What is the value of print?

Print media - newspapers, magazines, etc - are not dead. They aren’t dying, either. The ways that people get/share information of all types are constantly changing and, yes, that includes how people engage with print media. But that’s not how we talk about the role that print media plays in our lives.

You see, print works.

Print still plays a major role in content distribution and consumption.

The top 25 print magazines reach more adults and teens than the top 25 regularly scheduled prime time TV shows (and consumers spend a significant amount of time - 40 minutes on average - reading each print magazine issue).

And as Capitol New York wrote: a new survey by the Newspaper Association of America, which advocates on behalf of the industry, shows a) that “seventy-nine percent of adults had "taken action as a result of reading or seeing an ad in a print newspaper in the past 30 days and that print newspaper advertising is seen as "being believable and trustworthy.”

All this serves as confirmation that print media is still an effective way to reach and influence consumers. Those same points, however, also make the print media industry look defensive.

People like print. Famous people like print ( Luke Wilson prefers print media to digital). Young people like print - not just people who grew up when print was the only option (a new study from Pew shows that some 88 percent of Americans younger than 30 said they read a book in the past year compared with 79 percent of those older than 30). Everyone engages with print media in some way, at some point, for some purpose.

We don’t know enough about that engagement with print. We don’t know exactly how the interaction that people have with print has changed, or how it will change further in the future.  All we know for sure is that people like print media for many different reasons.  And that’s the focus we should be taking as we think about the future of (all) media. 

Print offers a different experience than digital media, just as reading is different than watching television or listening.  All different forms of media have some place in our lives.  Its reasonable to assume that people consume and share print media for the same reasons they consume and share any other form of media – because they find that media valuable. It serves a need. It fulfills a promise. They find it entertaining. Their friend does it.

The how/when/why of newspapers and magazines has changed - but so has the how/when/why of everything else in our society.  So why do we keep trying to make the case for the value that we assigned to print in the past? Why can’t we figure out the new how/when/why of print media?

We can.  But we have to start by asking some different questions…

Instead of focusing on how to make print media less expensive, can we figure out what makes print valuable - and why?

Instead of exploring ways to replace the print media experience with digital, can we consider how print media fits as part of people’s overall engagement with media; what role it still plays in our lives - and why?

Instead of testing new and different ways to market/sell digital media, can we analyze why people do/don’t buy a magazine or newspaper from a newsstand or at the airport (compared to just accessing the content online, or not getting it at all) and/or why they do/don’t subscribe to a magazine or newspaper in print (compared to just accessing the content online, or not getting it at all)?

While so much attention is being paid to how digital forms of media transform how we get/share information, and the new ways they can be marketed, many in the media industry have seemingly resigned themselves to the idea that print no longer has value in a hyper-connected, fast moving, constantly changing world.  Are we are simply waiting for the last remaining magazines and newspapers to die off, to go digital only… and passing the time by clinging to whatever data point or survey result might suggest that the clock won’t run out before a little more revenue is generated?  We can do better.

What if we stopped trying to defend the value of print, or re-hashing outdated arguments about how print can be used to influence consumer behavior (that largely serves to put print in competition with digital and other forms of media)? What if we set out to re-introduce print, and its value, in the digital age? What if we asked some of these new questions and set our sights on trying to define a new role (or roles) for print media in people’s lives?

We need to change the conversation about print. And there is no time to waste.