It’s not hard to find those who argue that the end is nigh for legal and professional information publishing. The security and strength of “need to know” and “have to have” information appears to have diminished, with content seeming to be down to “prince” or an even more lowly status in the monarchical hierarchy. Those who argue in those directions do so effectively, showing how the Internet, changing profitability and competitive models and the shift in favour of workflow solutions render the publishing component no longer core. Informed commentators see the current fortunes of the main professional publishers, currently achieving 3% growth p.a. as being on a downward and unacceptable slide, the view being expressed frequently and in many ways that the game is up for those who have done well in the past. Some of the recent legal publishing initiatives and partnerships as well as expansion, through further acquisition, into new geographical markets notwithstanding, they suggest that the current owners of these companies have decided that legal publishing isn’t the business they want to be in or that they have lost faith in or their ability to create the prospect of legal information as a source of growth. The opinion expressed is that they are likely to be seeking a means of easing out of legal publishing sector altogether.
Not surprisingly, I both hope and believe that this is not the case and that we should avoid the risk of confusing delivery media, i.e. the inevitable shift away from paper and print, with the business of supplying complex, structured source and added-value content, increasingly together with documentation, workflow tools, software and other processes. As far as the content component is concerned, I think that an obsession with the medium is pointless, whereas questions of optimum quality, context, suitability and relevance change only by degree. Naturally, nothing remains the same as it was and the ways in which practitioners, students, compliance people and others want to receive and use information evolves constantly. However, it is the job of the expert publisher to understand, drive and respond to change. More likely is the shift in the balance of power as among the giants that presently dominate the global markets and the reduction of existing influences of the current market leaders, in favour of newer entrants, large and small.
I struggle to imagine a scenario, certainly in the foreseeable future, when the need for professional advisers will no longer exist. If I am correct, what will continue to distinguish the excellent from the mediocre or worse, will be the brilliance of the former, which is gained and maintained, in large part from the expert content that they are able to acquire and exploit. To that extent, the information provider, almost literally, offers the practitioner a most valuable license to advise and invoice clients. Obviously, the sources of such content and the suppliers of it are entirely capable of changing, as has always been the case but the need for it remains. Therefore, it matters not who supplies it and how, so long as it is capable of being supplied. The issue then becomes one of fairly simple arithmetic, as to who wants to provide content and how to continue to do so at some level of profitability. If they cannot do it profitably, then I would question their competence in a market where quality, engagement and commitment are generously rewarded by supportive users.
However naïve the view, I don’t see professional information publishing going the way of other industry sectors that rise and terminally fall on technology changes or, worse, fashion. It’s does not have to be like video rental stores, where the consumer desire for entertainment was seen as subordinate to the delivery medium. People continue to want to be entertained but the store became irrelevant. With professional information, who knows how it will be consumed in the future and who cares, so long as professional advice is required by paying clients.
It appears to be the case that needs are indeed expressed in changing ways. Whereas in the past, the professional publisher profited from its ability exclusively to provide detailed analysis of the law and other sources, increasingly there is a need for packaged solutions and processes, where answers are sought without the detail of the “whys” and “hows”. However, one might see this as more of an opportunity than a problem as markets have broadened to embrace both the small number of experts and a wide range of compliance officers of one kind and another.
It seems to me to be entirely legitimate for commercial publishers to want to optimise their profits for the short and long term and that it is appropriate for them to manage technology, content, pricing formulae and customer relations in ways that deliver their corporate objectives. If they get the balance among the conflicting priorities wrong, chances are that their customers will not tolerate them and their futures will be determined. I see no problem in publishers seeking to take out cost, as part of the electronic evolution process, without necessarily passing this back entirely to customers who are paying for the perceived value of the content rather than the weight of the paper. At the same time, competitive pressures ought to be such that greed and excess are measurable and therefore punished.
Rather than a time of gloom and negativity, the picture for those who serve legal and professional information markets should be bright, with ever more opportunities and services that are reasonably defined as “publishing” coming into the mix. The focus on workflow allows the publisher to understand every part of the customer’s processes and tasks and, with a knowledge of those aspects which depend on information and low, medium and high level expertise, to intervene at every possible point to aid the customer. Often I have spoken to people who serve professional advisers with services such as process software and documentation, document management, help-lines and consultancy services, who do not see themselves as being in publishing or as part of the same mix as their more obvious publishing colleagues. I do see this as a mistake, when they all have in common the same customer base and. often, the same customers’ clients in their long sights.
So, maybe it is the case that some large publishing company owners want out, if they think they can secure greater profits elsewhere but that is fine. I have no doubt that there are many others who are more than ready and able to take their places and to thrive. A few individual publishing people might appear somewhat brain dead but legal publishing is not and will survive them happily.