As I was saying just the other day (U.S. 1, March 7), it’s amazing how many things still work and work so well — despite all the media and public hand-wringing about how bad things are. In that column I saluted the Motor Vehicle Commission and the West Windsor construction office, and ended the column with a tip of the cap to the daily newspapers, especially the New York Times, that still manage to produce high value news reports that compare favorably to the content you get on the morning news shows and blogs.
I would say the same about the print newspapers that cover my hometown, Princeton. Notwithstanding all the reports that print is dead, the inconvenient truth is that if you read the community newspapers carefully each week you will walk away with a lot more news than if you simply relied on the dozens of Internet sites and daily blogs that claim to cover the news.
So I am a big believer in print publications, and I hope you accept my credentials. Because now I am going to announce the suspension — for one year, at least — of one of the most popular and successful print publications in our area. I’m referring to the U.S. 1 Business Directory, the once-a-year compendium of businesses in central Jersey, a publication that began in 1988 as a last-minute block of text to fill out an issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper and that grew into a perfect bound, trade paperback that peaked at 312 pages from 2003 to 2008.
But, as some of you have already figured out by reading the recent solicitation for listing information, this year’s directory will be an “all-digital” publication, meaning that we will post the information gathered to our website, www.princetoninfo.com, but will not desktop publish it into another 296-page book, which then turns into five tons or so of those books that have to be hand-delivered to nearly 5,000 business locations on our circulation lists. How could a print guy forsake print in this instance?
Here’s how. First the book, as we call it, has been losing advertising revenue since that 2003 to 2008 peak. That in itself is no big deal. Every print publication known to man and mad men has lost advertising during this Great Recession. If not now, when else should an advertiser try out the glitter of the online media, where production and circulation costs are virtually zero and the cost of entry is the bargain you strike with your 15-year-old kid to set you up with a blog?
But worse than that, the directory was being tarred by the same brush that has hit telephone directories. Even though our book is a lot different from a telephone book, it nevertheless had that dreaded “directory” word in its title. And nobody uses phone directories anymore.
Second, costs kept rising. Printing and distribution were the least of it. The real challenge was collecting and verifying the data floating around in the welter we know as the “Information Age.” In the early days of the U.S. 1 Business Directory, our deliverers let us know when a company showed up or vanished. And we could follow up on delivery reports or other information with a phone call.
More recently the game has changed. The deliverers see a company name on a door but the door never opens — because there are no receptionists. The reporter in the office calls the phone number for that company but never gets beyond the voice mail tree. Messages are left, but never returned. Human beings are reached and they insist their company has an outpost at a particular location. But no one is ever there. Cue the “Twilight Zone” theme.
Despite all those obstacles, information is gleaned. Lots of information, as it turns out. And that brings us to the third strike against our print directory. To make it fit within the confines of print, we then had to start chiseling hard-earned information out of the book. In some cases that process made the book better — business descriptions that state the obvious mission of any company in a given category can surely be deleted. But other cuts were painful. A pharmaceutical R&D company often deserves more than 35 words to describe what it does.
Then there was the March 14 story in the New York Times: The Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer publish a print edition.
So what’s left to prove? This year we are grinding through the process of verifying and updating information, and we are posting the updated and expanded version of our directory at www.princetoninfo.com. It’s free, it has hot links to company websites, and you can even post a comment if you think a listing is incomplete in some way.
Meanwhile, we have a memory lurking — that every time we have introduced a digital alternative to our print publication, dating back to our first E-mail newsletter in the late 1990s, the digital alternative has fallen flat and the hard copy has endured.
So, for the die hards of the print world, we still have a few hundred copies of the cleverly named 2011-’12 Directory sitting here in our office. We are going to prepare a printed addendum to that book, listing all the new businesses we have uncovered in the past year. Could that lead to another printed directory for 2013-’14? Could it be that an annual directory no longer works, but a biannual one does? In the media Twilight Zone, stranger things have happened.