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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Social Media and the Demise of Print

Last week's announcement that the Celebrator Beer News will cease print production was a shot across the bow of traditional beer publications everywhere. It was also a reminder that social media is the heir apparent of print and digital in the beer world. Not necessarily a good thing.

The Celebrator, founded in 1988, helped push the craft beer movement along in its formative years. As others have noted, you had to search for beer-related stories and information for many years. That changed with the explosion of the industry within the last 10-15 years.

That growth spurt spawned another one: There are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of print and digital outlets dedicated to covering the craft beer scene. I'm obviously including the numerous blogs, like this one, that cover beer in a variety of ways.

There's certainly redundancy in a lot of this coverage. You read about a brewery or beer or brewer in one place and soon see a similar story somewhere else. As long as there was an audience hungry for information and anxious to read it, redundancy probably wasn't such a bad thing.

Of course, we all know print is in death throes. Newspapers and magazines are having a terrible time. The ones that have a good digital platform still have readers, but the ad revenue model of print has never transferred very well to the digital format. It's a financial calamity, actually.

The larger problem for print and digital outlets is that a lot of people don't read anymore. Blame technology, blame laziness. Whatever. The reality is that people prefer their information in small chunks. We're dreadfully uninformed as a result, but we don't seem to mind. Drink up!

The Celebrator, which may or may not survive in digital-only form, isn't the only beer-centric publication on thin ice. Beer Advocate, a magazine I've written for in the past, announced a while back that it was moving from monthly (10 issues a year, I think) to quarterly publication. I'm sure there are others we aren't yet aware of.

Print is being driven to extinction at least partially due to the growing power and influence of social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram mesh almost perfectly with shortening attention spans and the evolving consumer preference for smaller chunks of information.

Social media is not a great fit for some businesses. The med-tech company I consult for is a perfect example. It hasn't yet figured out how to effectively use social media to leverage sales or customer relationships. I recommended serious exploration of that strategy 10 years ago. True story.

Beer-centric businesses, on the other hand, quickly saw the potential of social media. They realized young beer consumers are highly driven by social media. Attracting that crowd meant devising events and activities that could be promoted via those channels. That's what release parties, tastings, tap takeovers, festivals, launch parties, etc., are all about. You knew, right?

The appeal of social media transcends its ability to reach youthful beer consumers. It allows beer-centric business to reach customers and potential customers more quickly, easily and cheaply than ever before. That's a big part of why traditional beer publications are struggling...they simply can't deliver what a decent social media presence can.

What's the downside? The demise of traditional outlets means there will be less objective, informative reporting out there. Social media, a platform designed for short form promotion, is open to groupies and hucksters who sometimes have an interest in what they're promoting without that interest being apparent or acknowledged.

I readily admit that conflicts of interest can be present in any form of media. Some beer blogs are nothing more than promotional vehicles for brands willing to hand out free beer and swag. Social media, because it's available to virtually anyone with a following without regard to expertise or conflicts of interest, merely takes the concern for objectivity to another level.

But this is the course we've chosen, for better or worse. And maybe it'll work out fine. Maybe it won't matter that social media coverage is skimpy on detail and too often subject to conflicts of interest. Maybe.

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