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Insiders Bob Sacks and Samir Husni square off in the magazine industry’s hottest debate: Will print magazines survive—or even thrive—in the next century?

Intro: Bob Sacks, better known as “BoSacks,” is a 38-year veteran of the publishing industry whose e-newsletter, “Heard on the Web: Media Intelligence,” reaches nearly 12,000 readers daily. Samir Husni, nicknamed “Mr. Magazine,” holds a doctorate in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and is the author of Launch Your Own Magazine: A Guide for Succeeding in Today’s Marketplace. Sacks and Husni have lengthy publishing résumés. Both run private consulting firms primarily focused on magazines and media. Both are well-respected experts in the publishing world. And both have strong opinions on where the magazine industry is headed.

We asked BoSacks and Mr. Magazine to share their views and let you be the judge. Here are BoSacks thoughts on the future of magazines. . Click here (or the link at the end of the article) for Mr. Magazine's take.

A basic modern assumption is that things will be as they are, only more so—that is, that we’ll still have the same needs, wants and desires as our forefathers, but we’ll continually satisfy those needs faster and more efficiently.

Writer and publisher alert: The speed and efficiency of the future is here right now, and it’s accelerating at an unprecedented and perhaps even uncomfortable rate. Because we’re actually in it, sometimes we don’t realize how far we’ve progressed into the future. But it’s possible to recognize that change when we reflect on the past and look into our tedious recent and former methodologies.

Even if you went as far back as Johann Gutenberg, you couldn’t find a more interesting and complex period in our industry than right now. Gutenberg created movable type and an industry was born—the rapid distribution of information as never before achieved, nor dreamed possible.

At the time, the growth of the printing press and the distribution of information were irresistible forces whose only combatants were ignorance and, to us, extremely limited technology. Of course, that limitation is only apparent with tremendous hindsight. The technology of those days was no less amazing than our reaching out to the stars or the World Wide Web. Remember, it took a single scribe more than a year to hand-copy a single book. And there were no “pre-flighting” and “spell checking” to make sure he got it right. But Gutenberg could turn out hundreds of books in a week, each one identical to the next. So, it’s not hard to envision the exponential growth of … well, everything. You no longer needed old wise men to learn from. You didn’t even need to be an apprentice. You could learn anything and everything from a book. What Gutenberg actually achieved was the democratization of knowledge. Does that concept sound familiar?

From the time of Gutenberg 600 years ago, we’ve seen little change in our expertise except the speed with which we produce words, type them and print them on paper. But now the future portends to possibly eliminate the need for paper, and thus doom the otherwise noble process (and lucrative business model) of putting ink on paper. Is that important? Where does the importance really lie—in the creation of thoughts and words or the substrate on which they rest and are read?

In discussing the future of reading and publishing, electronic publishing is an unavoidable topic. I prefer to call the process Electronically Coordinated Information Distribution, or El-CID. It’s clear that publishers must now consider themselves information distributors and be independent of a reliance on any single platform or substrate.

The reading of a book is the distribution of stored information, passed from one person to another. Could it be a book printed on dead trees? Yes. Could it be the same book delivered in electronic format? Yes. The point is that all the world’s information is now available for immediate distribution in any format the reader requires.

Bernard Baruch once said, “A speculator is a man who observes the future and acts before it occurs.” This seems like prudent advice for today’s writers and publishers to ponder as we proceed into the future of publishing in the 21st century.

From a 20th-century perspective, one of the most wonderful things about magazines and books, apart from their content, is their amazing and convenient portability. You can read them anywhere, at any time, without a plug or an Internet connection. Simply put, magazines and books are easy to get and easy to read. With ink printed on paper you’re usually provided with a crisp, high-contrast, highly reflective substrate. And because it reflects light evenly in all directions, you can read it at almost any angle. Not bad for 600-year-old technology.

On the other hand, a computer—be it a laptop or a desktop—is not so uncomplicated, not kind on the eyes and not nearly as convenient. But it can store as much information as the Library of Alexandria and can instantly summon text or images from deep within its memory or from the Web.

There’s a new product called e-paper that combines the best of the new and the old media through the use of thin, lightweight and flexible displays that simulate traditional paper while providing the immediacy and versatility of a computer screen. A company called E Ink has already commercialized a large-scale version of its electronic paper technology for use in products such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, and as screens in PDAs, cell phones and pagers.

These displays perform just as paper does and can be read under the same light conditions as paper. There’s no backlight to e-paper like a traditional computer screen—it works on reflective light. You can read e-paper wherever you can read traditional paper, and it’s serving as the substrate for electronic books, magazines and newspapers, the content of which can be stored, updated and changed wirelessly. The power requirements are meager, because the voltage only needs to be applied once to change an image. So, in the example of an electronic book or magazine, power would be needed only when downloading new text onto the plastic pages. Thereafter, the text could be carried around and read anywhere without using a power source until you change to the next page.

Many researchers and corporations are in hot pursuit of this new vision of El-CID, and they’ve already produced and sold millions of products. As this technology matures, the results of their efforts could conceivably and permanently change the face of publishing and reading.

Information distribution (formally known as publishing) is no longer just about the paper, and it’s not about your computer browser, either. It’s about getting all the information anywhere, anytime, on any substrate and any platform. Are we headed toward a totally paperless society? No, not yet and not in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. It’s a digital world now, and the digits aren’t going to go away.

Click here to read Samir Husni's "The Death of Print Magazines and Other Fairy Tales"

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