Print has taken a hit over the past several years as the popular perception that digital would
replace the medium has turned the print industry on its head. New statistics reveal that
although consumption of print has shifted, it is here to stay, as advertisers are finding their way back.
All things being equal, you are reading this article on a page in the printed edition of this magazine.
You could have got here on your computer. Or on your smartphone. But you didn’t. You chose to pick up the physical magazine.
Before reading any further, take a moment and feel the weight of the magazine in your hands.
Run your fingers along the page, over the letters printed in black ink. Flip through the magazine, cover to cover, and listen to the faint rustle of the turning pages.
Readers have experienced those sensations when they pick up a magazine or a newspaper or a book for nearly six centuries. Of course, the means of creating these pages have changed considerably since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. Computers and high-quality paper have replaced a hand-powered printer pressing ink onto parchment. Still, in technological terms, the printed page is archaic. The publishers of the 21st century are, on a very fundamental level, still using a 15th-century solution to mass communication.
Digital communication is the present and the future. That is the conventional wisdom, anyway. This page could be transmitted to you at the speed of light and read on the powerful micro-computer you keep your pocket.
So who needs a magazine or a newspaper, when you can get all the news and information you want at the touch of a button?
Circulation declines have struck nearly every market of every print publication in Canada. Daily newspapers, including those in Niagara, have been struck by waves of job cuts. The country’s most influential magazine, MacLean’s, now publishes monthly instead of weekly, joining its newspaper cousins in pushing it’s most current work to the digital sphere.
Print, they say, is dead.
Except, all things being equal, you are reading this article on a printed page. And that may say something.
“Print isn’t dead, that’s for sure,” says John Hinds, present and CEO of News Media Canada, an industry research and public affairs organization. “Remember in the 1970s they said print was dead. Television was going to kill it. But here we are in 2017, with 6 out of 10 adult Canadians interacting with a print product every week.”
The internet, and our around the clock exposure to it, has undeniably impacted print products in a way television never could. As more readers shifted to online publications, advertisers followed, cutting deeply into print’s traditional source of revenue.
So the conventional logic says the transition to digital is inexorable and it is only a matter of time before all the money leaves print and becomes exclusively digital.
But Hinds says there are signs that the bleeding is slowing down. Even as readers consume online products, printed newspapers are still being read at the same time by the same people. Magazines have successfully found ways to survive the digital onslaught. Most critically, advertisers find more bang for their buck on the printed page than on a screen.
These facts run somewhat counter to the common narrative about Canada’s print publications. Those stories are often about falling circulation and revenue, job losses and general anxiety about the future of newspapers, magazines and fate of journalism in the country.
Dig deeper, beyond the headlines, however, and there is another story about the influence of print over digital that is worthy of your attention.
According to the fourth-quarter 2016 readership study released in June by Vividata – a firm that tracks data on the print & digital offerings of magazines and newspapers – only 16 per cent of newspaper readers exclusively consume their news through digital products. Some 37 percent are consuming news through a combination of print and digital. And 46 per cent of Canadian adults read a physical newspaper each week.
While newspapers now depend on engaging readers across multiple platforms, in the world of magazines print is still king.
According to Vividata, three-quarters of Canadian adults read magazines, with the highest readership found in Ontario.
While there is a significant number of people who read both the digital and print editions of magazines, a full 60 percent of readers are only reading the print copy of their magazine of choice.
So while print isn’t the only game in town anymore, it is far from dead.
The reason that print hasn’t faded to black despite the pressure of digital competition has a lot to do with the human brain, Hinds said.
“Studies have shown that we read differently when reading something online compared to reading something in print. We absorb information differently and retain more when we read something on a page,” Hinds says.
He points to a 2016 study funded by Canada Post that looked at the neuroscience of reading print vs. digital. Canada Post was interested in finding out how effective internet advertising is versus the printed, direct mail flyers the post office has been delivering for decades. Like newspapers and magazines, Canada Post has a financial interest at stake as advertisers shift to digital.
The study found that it requires 21% more cognitive effort to process and retain information from digital messages than printed ones. It was remarkably easier for a person reading a print ad to remember a brand and its messaging than the person reading the same thing on a screen. Brand recall for print ads was 70% higher than it was for digital ads.
Hinds says readers also spend more time on the printed page, absorbing the content of the physical material they are reading for both editorial content and advertising.
“The ad on a physical page is always there, whereas you can just skip past an ad online,” he says. “Print works.”
Hinds says some advertisers are already shifting their ad budgets to print. Automotive advertising, for instance, is migrating back to print products.
This effect of better information absorption is most acutely seen in magazines, he says.
Newspapers are publishing stories on events as they happen. They are read and disposed of daily. Magazines tend to linger longer in homes, offices or hotels.
“The culture of reading magazines is different than newspapers,” says Don Williams, vice president of research at Vividata. “They tend to be read over a longer period.”
Hinds says magazines often carve out a particular niche in the marketplace. Where newspapers are usually generalists by design, publishing stories on a broad range of subjects, magazines often focus on a particular subject for a particular market.
Automotive. Weddings. Finance. Entertainment. Sports. Video Games. Or just about any other subject imaginable that caters to a target audience, which in turns attracts particular advertisers.
For instance, Rev Publishing – the company that owns this magazine – publishes nine specialty titles aimed at business, hospitality, weddings and tourism.
That kind of focus, Hinds says, keeps readers and advertisers connected to the publication and helps shelter magazines from the forces eroding newspaper sales.
Digital technology, despite all the advantages of speed and cost effectiveness, doesn’t necessarily trump human nature, Williams says. A lot of people prefer the feel of a page than the glare of a screen. They’ve developed a habit of reading their newspaper over their morning coffee or on the subway to work.
And habits are notoriously difficult to break.
“Remember, printed books were supposed to die. Not that long ago e-readers were going put an end to the printed book,” he says. “It didn’t happen, and no one really thinks that is going to happen now.”
In either case, newspapers or magazines, what ultimately keeps readers coming back is content, says Sarah Hill, president and CEO of Vividata. Online or in print, being a “trusted source” of reliable information for readers is what differentiates newspapers and magazines from your typical blog or social media post.
None of this is to say printed publications will somehow push their digital counterparts into extinction. After all, the printing press hasn’t gone anywhere in 600 years, and there is no reason to think the internet won’t enjoy that kind of epic longevity.
But it is to say that the printed page hasn’t been relegated to the dustbin of history. Not yet.
There is a connection between the printed word and its reader that doesn’t exist in the more ephemeral digital world, and so long as that exists, so will print.