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?