Print Media Escapes Death Row: The Staying Power of Print

This piece was a “web editorial” assignment for my Digital Publishing class at DePaul. It was a response to a prompt addressing the future of print media.

On the surface, the future of print journalism looks quite grim. Loyalists clutch their newspapers with inky grips, much to the chagrin of teenagers and millennials, most likely the offspring of a print generation. Everyone knows, “‘News has become a commodity.’” It’s free everywhere online—why pay for it in outdated forms?

Yet many sources contest that there’s legitimacy in holding onto printed mediums, and not just on a Kindle. Most will argue that there’s simply an irreplaceable feeling about physically coming into contact with printed pages that computers and screens cannot replicate. This provides a valid argument for magazines, newspapers, books and even photo albums, surely. However, it’s hardly the only factor keeping print alive.

Face The Facts
Newspaper and magazine circulation is undeniably suffering. Advertising revenue, readership, and even staffing numbers are plummeting. Production of newspaper print editions has declined or been eliminated altogether. Ditto for magazines. These are the facts. Yet these facts are not fatal.

In a media-saturated world, newspapers and magazines have been forced to adapt to the digital space. Household names attempt to remain relevant by offering e-versions and digital issues. The debate over free content continues in a world where so much information is free. Similarly, the advertising that supports these publications has also had to adapt.

The timeline of print’s evolution should surprise no one. Even those who still insist on the influence of the daily newspaper cannot deny the changing power of technology. This shifting media landscape was as inevitable as the decline of VHS and records, yet with fewer victims.

The Power of Print
I’ll begin on a positive note by examining the benefits of printed material and their accompanying set schedules. The disadvantages over their digital counterparts appear obvious: more expensive materials and staff, instantly outdated information, declining readership. But beyond its pure charm, print still has a fighting chance.

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor
Advertising, the party largely responsible for the existence of print publications, must be discussed. I argue a simple case: if print advertising is relevant and remains “alive,” then print media will follow. The two are codependent.

An article on Forbes argues a clear case for the advantages of print advertising. Most notably, it nods to the inherent credibility of print advertising. In a physical context, advertisements look less like spam because they belong in those spaces. Vogue isn’t Vogue without beautiful, glossy, rip-‘em-out fashion ads. Readers accept them as part of the medium because they’ve been there for so long. On the internet, in order for ads to be noticed they must be interruptive, at times actually blocking content to get readers’ attention. No advertisement is so engaging that readers accept it literally blocking out a certain article.

Because of the aforementioned reasons above, print advertising has gained power. Fewer print ads means less competition. And the highly targeted medium allows more effective advertising. It’s incredibly enticing for marketers to spend their dollars in media if they have a guaranteed audience. While sophisticated digital metrics have allowed certain publishers to give their advertisers effective insight about their readers, print publishers have the advantage of already knowing their audiences without trying to keep up with technology. And if the print audience grows smaller still, advertisers will learn even more specifically who they are targeting. Despite the rise of companies like comScore, however, attempting to sort through the massive amounts of data available online sets digital publishers far behind print in truly understanding their audiences.

Print for Profit
Despite the decline in print advertising, as of now it still remains more profitable than digital ad space. While we’ve able to transition readership online, we haven’t been able to match the monetary impact of print advertising there. Consider the recently divulged price of September’s Vogue without ads: $4,447,847.53. On shelves, the issue goes for just $12. Digital advertising simply is not currently profitable enough to eliminate print, which is obviously still lucrative. Smart brands know the best media plans are part of an integrated campaign that includes a print buy in the mix.

Newspapers and magazines, similarly, have created more integrated content. Most magazines offer digital issues with their subscription services. The digital version often offers richer and more interactive content but does not replace the print version. While magazines are seeing sales grow steadily in the “digital replica editions,” the change in print over digital remains in percentages under ten percent. Consumers are starting to nibble at digital’s bait but are still feeding largely in a print ocean.

Print is Privilege
One possibility for the future of print suggests that print magazines and newspapers will become materials of the elite, like rare and first-edition books. Already print is the favored medium among affluent Americans. Given the equalizing potential of online publishing, which is significantly cheaper in terms of eliminating sheer material cost, the trend makes sense. However, it should be noted that the prices of e-books are on the rise. With this in mind, it seems like the future will bring choices for readers: printed and digital material, which will each vary in costs. Not all print can survive (as already evidenced), but prestigious names like The New York Times will most likely have holding power, just as print might serve as a way for new publications to stand out.

All the Better to Read You With, My Dear
On a purely scientific level, print media may never die because it is essential to learning. Research suggests that there is a neurological explanation for the preference of words on a page. Basically, humans remember more of what they’ve read on a page, or at least better understand the material. Even as the youngest of early adopters grow up immersed in a habitually digital world, the idea that reading on a screen “may subtly inhibit reading comprehension,” cannot be ignored. While these studies typically focus on the experience of reading books, the principle is important to apply to the user experience with magazines and newspapers.
Because the news helps inform the worldviews that influence the way humans interact, journalists must hope readers are retaining and understanding what they’ve written. There is less at stake, certainly, if readers don’t comprehend Cosmopolitan but more so if they misinterpret information from news sources they trust.

Theoretically the journalistic opportunities that a set schedule provides should serve to better educate readers and provide a more in-depth perspective of the news they might otherwise receive in bite format.

The Proof is in the Setting
My personal environment provides some visual cues that print is far from dead. In every convenience and grocery store I still see stacks of magazines in a variety of genres. I am the co-editor of a University-published newsletter with limited, but definite, circulation. I am surrounded by commuters on the El who read a mix of Red Eye, Kindles, novels and iPads. I picked up a beautiful full-color catalog for a favorite store in the student center. Stacks of junk mail and coupon-laden Tribune Local issues stack up in my apartment entryway. In my included digital subscription to InStyle magazine I hear about new books to read. Print will decline but in order for it to disappear completely it will be a very gradual process, one that we can and will stop. There will always be print advocates, even in the youngest generations.

The Happy Ending
Print journalism has inarguably declined. However, that does not mean it does not have a place in our digital future. Those who claim print is dead are cynical and blind. As media companies struggle to adapt to the different preferences of our generations, the best and the brightest remain afloat in different ways. The future is in what we haven’t fully figured out yet: how to structure a subscription service to offer both free and premium content. How to help readers retain the information they read on a screen. How to save the wonderful tangibility of printed materials. As long as we still work to solve these issues, print has a purpose. It seems that print can exist in tandem with its digital counterparts and the two can enhance each other.