Content, Containers, and Change

This past March, I was fortunate to get some face time with one of the senior directors for Thomson Reuters’ new Print and Advanced Media division to talk about business. Among the many topics to be discussed was that particularly irksome one, the future of print. When we kicked off our conversation, the director acknowledged that she had had some feelings of trepidation when she signed on to help run a division that seemingly—excuse the pun—has a limited shelf life.

I understood where she was coming from, particularly since I’d just seen Thomson Reuters’ 2009 financial report released the week before showing a year-over-year decline in print and non-subscription products. Although her’s seemed a foreboding job, I couldn’t help but think about the possibilities of working with the content of over 6,000 titles. That had to be exciting.

It wasn’t until after we had parted ways that it hit me—

Wait. Why is there a separate print and advanced media division?

The question is rhetorical of course. I know why there is such a division, but just saying it suggests a different and more interesting question, namely, should there even be such a division?

Historically, it seems that the distribution of legal content has been viewed through two separate lenses: OFFLINE and ONLINE services.

OFFLINE services have included a publisher’s catalog of titles (conceived digitally, born as paper) and distribution platforms—both analog and digital—for those titles: print, microforms, floppy disks, CD-ROM, DVD, and, more recently, the Internets (e.g., “interactive books,” pdf downloads). ONLINE services have included a publisher’s databases (f/k/a “digital libraries”) of public and private data and distribution platforms for those databases: Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis, Bloomberg Law, Loislaw, etc. Each service—OFFLINE and ONLINE—competes with the other for ownership of eyeballs, and in many cases, share them.

Before 2000, this dichotomy seemed reasonable because access to content was limited to print and a desktop or laptop computer. But even by then we were beginning to see the signs of new access modes and publishing formats, specifically through eReaders. Enter 2007, and we are suddenly introduced to three revolutionary access (and distro) channels: the iPhone, the Kindle, and the web-enabled netbook. Looking back on it, the distinction between traditional OFFLINE and ONLINE services now seems oddly antiquated. And it should seem that way because everything is digital, everything is online, and everything is connected.

As to the issue of whether there should be a separate print division, I would argue that there is no longer a need for “print” or “advanced media” or any other moniker that seeks to divide digital content between seemingly (but not) competing distribution platforms. There is no longer a need for OFFLINE and ONLINE. Westlaw (or Lexis) is a publishing platform and it is online, in the cloud. It should give you content anyway you like (whole or mashed) and on any web-enabled device. Trying to maintain different divisions with competing interests for the same digital content just seems counterintuitive at this point.

So along these lines, I’ve been thinking that when it comes to modern legal publishing, there should be only two primary divisions: one for CONTENT and the other for CONTAINERS.

The CONTENT division would be responsible for creating and managing all public and private content. This entails, at the very least, defining appropriate XML schema and workflows, managing metadata and content as a single object, ensuring accuracy and guaranteeing reliability of all content, and expanding the knowledge base. The individuals in this division are your information architects and the ones that provide customers with the answers.

The CONTAINERS [fn*] division would be responsible for every format and distribution channel used to deliver content. This would include all existing and future file formats (e.g., PDF, ePub, Mobi, AZW, HTML 5) and channels (e.g., print, CD-ROM, Web, mobile apps, cloud apps). The division’s principle responsibilities would involve the design, construction, implementation, and management of the various formats and distribution channels. One of the things I’m concerned about here is that the user experience for particular content is both maximized and consistent across all formats and channels, something we aren’t achieving now. [fn**] The individuals in this division are your designers and the ones that ensure customers can find the answers.

In the trade world, there is a debate that many are currently having concerning the adoption of XML schemas, XML workflow, and content management systems. It is a “convert or perish” discussion. Although this is not our battle (as most legal publishers saw the need to convert some time ago), the appreciation for developing and managing content separately from publishing to multiple platforms is. The old dichotomy of OFFLINE and ONLINE no longer works. The longer we rely on this distinction, the greater risk we face of extinction.


[fn*] For more on the idea of containers and their relationship to content, I suggest reading the essay Books in the Age of the iPad by self-proclaimed digital hobo Craig Mod. You will probably be hearing this term more often throughout the year, and in fact, Bill Pollack of ALM has already used it.

[fn**] Black’s Law Dictionary is an interesting case study. Throughout my career, I’ve had access to it in print and on Westlaw, two very different user experiences and two very different divisions. In 2006, a “standalone” digital edition of the product was released that added a number of useful enhancements, such as integrating terms into Word or WordPerfect spell checkers and providing audio pronunciations. It appeared to me to be a step forward to interactive content and a way to combat the Internet-as-a-dictionary problem. But the product wasn’t an “electronic book,” which many believed it was. Instead, it was a three-year subscription to access the web version through toolbars integrated in Word, WordPerfect, and web browsers. In other words, it faked being an electronic book and just gave you access to the Westlaw version. Fast forward to 2009, West releases an iPhone (and now iPad) app for the dictionary, which I think now realizes much of the book’s digital potential that was lost in the earlier electronic edition. As we move through 2010, I can’t help but wonder how the content itself could be enhanced in an HTML 5 site that is “networked” with the Web.


  1. It appears that the attitude of the legal publishing industry has been and remains reactionary. Though there is talk of innovation, it is innovation to get us to the next quarter; i.e., the lookout has been for the short-term rather than looking at the long-term consequences of inaction or “slow” action. Offline and Online remain separate because of a failure to look at the two as complements of each other rather than as competing platforms. However, I’m sure there will be many who will argue against this point of view.

  2. Verna,

    You’re absolutely right. Much of the legal publishing industry is, as Jaron Lanier would say, “locked in.” If there is anyone out there that can make an argument favoring historical divisions of print and online, I would love to hear it.

  3. Gary P. Rodrigues

    The creation of a print and advanced media division at Thomson West is an interesting development, and is presumably something that was not done lightly. A follow up piece or comment explaining the rationale would be very interesting, including an explanation of the meaning of “advanced media” as understood by Thomson.

    Businesses are usually reorganized in an effort to address some issue or problem that the existing organization is not delivering.

    In my experience, the demands of “online” trumped all else, regardless of the cost to the business. Is the print and advanced media division an effort to restore balance and provide for future content development without being a slave to the arguably dated idea that “online delivery” is the answer to everything at Westlaw and Lexis.