In praise of print

Digital is where the buzz is, but, for many consumer magazine publishers, print is where the money is. We all know that digital is a central part of publishing’s present and future, says Diane Kenwood, but from time to time, we do need to remind ourselves of the enduring value of print.

By Diane Kenwood

Every new technology necessarily has to kill off an older one to make room for itself, right? Radio was going to kill off theatre. TV sounded the death knell of radio. VCR killed off TV. And the internet is going to kill them all. Right? Ah, no. Apparently not. Amazingly, theatres around the country are thriving. Somehow radio survived the onslaught of television and remains a successful and entertaining medium. Turned out that VCR, and then all the subsequent methods of recording television programmes and watching them at your convenience, made television even more appealing, not less. And what do you know, radio, television, print, and all the other forms of entertainment and information medium, are still alive and fighting fit (or at least fighting) in spite of the doom-sayers’ predictions for the internet’s insatiable appetite for consuming and then spitting them out. Oh, and just by-the-by, since Facebook was founded, magazines have gained more than one million young adult readers. Go figure.

What actually happens when a new medium comes along, is that people find room in their lives for it along with the media they already love… as long as those media continue to evolve and provide irreplaceable value.

The internet and all the digital platforms offered by ever-developing technology are like shiny new toys in the publishing toy-box. Attractive, no question. Exciting, definitely. Commercially full of potential, almost certainly. But just because a new plaything is irresistibly appealing, that shouldn’t devalue a long-proven and much treasured model.

I make no excuse for reminding those in our industry who are so bedazzled by digital, that good-old print is still the bedrock of the greater part of what we do, and still, in the majority of cases, contributes the lion-share of profits.

And I ask no forgiveness for reiterating the unique strengths of print – specifically magazines - as a medium of communication, information and entertainment.

A tactile experience

The most obvious potency of print is the physical experience of it. Reading a magazine is a distinctively individual, lean-back encounter. The vast majority of us spend most of our days looking at screens, and plenty of our leisure time doing the same. It may be efficient, effective and enjoyable but it’s also wearing – on the eyes and the posture. And it’s not remotely sensual or tactile. Magazines are both those things, and in the same way that a virtual relationship can never satisfactorily replace a physical one (viz Spike Jonze’s thought-provoking exploration of this in Her), so a screen experience can never be a fully satisfying substitute for the feel and look of paper in your hand. And let’s not spend too long reflecting on the need computers / tablets / phones have to be recharged, or locate the right bandwidth or wifi. Other than to just mention that you don’t require any of that with paper. Just saying.

A unique bond

Then there’s the relationship magazines have with their readers. Not only do magazine purchasers make a statement about themselves, their values and their interests through the titles they procure, carry in their bags, read on the train, have sitting on their coffee tables, they are also buying into the values of that brand. They believe in and trust what they read. And so they should. Editorial teams employ their considerable expertise and energy to ensure that they can. The value of editing and curating content is one of the most consistently cited benefits of magazines by their readers, who will enthusiastically engage more with content, both editorial and commercial, because of the trust they invest in the brands they buy.

More than that, the relationship that magazine brands have with their print consumers is enormously influential in their purchasing behaviour. Magazines score higher than both television and the internet on ad response and trustworthiness. 47% of magazine readers say they trust the ads they see in print as opposed to 28% of people looking at online banner ads. And more than 60% of magazine readers take action as a result of seeing an advert in a publication. Which, when you factor in that four out of five adults read magazines, is a pretty hefty amount of commercial clout.

That trust that consumers invest in the print brands they choose has other layers of commercial benefit. The simple act of turning the pages of a magazine means that readers will, unintentionally but inevitably, encounter content they wouldn’t specifically look for. And that includes ads and commercial pages. I appreciate you can say the same of digital content, with its drop down / pop up ads, but factor in that the average view time for a web page is 33 seconds (and half of that for ads) as compared to the 43 minutes that a magazine reader spends engrossed in their copy and that’s a good deal more attention and engagement being delivered through the printed page.

Print and digital together

So print has a lot going for it then. But before you start to accuse me of being a grumpy old troglodyte or rampant digital dissenter, I’m neither. I’m not for a moment suggesting that magazines are ever likely to deliver the sort of revenues they have historically, or to provide the level of future profits that businesses require to thrive. On the contrary. Print will only survive and flourish if it operates in conjunction with all the other content platforms that enthral readers, whatever they are, now and in the future. Print must stay abreast with the rest of the content creation industry, not lag behind it bleating.

These are demanding but exciting times for the whole industry. Some rationalisation of the number of magazines on the newsstands is inevitable. It will be difficult and brutal, but the brands, editors and publishers that survive the blood-bath should emerge stronger for that. In the future, print will need to be fleeter of foot to meet and match the speed of digital change and that will take bravery and commitment from publishers.

As the chair of the BSME and its awards last year, I was afforded a unique insight into how editors are embracing the challenges of building on their brands and their commercial revenues through fantastically creative use of digital platforms and the multiple content experiences they offer. The imaginative, resourceful editorial skills that have always been the bedrock of print content creation are as important, if not even more so, in the multi-platform, multi-experience future. Increasingly, editors need to make fast, and sometimes risky, decisions and publishers and businesses need to enable and support them in doing that.

There is still a lot of money to be made from the sale of magazines. £2bn worth are purchased every year. 2.6 million of them are sold in the UK every day. They are read by 87% of the UK population. And that’s not just print-wedded oldies. 91% of 15-24 year olds read magazines. Print is not just a recreational experience, it is, as the figures show, a powerful commercial one too. Magazines rate at number one at influencing consumers to search online, above all newer media options.

Digital is a thrilling and still relatively new world; all I’d say is, take care not to throw out the print-baby with the bathwater in our enthusiasm to embrace all the opportunities it presents.