Print Magazine cover
Print Magazine. Image via Wikipedia.

Print’s end is sometimes stated as a certainty, an end that is overdue and ultimately cathartic. After all, who needs all those dirty marks on dead trees cluttering the world when we have digital immediacy? Print is an outmoded technology, rooted in time and space, unyielding to search, a relic from the past.

Those of us who still print and see a lot of benefit from print editions often buy into this technocratic vision with grudging acquiescence. It’s with a heavy heart but a supposedly clear mind that editors and leaders in publishing will acknowledge that their print editions will someday perish.

Recently, the Canadian newspaper La Presse had its moment of existential clarity, acknowledging that print will end, but unwilling to name a date. For publishers who still have sizable print revenue streams, this regretful acceptance sounds a familiar chord, while the exact terminus for print is oddly difficult to predict.

From time to time, eliminating print is stated as a goal. Technophiles sometimes portray print and online as at-odds, almost as if it were a zero-sum game — print must die for digital to prevail. Oddly, it’s often editors who are the most adamant about being “digital first.” This can occur for a few reasons, not the least of which is a lack of understanding about how much revenue print still generates in some fields.

In other fields, print has been irrelevant for a long while. These fields tend to be the more computational and quantitative fields — physics, astronomy, and so forth — where advertising was never a major revenue stream. Even in these fields, however, there can be slivers of print in the business model, either for library sales or international sales. And these small slices of print business can be surprisingly lucrative, helpful, and persistent.

When it comes to biomedical fields, print still plays a major role. Part of this is the continued strength of print advertising, both as a business model for publishers and as an effective way to market new drugs and devices. In medicine, print journals are the second most-trusted resource for information, after colleagues.

There is an odd chicken-and-egg relationship between strong print advertising legacies and persistent print publishing. I often wonder what would happen if the physics literature had a robust advertising market. Would the market research, readership analyses, and customer surveys done routinely as part of running an advertising market show that even physicists would like to receive print and find it useful? Does the lack of print metrics blind one to the potential value of print distribution?

This gets to a subtle point about print — it still cuts through the clutter, while possessing a tangible persistence that online does not. From an information marketing perspective, print is superior. It is perhaps the best “push” approach we’ve yet invented. A pet theory of mine is that the more print disappears, the more penetrating power it has. Think about when someone sends you a hand-written note or an envelope in the mail. It has a growing magic to it, like something from the third dimension invading your two-dimensional world of screens and typing surfaces. You can actually turn it over, open it, and set it on your table — upside down or right-side up. You have to physically reject it to get rid of it. You interact with it for many times longer than you do the emails cluttering your inbox.

Marketing is important to ideas. As Rory Sutherland, a marketing impresario who you might remember from the classic “Diamond Shreddies” TED Talk featured here a few years ago, writes in a recent column:

. . . academics, however brilliant, are the worst marketers in the world. . . . So indifferent are academics to presentation, it seems, that the PowerPoint slide which announced the existence of the Higgs Boson was partly written in the font Comic Sans. . . . many recent insights from six or seven interrelated fields of social science are extraordinarily important in terms of business activity, but more important still, public policy. If those things aren’t widely known, appreciated, and understood, and if people aren’t allowed to grasp them in the right way, then they will be crudely overlooked. . . . the good ideas aren’t always influential and the influential ideas aren’t always good.

Print has a role in marketing ideas, even today. It sounds heretical to say, because we’ve convinced ourselves that “publishers are becoming technology companies” or “publishers are software companies.” I’ve said these things myself. But perhaps publishers are truly “content marketing companies” — brands that select the content they wish to promote, then use all the tools at their disposal to do so. Print is still one of these tools, but a tool we’re pushing aside because our power drill seems to have all the attachments.

Recently, news organization Politico and its parent company Allbriton Communications announced that they will be launching a targeted print publication called Capital New York. This is not Politico’s first use of print, as they have a free newspaper and a magazine distributed in DC. With a distribution of 8,000 limited to decision-makers in New York state politics, Capital New York’s intent is to cut through the clutter. As Roy Schwartz is quoted in Folio:

I think one of the keys we’ve had in terms of success was having a print product. In DC we have a magazine and a newspaper, and there’s nothing like that in the New York market. Nearly everything we do with Capital New York is based on the expertise we’ve developed from POLITICO. There’s a subscription product, there’s digital, mobile, social, there’s videos and events. The key to the success is to be able to offer clients a true cross-platform solution.

“Engagement” is a vogue term we often use thoughtlessly in the world of online metrics, but it was introduced by people who understand that publishers are, at some level, content marketing companies. Currently, engagement is circumscribed implicitly by many to mean online interactions — have enough of them and make them last long enough, and your audience is “engaged” with your content. While this is an important thing to track, if you rise above the technology assumptions, print becomes another possible source of engagement, and one that is proven to do a good job at many levels — awareness, interaction, duration, and depth of read.

One of the long-term challenges here has been print advertising’s trend away from print, which began with television and accelerated with online. Despite numerous studies showing print’s command of audience and attention, the bias against print-based advertising took hold and held sway on philosophical grounds, until a vicious cycle emerged — less print advertising to support print, leading to cutbacks in print, leading to more reliance on online, leading to less print advertising, and so forth.

College newspapers are suffering as much as local papers in an era when print’s power is routinely undervalued. With ad lines eroding, print editions of college papers are being cut to save money. In some cases, these savings seem paltry — $63,000/year in a university budget seems hardly worth attacking as an extravagance. Moving thoughtlessly to online-only may further entrench the habit of overlooking print’s power, as students won’t ever see the effect print can have on their audience and therefore will have no cross-platform experience outside of online platforms. When a profession is presumed to be all online, how do you break the mold?

We tend to think it’s a good thing or a normal thing when a journal or book doesn’t print. It’s cheaper, it’s more modern, it’s more mainstream. But, perhaps we should be asking ourselves something more fundamental — Is that good content marketing?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


20 Thoughts on "Identity Crisis — Does Print Need to Die for Online to Flourish?"


When I saw the headline I thought: What should I do with my 8 track tapes?

I think the greatest challenge to e publishing is the rapidity of technological change in relation to longevity.

I think the challenge is about competing for time and attention. In this regard, print can have a place, even a prominent place. As the channel becomes less utilized, I think it ironically becomes more valuable and effective. I read some magazines cover-to-cover that I’d never find online, simply because they’re sent to me.

Advertisers are missing the boat to some degree, as well. Advertising works by priming our selectivity bias, not by demanding a click or order. If we think Brand A when we’re buying in a category of products because their ads have primed our selectivity bias, then the ads work. A glimpse of an advertisement in print has been shown to be very effective at priming this innate human bias for selectivity.

Does radio need to die for television to flourish? I would imagine that the answers are the same. Media demand just changes over time. There is even still a buggy whip market, though it is now very small.

Correct, of course. But the smart companies own television, radio, and Internet broadcast properties, or similar ways to package and distribute content. We all need to be cross-platform. For organizations that produce articles, print is still a medium that’s effective and in many cases quite cost-effective.

Not sure that is an apples-to-apples analogy. It would be more like, does radio have to die for spotify to succeed? Or does television have to die for Netflix to succeed.

I am a textbook author of print books, so I obviously have a bias. However, because I intend to stay in the market whatever the medium used to convey what I write, I regularly read the research on reading print books versus reading online or on screens. Although the jury is still out, the overwhelming body of research suggests that for new readers and struggling readers, print is a better conveyer of information that lacks a narrative structure. When it comes to long-form discussions of abstract ideas, print, at least currently, seems to be more effective with this audience than are online essays or digital devices.

Because I’ve long been appalled by my own publisher’s insistence that print is obsolete and real learning will only take place when boring old books have forever disappeared, I’m delighted to see a more nuanced response to the question “Should we get rid of print on paper ?”

The research on learning from print versus online or digital devices does not convince me that “publishing companies are [or should be] becoming technology companies.” And this article has only confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a long time, that the two media have different purposes and effects (depending on the content and audience) and why do we have to insist on one or the other?

In the context of personal correspondence, the comment about print’s becoming more precious as it disappears had not occurred to me, but, in my opinion, it’s absolutely true, and I’m forever done with e-mail thank you notes.

I agree the role of print is more nuanced today. My small journal’s World Editorial Headquarters is a home office/guest room: Great view, nonexistent commute, but precious little storage space. If you send me a hand-written note, I will read and savor it. But, unless you are someone loved or very important, I will not save it. An email, on the other hand, goes into a “keep” folder and is saved indefinitely. Similarly, even I store only a few printed back issues of my own journal. If I need to see an older article, I go online.

The print version, however, is a deliverable to our readers. It’s an announcement, “Here’s something new for you.” As we contemplate moving away from print, we are struggling with how to replace this delivery message. When we release an issue, do we send our readers an email? Or, do we mail them a summary, table of contents, or what?

To this point, there is a great book analyzing the difference between usage of print communications and usage of online communications, called “The Myth of the Paperless Office.” (

In it, the authors found that people used digital media for storage and retrieval and broad sharing, paper media for collaboration and close sharing. That fits with most experiences, but underscores something of the customer relationship print can underscore — that it is closer and more shared at a fundamental level. As we seek engagement, having closer and more fundamentally shared interactions can only help.

Without explicitly saying so, kent is addressing serial publications here–whether academic journals, popular magazines, or newspapers–not books. As so often at TSK, discussion focuses on periodicals, with books playing a very secondary role. That’s unfortunate because statements made about journals do not always apply in the same way, or at all, about books. In this instance, it is important to note that acceptance of OA in monograph publishing was conditioned on the non-disappearance of print because authors insisted on having a print copy of their book to show to their P&T committees. They were happy to have their books be made accessible OA, but only if print copies could still be supplied POD. For this reason, it is unlikely that print will ever disappear as far as monographs are concerned.

And monographs are not the same as most other society published books. We are discouraging print for conference proceedings, which are published as books a whole lot, in favor of a digital product. We already create the digital product for proceedings and the after conference market for books is small. No need to keep them in the warehouse. Likewise for smaller technical reports.

Thank you so much for all your posts, which I always read avidly. Just lately I’ve begun to look at the possibilities of ‘indie publishing’ online, for a particular book I am working on, which I would very much like to be freely available if possible (because it concerns an aspect of local linguistic heritage). The trouble is that the intended audience includes people from communities in my country who have often only very limited access to the internet – and if they have it all, are often not greatly at ease with it. Very few people here even have smart phones, let alone e-readers, and the humble local library still plays a hugely important part in providing people with access to books. So it troubles me that any great or exclusive shift to e-publishing and away from print may begin to leave an awful lot of people in the world – at least in countries such as mine – increasingly excluded. I ‘get’ that e-publishing is increasingly seen as more ‘mainstream’: of course it seems progressive, and of course it’s definitely exciting. I’m just not sure, though, that e-publications are always accessible to the majority of people in every society, which is why I share your sense – if for a different reason – that perhaps we should not automatically assume a print-free world is the best one possible (for now).

Whether or not print should die really shouldn’t be up to us as publishers, but rather it should depend on what our customers demand. Assuming that print will die any time soon is an US/Western Europe-centric idea. There are many places in the world where there is still significant demand for print and our mission should be to figure out how to provide that product at a price that returns something to our bottom line, yet isn’t considered piracy. There are ways to make this happen (the American Chemical Society reduces their page count by half by using a “condense and rotate” process) and as long as there are customers who want it, why wouldn’t we supply it? The “last customer” will have to decide whether the price justifies a continuing subscription.

I agree. Not only that, but while everyone is yelling at publishers to stop recreating print in the online environment, that is what the readers are using. PDF downloads far outweigh HTML page views. I had a digital journal subscriber ask me for an easier way to download an entire journal issue. He wanted to be able to browse through an issue while off line but was only subscribing to the online version. We looked at the numbers recently and we still have a lot of print or print + online subscribers. These seem to fall into two categories–international institutions where internet access is expensive or spotty and older members that have gotten the print journals for the last 40 years and want to continue to do so.

The PDF poses quite a conundrum, and shows how “design” and “media” can become conceptually inseparable. I may have to write a post about this.

For instance, the 2-3 column design of most printed media and the aspect ratios of most pages (more vertical than horizontal) isn’t based on limitations of print, but on design for the human eye. The ratio of the iPad mimics this not because it mimics paper but because human hands and brains prefer to hold something about that size for engaged activities. The Surface was a little too long (and heavy), and is now being revised (announced today) as having aspect ratios more akin to the iPad. Column presentations for print are mimicked in Flipboard, but there is no paper — it’s just that column layouts shorten reading lines in a way that speeds reading along, if done right.

The PDF is usually read online or printed in single sheets, not in bound books. Facing pages lose some of their design power, but other aspects of print design — and arguably the timeless human design parts — are retained and valued.

PDFs are well-designed electronic documents now, and users like them. They encapsulate a lot of what designers have learned about reading over the past few hundred years, since the appearance of the folio book and moving typography. We accomplish and distribute these designs in different ways now, but the designs themselves have lasting value.

PDFs are not a print vestige per se. Composited pages are designs first realized in print which are moving effectively online with great success via the PDF.

While e-publishing of scholarly journals has replaced print publication … don’t people, who want to read a scientific paper, often print out the PDF copy?

For scholarly journals the disaggregation of the bound issue and the inevitable slog to the demise of print began with online A&I services and has continued with the licensed full text content. The journal issue was a convenience for publishers and librarians but I doubt it has little value to researchers who cared only about the content. When that they could get to the content without the bother of volume and issue and photocopier they happily swapped the necessity of routing issues through departmental mail boxes or going to the library and looking through current periodicals for the convenience of seeing the content they wanted where and when they wanted it. Who wouldn’t? Librarians were equally happy to shed the mind-numbing maintenance of dealing with print issues. I suspect that over time we will see a similar if less complete disaggregation of the the scholarly book as students and research discover content at the chapter level through tools such as “one search” and Google scholar. The elegance of font and page will inevitably yield technology as that technology provides the user with a straighter path to their goal. This discussion reminded me of Kipling’s “The King”
“Farewell, Romance!” the Cave-men said;
With bone well carved He went away,
Flint arms the ignoble arrowhead,
And jasper tips the spear to-day.
Changed are the Gods of Hunt and Dance,
And He with these. Farewell, Romance!”

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