscription. And who could forget the massive decline in online readership that The Times of London suffered when going pay-to-read? Paywalls are risky.

There are, of course, other ways to monetize content. Paul Godfrey, CEO of PostMedia, Inc. told the Audit Bureau of Circulation last month that paywalls are not the cure-all for the newspaper industry. "You need to be focusing on digital products, which effectively grow audiences and revenue," he said. "The goal is to develop and grow products that create not just more audience, but engage the audience."

Apps

The media hype did not match the realities of the early stages of iPad magazine editions, which were limited to some isolated pockets of innovation. When the talk turned to saving newspapers, or maybe even the trade of journalism itself, how could any technology live up to those expectations?

Still, 2010 saw the launch of some outstanding apps -- Popular Mechanics, for example. And some not-so-great ones as well -- GQ's comes to mind. The future of app-driven magazine and newspaper content may be bright, but this year apps just didn't live up to the hype machine surrounding them.

Personalization

The concept of content personalization has been around for quite some time, and every year it is over hyped as an idea who's time has come.

This year, we saw some progress. Groupon's deal personalization is a good example of well-executed personalization. Ideally, organizing information in ways that are relevant and personal sounds, at least theoretically, fantastic. Who wouldn't want to get, say, personalized restaurant recommendations or gift suggestions for the holidays?

However, privacy issues remain a concern for publishers looking to custom-tailor their content. Remember the backlash Facebook faced over Instant Personalization? As good as effectively targeted content and other marketing strategies might be, there is always the creepy factor for some consumers: how will all that personal accumulated data be used? This may be why personalization, a perfectly good idea, has been around so long but has yet to be fully realized digitally. Maybe 2011?

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