You can only generate ideas when you put pencil to paper, brush to canvas… when you actually do something physical. —Twyla Tharp
I walk the dog every morning at 4:00 AM. Most mornings, it’s a nice, quiet stroll through the neighborhood. Everyone’s asleep. Well, almost everyone. Each morning, in about the same location, we pass a vehicle with its hazard lights flashing as the person on the passenger side flings copies of the Indianapolis Star out the window. The first time we encountered them I was rather surprised that there would be many people in this neighborhood who would still subscribe to the print edition of the newspaper. What I’ve learned since then is that no only do a lot of people subscribe to the print edition of the paper, they prefer it to the digital edition even on mornings like this where the paper is likely to be a bit soggy despite the plastic bag surrounding it.
Some fifteen or so years ago, a fair number of Americans, intelligent people who know how to reason and think critically, became enamored with and perhaps too easily accepted the idea that the future of all media lies in digital content and presentation. Everything was going to be online. The rush to do everything online was so great that many large businesses fell in its wake. Booksellers with hundreds of stores nationwide went out of business. Magazines with decades of experience either went online only or closed completely. The little film-developing kiosks that were once ubiquitous suddenly all disappeared. No more paper. Everything online.
What we’re beginning to realize, though, is that we still need paper.
Everyone’s Online Now, Aren’t They?
Those who make their living bringing companies and individuals online have long been evangelists for the digital movement and they have been very effective. Like the big tent Christian revivalists of the 20th century, they’ve made the rounds from company to company, boardroom to boardroom, warning that to remain with paper is certain death and that digital would be their economic salvation. Everyone drank the Kool-Aid. As a result, we are now seeing a shift at the top of corporations, especially in publishing fields. Consider some of the developments this week alone:
- The New York Times named A. G. Sulzberger Deputy Publisher. No one was surprised. The paper has always been a family business and it is expected that the younger Sulzberger will eventually take over for his father and current publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. What made him the front-runner, though (two of his cousins were also considered for the job) was likely the fact that he chaired the team that, starting with their report in 2014, resulted in a complete digital transformation of the Grey Lady. The Times‘ seemingly successful shift to a digital-centric philosophy is seen as an example for other traditional media companies.
- Condé Nast completely restructured its management team, placing everyone, including all publications, under the cooperative leadership of five executives. Jim Norton is now chief business officer, in charge of all revenue operations including sales, brand development, and consumer marketing. Edward Cudahy was promoted to chief technology officer, responsible for software engineering teams and tech operations. Anna Wintour was already artistic director over all Condé Nast publications, her success likely the motivation behind this recent set of consolidations. Christiane Mack is now head of content, strategy, and operations over all brands. Raul Martinez has been promoted to head of the creative group, leading both editorial creative and business-side creative as well as the company’s native advertising division 23 Stories. Critical to this re-alignment is an over-arching push to create better digital products across all brands. Pink slips for those who fall between the cracks could start going out as early as tomorrow.
- Meanwhile, Time, Inc. announced yesterday that the UK edition of InStyle is closing its print edition and will be digital only by the first of the year. Again, more pink slips. The company is hoping that the move results in a 200 percent increase across all digital platforms by the end of 2017. They’re hoping that more video and 24-hour content management will be sufficient to accomplish their stated goals.
- At the same time, the digital conversion of Style.com from a content site to an e-commerce site hasn’t been as smooth as the folks at Condé Nast would have liked. While the UK version launched earlier this year, the US version has lagged behind and still isn’t online. Luxury brands have yet to hop on board. The UK site’s mere 677,000 monthly hits is but a drop in the bucket compared to competitors such Yoox.com which boasts 9.8 million visits a month.
At a casual glance, it would appear that everyone’s sold on digital and there’s no significant market for paper.
But Wait, Not Everyone Wants Digital Content
With everyone rushing to jump online, some assumptions were made that, possibly, were not true. Primarily, print was declared prematurely dead. Paper, we were told, was out. Everything has to be online. That assumption, we’re finding out now, was not only premature, but very, very wrong.
The major piece of evidence in this argument is the paper, Reality Check: Multiplatform newspaper readership in the United States, 2007–2015 by Hsiang Iris Chyi & Ori Tenenboim, both from the University of Texas, Austin, School of Journalism. They make an indictment at the very beginning that is rather damning of this massive rush to kill paper and put everything on the web.
Results indicated that the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product in these newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups. In addition, these major newspapers’ online readership has shown little or no growth since 2007, and more than a half of them have seen a decline since 2011. The online edition contributes a relatively small number of online-only users to the combined readership in these newspapers’ home markets.
The same seems to hold true for those who declared that print books were deceased as well. Nielsen BookScan unit sales of print books rose 2.4 percent in 2014. Publisher’s Weekly reported earlier this year that bookstore sales for 2015 were up 2.5%, the first time that sector had seen an increase since 2007. Ebook sales actually declined, as did sales of book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle series.
Even in photography, where the push to put everything online has been nothing short of maddening, we’re seeing an increase in the number of articles such as this one (paid content by Canon) that tout the revenue advantages of selling prints, not digital images. Some even claim to be making half a billion dollars off print sales, though careful research finds that those claims are likely exagerated—by a lot. Still, the point is that the financial benefits of being exclusively online, or even predominantly digital, are quite possible overstated. Paper is far from dead.
How Is That Even Possible?
For starters, let’s consider the fact that, believe it or not, everyone in the United States does not have access to the Internet. Some 20% of American households are not “plugged in” in any way. Think globally, and that number jumps to a whopping 56%, over 4 billion people, without Internet. That means there are millions of Americans and billions of people around the world who are wholly dependent on print publications for their information.
Even beyond those numbers is the fact that a lot of people, especially those over 50 who were not raised with computer monitors in front of their faces all the time, don’t like reading material online. While Baby Boomers are no longer the largest generation on the planet, they are still extremely significant and, more than anything, set in their ways. We grew up reading printed newspapers and magazines and we like it that way. For many people my age and older, trying to read an article online actually hurts our eyes, especially when we’re looking at black letters on a white background. Paper doesn’t hurt our eyes the way those white pixels do.
Rural residents tend to prefer printed publications for local news, especially. Smaller cities and towns (anything under 500,000 population) are less served by online sources. Those communities are heavily reliant on the print edition of their local newspapers, even though, in most cases, an online edition is available. Local news is perceived as being easier to find in a print paper and keeps subscriber numbers at least steady. Eugene, Oregon’s Register-Guard is a good example of a local newspaper that is more valued for its print edition than its online presence.
There is also some evidence that those who would be considered under-educated, immigrants for whom English is a second language, those whose Internet access is limited to public-use facilities such as libraries all prefer print publications as their primary source of information.
Paper is so very far from dead.
Striking The Right Balance
For many publications, regardless of size, and for photographers and other visual artists as well, the argument between online and print often comes down to a matter of finances. Newspapers, especially, have seen a steady decline in print advertising. Ad agencies, and in some cases the publications themselves, have convinced advertisers that their ads get more views and a wider spread online than they do in print. That statement is not necessarily untrue.
However, the online concept is challenged when one considers the low conversion rate for online ads. We are all so horribly inundated with ads online that we ignore the vast number of them, even when they are for items for which we might have already expressed a need or want. Have you noticed that grocery stores still send their bulk mail ads on newsprint to your mailbox every week? There’s a good reason. People are more likely to shop at the store after seeing the ads in print versus viewing them online. Online advertisers have to generate hundreds of thousands of more views to generate an equal conversion rate to print ads. For many advertisers, especially small-market advertisers, print makes a lot more sense.
No one, from the New York Times to Joe Schmoe photography, is wise going with a single media solution. There’s no question that digital media is a powerhouse that everyone needs to embrace in some form or fashion. A well-designed website is still a must for every business and even more for anyone involved in any form of publishing. However, whether we’re talking about newspapers or photographs, there is still a tremendous need and market for print products. Where we need to focus more of our effort is in finding that balance that works both from a financial and customer service perspective.
Paper is far from dead. Chances are, if you glance around and see the clutter on your desk, most of that clutter is paper. We need paper a lot more than we think. Digital assistants such as Siri and Cortana are a long way from replacing Post-It notes. Even when I sign up for digital payment with my health insurance, they still send me three sheets of paper to confirm that the payment was received.
Perhaps we need to take a giant step back and reconsider our strategies. Paper is not an enemy. Ignoring it ignores a large number of customers, which means we’re leaving money on the table. I don’t know anyone who can afford that kind of strategy.