When Reading is a Pleasure

The death of the print magazine has been widely forecast, but, writes Peter Jackson, this fails to take into account the nature of the reading experience across different platforms and the unique, sensory pleasure of print.

By Peter Jackson

If we are said to lean forward when reading from a screen and to lean back when reading print on paper, the most enjoyable position for reading a favourite magazine is to curl up.

And therein lies a powerful reason why magazines in particular will survive and flourish in this digital age, which we are constantly told spells the doom of printed matter.

What is confusing the debate is that the whole range of editorial matter and its diversity of packaging tends to be labelled as simply CONTENT. Were it quite that simple, there can be no doubt that online is the most mind-blowingly efficient delivery system for bringing the maximum volume of ‘Content’ into the lives of the greatest number of people at the speed of electronic lightning.

But both publishers and broadcasters see their output performing three very different missions:

a) To Inform

b) To Educate

c) To Entertain

Now if that sounds a pompous formula for the current world of media that encompasses redtop tabloids and lurid soap operas, celebrity magazines and public executions by way of reality TV, it’s because it embraces the lofty principles laid down at the birth of the BBC more than eighty years ago.

The formula still holds good but is now interpreted in more basic terms:

a) News (what’s going on?)

b) Analysis and Comment (what’s to be learned from what’s going on and what does it mean?)

c) Pleasure (reading, listening and viewing need to be enjoyable).

Regarding Content as a single commodity fails to recognise that consumers approach each element in a different mind-set.

* News. No one in publishing (not even Rupert Murdoch) could seriously expect people to pay for online news, anymore than they would pay for bottled oxygen. News is happening everywhere and all the time and electronic media can deliver to everyone wherever they are, in an instance. At best, ink on paper delivers last night’s news in time for breakfast.

The staccato pattern of online traffic shows that the great mass of people go to the web for a quick fix of information – keeping up with what’s happening from whatever sources they stumble upon. They put no greater value on it than sharing in the office gossip. And no one would dream of paying for that.

* Analysis and Comment. If news has to equate with the provision of free parking outside the store, newspapers have a much stronger case for charging customers to come inside and linger over the fruits of costly investment in eminent editors, special correspondents and investigative journalists. Analysis and comment cater for people who need to know much more than what’s happening and where there’s a need, people will pay.

* Pleasure. This is publishers’ strongest hand because every single element of successful magazines, from cover to back page, is designed to make reading an enjoyable experience. Not merely by the way the publications look but how they feel, not only through words and pictures but by their very texture.

This is where we enter the fascinating world of haptics – the science of touch.

Professor Chris Carr of the School of Textiles at the University of Manchester alerted the interest of both publishers and papermakers with his analysis of the motivation of women buying clothes. He observed three processes in their deciding to buy a particular dress: Look, Touch, Feel.

Since the majority of readers across most fields of magazines are female, this was not to be ignored.

Grazia’s paper strategy

Particularly interested were the then Emap at the point of introducing Grazia to Britain as our first fashion weekly. Hitherto, serious fashion was the preserve of monthlies epitomised by voluptuous Vogue, glossiest of the glossies.

Having a proud reputation in its native Italy for style and quality, Grazia had to stamp its authority on the British market but in a distinctive manner. Matching Vogue gloss for gloss could make it be seen as just another monthly that happened to be published weekly; not matching Vogue’s air of luxury could have had the new magazine dismissed as a down-market upstart.

Enter the world of papermakers and ink technologists. Here, the challenge was to exploit the tactile nature of the paper while creating the desired image. The answer was the combination of a high bright, coated (silk) paper with a low gloss ink, creating a matt effect that understated the text and pictures and suggested a more newsy approach.

Choice of stories and pictures and their presentation on the page were clearly vital, but the idea was that from the first touch, this was to feel like a weekly – that it was not a leisurely monthly.

Certainly an elaborate piece of planning, but are magazine buyers really that tactile?

I recently gave a group of twenty young fashion-conscious women copies of Vogue and Grazia and asked them if they could find anything physically different between the magazines. They were unanimous that Grazia was distinctive both in the way it looked and felt. Describing the difference proved difficult, but eventually they came up with two words for it – “more urgent”.

Not a bad response for a magazine so anxious to be perceived as a weekly.

Wallpaper goes touchy-feely

Quite the opposite effect was intended when Wallpaper, that most self-consciously grand magazine, planned its spectacular August number – the Handmade Edition.

The idea was to commission as new every object featured in the 216-page issue – furniture, fashion and foodstuffs, from Japanese tableware to men’s underwear, from a laser sailboat to penknives, from a polyurethane dress to a new flavour of crisps created by a Michelin-starred chef… So much for content. Editor-in-Chief Tony Chambers went further and called for the UPM-Kymmene papermakers to furnish seven different kinds of stock, so that the various sections of the magazine felt different to the touch - each with a texture that matched the subject matter.

“We went from 250gsm to 55gsm, from Silk to Satin, from Fine to Matt,” explained Art Director Meirion Pritchard. “We wanted high gloss for fashion, a rough thicker paper for a sketchbook insert and whatever seemed most suitable in between.

“As our Handmade Edition, we set out to give it a touchy-feely effect that would emphasise this was something special”

Was it worth all the effort?

Wallpaper reports that the issue achieved the highest sales of the year.

Haptics would thus seem to suggest a telling reason why people will continue to buy and read magazines for the added pleasure of owning a physical package that becomes a sensory experience, something to have and to hold and to curl up with. Reading a magazine on screen is like looking through a window at something going on outside; it’s nowhere near as enjoyable as possessing a friendly creature you can cradle on your lap and stroke its coat.

Texture can sometimes provide surprising added-value that no website could possibly match.

During my time as editorial consultant to IPC, I had contact with Cage and Aviary Bird magazine which proportionally was one of the company’s most profitable titles and yet was printed in tabloid format on very basic newsprint.

“I am sure you could afford to go glossy in A4 and give your readers the pleasure of seeing pictures of all those beautifully exotic birds in high quality colour,” I suggested to the editor.

“No way,” came the reply. “They know what the birds look like and when they’ve finished reading the magazine, it’s a perfect fit for lining the bottom of the cage.”