Why We Love (and Hate) Print Publications

    by Mark Glaser
    September 17, 2007

    i-6a7cc7b3ff56b44efaf41b142598ff1e-newspaper reader.jpg
    In the course of any dinner conversation with friends or colleagues, the subject of media usually comes up, soon followed by The Question: When will print publications become obsolete? If the Internet gives us access to publications from around the globe on topics so diverse they couldn’t possibly fit in a newsstand or our mailbox, why bother reading them in print?

    Most people of a certain age (meaning: older) will simply shake their head at The Question, taking the stance that this is a subject not open to debate. Their media habits are ingrained. They read the New York Times in print every morning, come hell or high water. They like the format. They like the feel of it, the touch of the paper, slipping page after page through their fingers, without a worry about ink-stained fingers.

    They even like the surprise, the happy accident of finding a story in the Sports or Lifestyle section they wouldn’t have sought out in an online search or browsing session. They like the idea that a team of well paid editors are sitting in a room — formerly smoke-filled — arguing over which stories should make print, should make the front page, should get their attention. While they might well be smart enough to make their own decisions on which story is important each day, they are fine with outsourcing that decision to someone else.


    There’s also the convenience factor. They want to take the paper with them on the train to work, they want to be able to read it where and when they want at their leisure, without having to be hunched over a computer monitor. If there’s one thing that most people can agree on, it’s that the form factor of a computer screen (and computer desk) is not conducive to lengthy reads. Most print publications have a disposable feel to them. We carry it around until we’re done and pass it on to someone else or to the recycling bin.

    But with magazines comes a different set of habits and rituals. People who really love a particular magazine, especially the high-gloss, high-design type such as Wired or Vanity Fair, might keep those magazines on a special shelf and collect them forever. The printed magazine delights their senses of touch and sight as much as stimulating their intellect. Each glossy page feels so distinct, so thick and bursting with color, tactile and real as opposed to the virtual pixels on a computer screen that are so fleeting. Each in-depth story has a heft that feels solid, feels permanent, feels almost like it belongs in a book.

    And that brings me to another important point about our addiction to print. Our kids are taught in school from Day 1 about the importance of the written word, the importance of reading books, the importance of literacy. While computers are infiltrating classrooms at every level, no one talks about children’s books becoming obsolete because of technology. Despite all the attempts to bring mass acceptance to e-books, the print book publishing industry remains a powerhouse and there is no denying the power of the simple, unelectronic book for imparting knowledge or entertainment on a day spent lounging at the beach or sitting on a plane.


    Hating Print

    And yet, there are people of a more delicate age (meaning: younger) who want to jump all over The Question. What’s in a newspaper that’s of interest to them? Why do they have to fill their heads with negative news about war and suffering? They can go online and get any news they want, filter it through an RSS news reader, or a social media site such as Digg, or just read the blogs that fit their lifestyle: liberal, moderate, conservative, libertarian, gossip, baseball, fashion, humor, etc.

    The print publication they adore the most, The Onion, was made popular by its website and pass-around emails. Even alternative weekly newspapers, built on the premise that young folks need to know about hip events around town, feel like they’re in a mid-life crisis catering to middle-aged folks, while the younger set finds what they want through social networks and be-friending their favorite bands on MySpace.

    The digital natives don’t mind getting information they want online or on their mobile phones. It’s natural and effortless. The print habit was not ingrained into them from birth, because digital media has been around for more than 10 years, and has always been an option right alongside print from the moment they could read.

    I was recently playing videogames with my 5-year-old son at the Sony Playstation store. I know he doesn’t play videogames that often, but his ability to play them is almost built into his DNA. I don’t remember ever explaining to him how to use a computer mouse, or how to use a videogame controller. It was a natural impulse from the moment he picked one up. And the same is true for digital natives who expect to be informed and entertained in a digital medium vs. print.

    While I do subscribe to many of the pro-print arguments above — and I am indeed a person of a certain older age — I also can’t help but wonder about the harsh environmental impact of all these newspapers and glossy magazines. It’s much cheaper, much easier, much less carbon-intensive to deliver news and information online vs. in print. Print publications demand the destruction of trees and forests, not to mention the energy expended in delivering them to your doorstep.

    So I’m left hanging when it comes to answering The Question with any kind of finality. I know there are plenty of tech-savvy older folks who hate print publications, just as there are plenty of tech-unsavvy younger folks who love print publications. Nothing is monolithic or as stereotypical as we hope as opinion-writers trying to suss out a trend.

    I know I am addicted to print, and can’t imagine replicating the newspaper-reading experience online somehow. While I don’t subscribe to any print magazines, I still enjoy reading them when I find them at a conference, in an airport, or on a friend’s coffee table. Even a magazine in serious format decline such as Time or Newsweek somehow makes the ugly wait for a doctor seem tolerable.

    I wonder if the problem is more with The Question than with the wavering answers. Perhaps it’s not about figuring out when print publications will become obsolete, but more about figuring out how our media habits are changing, how we are mixing in the digital with the analog, what place print publications will have in our future media diets. I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon, but I also doubt they will remain the same as they ever were.

    What do you think? What makes you addicted (or over) print publications? How do you see them evolving along with digital publications, and how is your media diet changing? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Photo of newspaper reader by Navpreet Amole via Flickr.

    Tagged: magazine newspapers

    13 responses to “Why We Love (and Hate) Print Publications”

    1. Perhaps its not about figuring out when print publications will become obsolete, but more about figuring out how our media habits are changing, how we are mixing in the digital with the analog, what place print publications will have in our future media diets.


      Print will live in some form for a long time… and it will continue to decline in value (as an information product) and influence (as a cultural artifact) over that time. That’s a no-brainer. The real meat of this story is exactly as you say… it’s about how WE are changing.

      Personally, I subscribe to about ten print publications, work professionally on another five, read 224 RSS feeds via Google Reader, and use Twitter, WordPress, Flickr, and Delicious everyday. I guess I’m a GenX hybrid.

    2. Thanks for the comment, Michael. I’m glad to see that I’m not only one on the GenX fence. I’m obviously optimistic about online media, but I can’t quite shake the print habit completely, and it always seems to be a nice tactile experience that’s part of my cultural roots.

      I don’t think it’s quite as black and white as people would like it to be — print isn’t going to disappear overnight but online won’t take over the world either.

    3. Cathy says:

      Call me crazy, but to me it’s all about the uniqueness of NICHE. While yesterday the king was the large, mass audience pub, today’s audience, old or young, LOVE the idea that for every passion there’s a magazine and more often than not dozens on one subject. The 35-70 new magazines launched each month are a direct result of enthusiasts gathering on some internet site and all of a sudden someone says, my, this is such a passion–we need a magazine to bring the community together.
      Whether print or online, it’s about community and niche and that’s why I love magazines. They intrigue, invite, make you feel it as a visit from a friend once a month…the whole nine yards. TV was going to make radio obsolete, VCRs were going to make movie-going obsolete, local cable was going to make newspapers absolete…..none of it happened and it’s because we love our passions and a great product stands the test of time because they evolve and morph into better products.

    4. Mark,

      I’m absolutely with you — I love online: the functionality, the interactivity, chats, blogs, video — the whole thing. I’m a digital media junkie during the week. And, from a professional standpoint, newspapers have such growth potential in this area and it’s exciting to see what’s coming up in newspapers’ digital media technology offerings.

      But there’s just something about print…. By the weekend, I’m not really up for looking at a computer screen, having done so all week. On a Saturday or Sunday morning, there’s nothing better than curling up on the couch with the (print) newspaper, a cup of tea and my dog.

      – Beth Lawton

    5. Such a fascinating topic, and too deep for me to untangle with so many related factors. Newspapers and news magazines, I think are competing against most everything, even the Daily Show. Some newspapers are stopping the bleeding by being experts in all things local and some magazines can keep up circulation by owning the niche. But I think Beth has a good point about the appeal of spending time with print. Another element, for me, is that online feels solitary, even if I’m sending a link or IM to a virtual contact. Reading the Sunday paper with your spouse is something that’s not been replicated.

    6. rikomatic says:

      Excellent post that captures many of my own feelings about traditional and digital print.

      The newspaper is an artifact that is dying as an industry. But longer form magazines and books seem to continue to be viable economically and socially. Why a true bithead would subscribe to WIRED is an interesting phenomenon, for example.

      The METRO and other city dailies seem to me to be RSS feeds for people without PDAs or iPhones. They will go all digital once the devices become more widespread.

      But I will continue to want to read THE NEW YORKER and ATLANTIC MONTHLY in print since those kinds of literary mags are more conducive to deeper analysis, in-depth reporting, and fiction.

    7. John O says:

      Good post. Meanwhile, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal announce new magazines, The NYT opens up Times Select for free, and my hometown paper, the Oregonian, announces a move into niche magazines on topics such as food…when there are plenty of those already serving the market. Me? I’m addicted to all of it. As a former magazine publisher, I probably have an unusual attraction to print…but what I really want, most times, is good content; a great New Yorker article, a newsflash via RSS or mobile, a conference video feed, a blog conversation. In the end, I suspect the range of available media matters less to viewers/readers than the content they seek. (I agree with Cathy’s comments, above.) No doubt, “media companies” will hop between media, mistaking a format for a valuable conversation with a community.

    8. I recall seeing the publisher of Time magazine on television a few years ago matter-of-factly explaining that Time magazine, “Tells America what it already knows.”

      In my books, that makes the magazine worthless.

      On the other side of the spectrum is MAKE magazine which continually surprises me with things I don’t know. MAKE brings me value.

      I wonder if there is any public library in the country with the courage to cancel their Time magazine subscription, though. Just send a letter to Time explaining, “Our community has decided your magazine is worthless. Kindly cancel.”

      That kind of action moves the world forward.

    9. Vas says:

      First, I love your column. I send myself an inline email of it almost daily and it usually takes me a couple days to finally read it. Always worth it. Just one question, what percentage of readers to the site use your RSS feed? Just curious as to how much penetration RSS has? Thanks

    10. Hi Mark – great stuff as usual!
      We’ll be publishing our mag twice a year and the rest of the time we’ll be creating similar spaces for clients who are interested in taking this further. We’re really proud of what we’ve put forward as a starting point, it’s only going to get better. Thanks for letting us use part of your article a few months ago. Anyway, our mag is finally out. Others will be coming…

      About http://www.FRMAG.com

      FRMAG lives on our interactive magazine platform, inspired by
      the feeling of getting lost inside a great magazine…and saving a tree or two in the process.

      The platform was designed to bring pages to life online and communicate with readers in an intelligent way – aiming higher instead of settling for the mundane.

    11. arthur kane says:

      Mark — If you haven’t already, you (and your readers) might find it instructive to read William Powers’ Discussion Paper, “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal” (Harvard University). He posits four “affordances” that make the reading-on-paper experience superior to reading onscreen: Tangibility, Spacial Flexibility, Tailorability and Manipulability.

    12. Gordon Lane says:

      24-year-old digital native, tech-savvy print journo here… I don’t think The Question should be about changing habits or the death of the printed page. It should be about what are you going to give me on the printed page. I gloss over newspapers. I rarely read them. The headlines and the ledes in newspapers give me as much as I need. Articles should go online. I want STORIES in a paper. I want information, visualized info. A sort of CommentPress, with sidebars of historically relevent information (who the hell are the Kurds? what’s the difference between Shiites and Sunnis? because I looked it up once when I was reading the article online and it was easy, but I forgot and I’m reading this story in print and my 1985 Brittanica is in the other room…).

      I do read many and subscribe to some magazines Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone. The depth of their articles give me substance.

      But since it’s taken so long for so many papers to get online in a rational way, I wonder how long it will take the older generations running the media (into the ground) to realize that journalism shouldn’t be done the way it’s done “because that’s the way it’s done” (a rationale I’ve heard too much). The news article is broing, and the anecdotal story is becoming tired as well.

      And I want my tangible, printing press product available to me if things in this country go sour and the whole world goes offline. It’s a security. (On that note, if I ever make enough money in this business I’ll be investing in some small hand press like others invest in guns!)

    13. John says:

      This isn’t a direct response to your closing questions, but this passage made me pause:

      “They can go online and get any news they want, filter it through an RSS news reader, or a social media site such as Digg, or just read the blogs that fit their lifestyle: liberal, moderate, conservative, libertarian, gossip, baseball, fashion, humor, etc.”

      I am (overly) obsessed with organizing my Google Reader feed, but I know that I’m limiting myself to reading more of the same. Among other things, I enjoy reading the NYT because it exposes me to ideas that don’t often pass through my carefully crafted RSS filters. More often than not, mining the web produces exactly what we are hoping to find, rather than providing contrast. Not that the information isn’t out there, but our search methods are often too good.

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