Print actually trumps digital in the attention economy: here’s how

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Print is not dead

There are few good things to say about printed media these days. It’s wasteful, inefficient, static, expensive to create and distribute. That’s why it’s all going digital.

But apart from a nostalgic affinity (“I like the feel of a newspaper, it’s what I have always done”), there is a huge advantage that print has over its digital rivals that perhaps no one could have foreseen.

But before I get into that, I’d like to tell you how I got here: I’ve always been somewhat of a digital evangelist, but I’m not a zealot. My drive is to find truth, which leads to understanding, which leads to good business decisions, which leads to ultimate prosperity. In the face of confusion and conflicting information, we try to work out the fundamentals behind our habits. Why do we access brands on Facebook? Why do we read this website? How are media consumption patterns changing? Why do we read magazines on tablets? Will print be dead?

So here’s a digital guy (me), about to tell you that print magazines and newspapers are great. They will have a long prosperous life and they are, in fact, a good business. Don’t get me wrong — the business model for publishing is changing. Magazines and newspapers are feeling what theatre felt when radio and TV were invented. However, these mediums didn’t kill off theatre — they forced it to adjust its business model and made it a premium activity.

So yes, print costs will soar, but then again so will the cover price and the cost of advertising. It will be harder and harder to produce print magazines and fewer and fewer will do it… and therein lies its attractiveness: the barrier to entry will rise to the extent that it will become a good business for those who are able to reach economies-of-scale efficiencies. For newcomers, it will be difficult to compete. This is the case with TV (very expensive, needs licences) and radio (moderately expensive, limited frequency and licences), and so it shall be the case with print magazines.

The big argument: It’s about attention
But the real reason why I think print magazines and newspapers have a great future as businesses is actually as a result of the digital onslaught on our limited attention spans. Remember in the old days when our grandparents only had a handful of TV channels, newspapers and magazines to choose from? How different is this today, where a dramatic fall in the cost of media production has turned this on its head?

One thing remains constant though: We can only take in so much and we have limited attention to give to media. It’s a concept known as the “attention economy”, which treats human attention as a scarce commodity.

And there is so much competing for my attention on digital platforms: social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, communication tools such as Skype, WhatsApp, email, aggregators and search engines that try and filter this information… and hundreds of thousands of quality digital publications and blogs. And it’s coming at me from everywhere: my laptop, my phone, my tablet and my TV (which I use to Skype, tweet and Facebook these days) and increasingly now my car and my home automation system (will it ever end?).

For digital media, the competition is huge from other digital media and tools. There are games, email, digital magazines from all around the world, and pretty much every digital tool out there all wanting me to spare some of the 14 or so hours a day I have. On my iPad, there are countless digital magazine titles and websites from all across the world screaming at me “Read me! Read me!”.

And then it struck me. I was on holiday slouching on a generously angled chair, and noticed one of three magazines lying on the table next to me. I grabbed one, I read it and I enjoyed it. Why did I read it? Not because I set out to read it, but I read it because it was… there.

This is the case in waiting rooms, toilets, studies, restaurants and everywhere in the real, physical world. Print magazines exist in the same physical space as us human beings, digital magazines don’t. Digital magazines are behind an “on” button on your tablet, or behind an app or a browser… they are not just there. Print magazines are dedicated devices, digital magazines share their devices with a thousand other digital magazines and tools.

So that day, on holiday, while my favourite digital magazine was behind an “on” switch and endless layers of apps and amongst hundreds of digital choices, there was that single print magazine, right in front of my eyes, quietly lying next to my iPad occupying the same physical space as the device, whispering: “Read me”.

So I picked it up and read it. It successfully grabbed my precious attention and, at that moment, it trumped its digital cousins. It cut through the digital noise, actually trumping the endless deluge of digital media stuffed into my tablet.

Therein lies the simple, and pretty obvious truth: As inefficient as they are, a print magazine or newspaper is able to effectively grab my attention and get a read out of me because they exist in the physical world. They do it all the time. In the airport I pick up newspapers lying around. In doctor’s waiting rooms I browse through magazines.

Don’t get me wrong. Digital media is massive, it’s the future and it will trump print (it’s already attracting more money from advertisers in a number of markets and is set to do so globally by 2015). But the low barriers to entry for creating digital media mean there is massive choice and competition, which is set to rise even more exponentially.

Ironically — the more pervasive digital media gets, so the more unique and special print media becomes. Ultimately a goal of a media publication is to attract readers, spread its ideas and advertising. If it’s able to cut through the digital noise and get a read out of me, then it is still relevant and still has a life.

Are those who say print is dead living in cloud cuckoo land?

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  • Jarred Cinman

    This is a humorous piece. Perhaps it isn’t intended to be – rather the hope is that digital cultists such as myself will rise to the bait and write responses in this comments section. Well, here I am. Dance little puppet boy, dance.

    The core of your argument appears to be: print is quaint and beautiful, like a fine cognac. Digital is more like J&B or Bells. Yes, it’ll win the numbers game but those with refined and sartorial tastes will still want to sit back on their Eames chair, drop a needle on their vinyl, smoke their cigar (even though they KNOW it causes cancer) and read their magazine or their newspaper. Because they can. Because a man of refined tastes just does that kind of thing.

    I don’t want to say this is utter drivel because I’m sure this captures a certain portion of the market quite well. But this is not a business. It’s to take print from a mass medium to the pursuit of hobbyists and snobs. And that is a market for some advertisers but not those who rely on print as they do today.

    Pitting digital and print against one another in this way is like comparing the theory of evolution to creationism; or homeopathy to scientific medicine. By drawing the dilemma you are conferring an equal status on two things which are not even of the same kind, never mind realistic competitors. Print may indeed appeal to the connoisseur – but that won’t save it from certain destruction, and very soon.

  • http://www.matthewbuckland.com/ Matthew Buckland

    Just seen your comment this morning :-) There is no humour whatsoever in this piece. It’s deadly serious. To Respond:

    You Say: The core of your argument appears to be: print is quaint and beautiful, like a fine cognac. Digital is more like J&B or Bells. Yes, it’ll win the numbers game but those with refined and sartorial tastes will still want to sit back on their Eames chair, drop a needle on their vinyl, smoke their cigar (even though they KNOW it causes cancer) and read their magazine or their newspaper. Because they can. Because a man of refined tastes just does that kind of thing.

    I Say: I’m analysing consumption habits, and I am saying people still read print magazines and prefer them in some instances. I’m saying that digital had eaten into this market, but won’t finish it off. Compare it to the invention of the electric heater. The common sense view was that this would replace fireplaces (they are so dirty, smelly, take some time to set up etc etc), but yet people prefer the experience of a fireplace, compared to a heater and use both side by side at different times. Not everyone gravitates to the most efficient medium. People prefer experiences. Print is that fireplace. Digital is an electric heater.

    You Say: I don’t want to say this is utter drivel because I’m sure this captures a certain portion of the market quite well. But this is not a business. It’s to take print from a mass medium to the pursuit of hobbyists and snobs. And that is a market for some advertisers but not those who rely on print as they do today.

    I Say: Not sure about hobbyists, but snobs possibly. Advertisers love well-heeled niches of consumers with disposable income. The airport, those that can afford to fly, is full of advertising last time I checked. But this is not my argument. I’m not saying print is valuable because it will create a well-heeled niche — I am saying its valuable because it is able to attract our attention because a print newspaper or print magazine is a “dedicated device” (to that media it carries) that exists physically in the same space as we exist — and that this is a distinct advantage over digital media and tools that tends not to. Exactly zero digital devices are dedicated to one media product. They are dedicated to an endless array of digital media and tools — and that is steep competition for our limited attention.

    You Say: Pitting digital and print against one another in this way is like comparing the theory of evolution to creationism; or homeopathy to scientific medicine. By drawing the dilemma you are conferring an equal status on two things which are not even of the same kind, never mind realistic competitors. Print may indeed appeal to the connoisseur – but that won’t save it from certain destruction, and very soon.

    I Say: They are comparable. Many media companies carry the same content, albeit formatted differently and enhanced, on both digital devices and in print. The business model is roughly the same too (possibly a problem — but that is another debate), therefore a comparison is apt. I consume media in both digital and print format — and I ask myself why, how etc. I don’t say at all that digital and print have equal status, and in fact clearly say in my article mention that I feel digital is far bigger, better for a variety of reasons. What I do say though is don’t write off print. It is a serious player now, and will be for some time because it can effectively grab our attention.

    Thanks for the debate.

  • S. Woodhouse Books

    I agree based on my own re-formed habits and those I witness in many others. We may be glued to our devices and gobble up all sorts of content digitally, but we also are both quite content to focus on print that happens to be right in front of our face or hand-pick items from the ether of options to relish in material form. And that one particular item–book, magazine–is so handy. You cart it around, open it at will, read that one thing.

  • Pingback: Why print trumps digital in the attention economy | dreaming in cmyk

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  • Julia Louw

    I have a theory about this. I think the key difference in how people are prepared to consume these two kinds of content lies in an unexpected place: the irritation to the eye caused by the active process of scrolling. There’s all kinds of other factors that play a part, but when it comes to the motivations behind what segments people into the two main content-consumption models, namely the browsing model (I’ll read it cos it’s there) and the hunting model (I’ll read it cos I intentionally selected it), I think that the physical/neurological differences caused by the medium play a huge part. When picking up a mag or paper, your eye and your brain can absorb the entire reality of layout at once, in a frictionless manner. Content on a screen is much more finicky and effortful to deal with. (If you’ve ever sent someone a manuscript as an email attachment, this is why they didn’t read it.)

  • Pingback: Koos Bekker predicts print media will be dead within 20 years | memeburn

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