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Communications of the ACM

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End of Days For Communications in Print?

cases of magazines


Calls to update the peer-review publishing model to accommodate the rise in online publishing ( raise a question about the durability of print publications and of the printed magazine version of Communications of the ACM. How long will it last? ACM asked this very question in 2006 before starting the Communications revitalization project. "We talked to numerous ACM members about their expectations for the flagship publication. We explicitly asked whether they would like to continue to see Communications as a print publication," says Communications Editor-in-Chief Moshe Y. Vardi. "The vast majority expressed a strong desire to continue to see Communications in print."

Members want multiple formats, including print. Institutional libraries and individual members like print for archival reasons and for "ease of use," says Scott Delman, ACM's Director of Group Publishing. "Until this demand completely or significantly disappears, publishers will likely still continue to print paper issues."

While commercial publishers struggle to update their business models, ACM and other scholarly publishers have already made a capable transition from print to digital media.

Half of commercial publishers generated less than 10% of their 2009 revenue through e-media, according to Folio magazine ( In contrast, "most mid-sized to large [scholarly] publishers currently experience something like 85% to 90% of their revenues from online business," Delman says. ACM has been a predominantly digital publisher for a number of years, he says.

Even so, the forecast for print is fuzzy. "I am convinced that we will not have a print issue of Communications in 25 years, but it is hard to predict when it will go away," says EiC Vardi. Change will start, says BLOG@CACM blogger Ed Chi of the Palo Alto Research Center, with scholarly journals going paperless and digitally publishing online first. "This will happen gradually, and only if there are ways to manage the publication process, and the archival aspect of publications."

Newer, dynamic digital formats will also marginalize print media. "More and more, there is experimentation with delivery in mobile-friendly formats, but it is fair to say that these formats will not likely supplant print or Web-based formats for some time," Delman says. With its development of a mobile Web site and mobile apps, Communications will continue to follow the technology curve of e-readers and tablet computers, Vardi says. "At some point in the future, the user experience of reading on mobile devices will be so good that print will start fading away as an anachronism."

Digital media will free Communications from the constraints of print, Vardi says. "As we gradually shift the focus from print to digital publishing, the articles we publish will become less textual and less linear, and will take advantage of the flexibility and richness of the digital medium. I can imagine in the not-too-distant future an article on computational whiskey making, where the reader can actually smell the whiskey!"


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John Goyo

Many magazines have gone digital over the years and I find that whereas I would have read at least the table of contents and a few articles of the print version, I rarely bother looking at the digital version. I rarely look at the CACM online-only content. I prefer to read the print copies sitting in my favourite chair with a beverage. When walls become digital displays, I may change my habit. My reaction may not be typical but it may not be rare, either. (At a conference on digital vs. print media last year or so, The Economist noted that their print version was far more popular because of its convenient form factor.)

David Roman

You are in good company, John. While online readership has grown, so has magazine readership for all age groups (except 35-49, down slightly), according to 2009 data from MPA, The Association of Magazine Media. MPA says that magazine readers spend more time online, make more purchases online, and are more affluent than non-magazine readers. They are also "super influential" consumers of luxury goods like beverages. Hey, were you part of that study?

Shawn Stewart

I would personally prefer to cease receiving paper copies of Communications and instead receive them via my Kindle (or other e-reader), similar to my now digital only NYTimes subscription.

The form factor is equally convenient and doesn't result is near as much clutter nor the piles of paper I have to take to the recycling bin.

David Roman

Hi Shawn. You can stop receiving paper copies of Communications by emailing and putting HOLD PRINT in the subject field.

Some content in the ACM Digital Library is newly available in e-reader formats. The October 2010 issue of Communications ( is offered in PRC and EPUB formats, for example. ACM will be monitoring usage of these formats. Thank you for your input.

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