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

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?

Matthew Buckland: Publisher


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