In new media circles, one of the hottest topics of recent years has been the print-to-digital shift. People pundit about it, shout “print is dead” and wallow in the sadness sparked by nostalgia for a day when this wasn’t a question. We’ve also begun speculating on whether a device like the Kindle will really ever take our attention away from ink-on-paper.
I myself have never been too interested in this debate. Perhaps that’s why I’ve done virtually nothing to avoid the switch from print to digital, but rather let it sweep over me naturally. Some people have been fed up with the clutter caused by print media or the fact that the delivery of traditional news is too slow. Others cling to magazines and newspapers out of necessity or because of conviction and dedication to a particular publication. My print-to-digital conversion happened not out of principle but because of a series of mundane circumstances.
Ironically, the first to fall was my favorite print publication of all: the New York Times Sunday edition. A long-time subscriber to the paper in its print form, I relished Sunday mornings on the floor with it (it is too big to read comfortably in bed or on the couch) and a nice pot of coffee.
But then it started disappearing. Either it wouldn’t get delivered or one of my neighbors would pilfer it. I started thinking that running downstairs before 7 a.m. so I could beat the thief (or thieves) to my own paper might be a waste of what would be a normally tranquil Sunday morning. But I kept doing that for a few more weeks until, without really realizing it, I started letting the Sunday editions pile up without reading them.
When I didn’t have time to get to them because I had an early breakfast with friends or I woke up too late, I’d feel guilty. So I would grab the parts of the paper that interested me the most (Business, Travel and Sunday Style) and force myself to read them. Other times, I’d find myself opting to read the Times on my laptop from the comfort of my bed or couch. I’d eye the print version with guilt, but I had to face up to facts. The hassle associated with reading the paper — things that might not have bothered me before — were causing me to shift to the online version in spite of myself. The Gray Lady was too big, too stealable, too early and too cluttery, while the web version was convenient, compact, constantly updated and unfilchable.
That’s Not News to Me
Next to go was a magazine: Popular Photography. The main reason for this was the print version’s lack of timeliness. I subscribed to it, and as is typical with magazine subscriptions, didn’t receive the first issue until several months later. When I finally did receive it I was excited, but later found in reading the issue that a lot of the content that was deemed “breaking news” was no longer news to me.
I bought a new Canon 40D the week it came out, so the exciting news around this new camera wasn’t news to me. And even if I hadn’t purchased the camera, sites like KenRockwell.com and Luminous Landscape had covered the release with much more timeliness than the print magazine. I had already read all I wanted about this in RSS feeds, on blogs and in Flickr forums.
There are a lot of valuable tips that come in handy, buyer’s guides that are nice, but the truth is half of the content isn’t suited to me. I was left thinking how much more I could get by going online and accessing exactly the content I want, rather than waiting for it to appear at the whims of the magazine’s editors. In the end, though I like the magazine, PopPhoto also met the chopping block.
No Time for Clipping
The one print addiction I thought I’d never shake was with food magazines. Every month, Food and Wine, Gourmet and Bon Appetit would arrive in my mailbox, and up until recently, I would eagerly anticipate their arrival. Before, I would take time to read every article, and clip out all of the recipes that interested me to later put into my recipe box. Somewhere along the way, I got too busy for even the reading part and now I have no time for the ritual of selecting, clipping and pasting onto recipe cards.
The Number 1 culprit here is my lack of free time. Number 2 is the great job some of these titles are doing in revamping their websites. Epicurious.com is the portal for both Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, and dare I say that with the exception of the photography, the content is a lot better than the print version.
Taking cues from more homegrown sites like Serious Eats, Epicurious has blog posts and video to complement the articles and recipes. And it spares me the physical work (which I in fact miss) of clipping recipes, as I can store them all in my “recipe box” online. Best of all, I know which recipe’s a dog before attempting it, as other users share their ratings. Plus you can select to print a given user review with the recipe, so if someone says “easy on the salt, add a bit more water” you’ll have that pointer there as well. Another critical reason for abandoning print food media was my shift toward food blogs and new food sites, where I can get great writing more specialized to my tastes.
You Shift, I Shift, Others Don’t
Blogger and web designer Joel Housman told me that — like my experience with PopPhoto — the outdated information is what got him to switch from print to digital. An avid magazine subscriber, Housman dumped Wired, Mac Addict, Maximum PC, Macworld and other print titles for their online equivalents and never looked back. Housman put it this way: “I found that ALL of their content can be had online for months before the print edition gets to me. Why waste the paper? Why read two-month-old news? I stay way more on top of things by scanning the 250+ RSS feeds I watch during the day.”
He says that there are no cons to the switch.
Scott Karp, Editor of Publishing 2.0, said in a blog post that he was canceling all of his print subscriptions to business magazines because he just got fed up with the clutter, and had too much information to deal with anyway: “Thanks to the RSS feeds from a select group of blogs on media…I have more high-yield, high-quality business-related content than I can possibly consume in a 24-hour period.”
For people who’ve shifted media consumption from offline to online, it’s easy to think that everyone else feels the same. My friend Andrea was caught off guard when I asked her why she still subscribes to Us Weekly and The Economist in magazine form.
“I read them on BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] when I’m commuting,” she said. “Plus I can clip things and circle what I’m interested in for later reference.”
The idea of reading these publications online hadn’t even crossed her mind when I asked her the question “why not go online?” The answer: “Again, because I want to read them on BART.”
In Andrea’s life of daily commuting, print still serves a purpose.
I pressed on. “Why not use your mobile device?”
“Reading them on my phone just isn’t the same,” she said.
And I have to agree with her there. Mobile content still isn’t up to snuff, and there are places in our lives where print publications might always be missed, such as on planes — though the offline version of Google Reader and rumors about WiFi in the air might change all of that.
For some, the shift is just too painful. On a recent visit to my friend Silvia’s house in New York, I counted 10 wrapped, untouched editions of the New York Times sitting by her front door. As more came in, I helped her take the unread ones down to the basement for recycling. Her love for the publication itself is somehow wrapped up in the ink and the ritual. She doesn’t have time for the relationship, but the breakup isn’t easy.
For me, it’s a bit easier. I just took a paper bag with the last remnants of my relationship with print magazines and newspapers down to the recycling bin and I feel liberated. Eliminating physical media continues to be a tough thing for me, but seeing the magazines fall was a sign that I am closer to going all digital. The last frontier will be books, but unlike my parting with newspapers and magazines, I am fighting that one tooth and nail.
What do you think? Have you made a switch from print publications to their online counterparts? Why or why not? What are the pros and cons of such a switch? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.
Newspaper image via satanslaundromat on Flickr