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Facing up to the truth about the future of print

September 25, 2013

There isn’t a publisher in the world who isn’t wrestling with the challenge of managing the accelerating migration of readers and advertisers from print to the myriad of digital platforms. It is real and it is not going to go away, whatever the dwindling band of blinkered digital-deniers hopes for.

ImageThe announcement today that the 279 year old Lloyd’s List will not be seeing out 2013 with its daily print edition came just as Telegraph Media Group executive director Lord Black of Brentwood was reminding everyone of the decline in newspaper readership. He was speaking at the Wine and Spirit Trade Association conference (a slightly odd place to make a major speech on the future of the press) where he spelt out the challenge facing publishers: “Sixteen years ago 14 million papers were sold every day, now the figure is 6.6 million…People are stopping reading print titles and advertisers are following them. We have had to adapt and become multi-platform”, he told his audience.

Personally, I haven’t bought a printed morning newspaper for over two years, preferring instead the App editions of The Times and The Guardian, supplemented by a range of news websites, especially the BBC and the Telegraph. After that, social media becomes my news feed.

I start with the App editions, however, because I like what it is now fashionable to call curated content. I like to read a package of content that has been chosen, written, edited, ordered and presented by a strong editorial team in touch with its readers. That is what print offered and that is what digital editions offer too but with the added richness of multi-media content and links to greater depth and background where I want it. They also occasionally remind one of some of the limitations of curated content that is produced to specific deadlines and has various production and publishing processes to go through. On Tuesday The Guardian still recorded the result of the League One match between Brentford and Leyton Orient as a late result just as it did in the bad old days of print.*

A well-presented and designed App edition also provides an excellent vehicle for longer content such as major features, columns and background articles. Amazingly, I still come across people who try to tell me that long-form content doesn’t work digitally – have they not noticed the number of people on the train in the morning reading books on the ever-widening variety of digital devices?

So, is there a future for print?

Personally, I think there is but it is an increasingly specialist, high value future.

Print does have its strengths. It is a tactile medium that with good design and high production values can present certain types of content in especially appealing ways. My former colleagues on the British Journal of Photography – now published by Apptitude Media – have shown how that dynamic can be exploited. They took an ailing but nicely produced weekly and reinvented it. In its place they put a beautifully designed monthly, invested in better quality print and paper and put alongside it an innovative digital strategy that included a superb app that has rightly won a string of awards. It has worked for them and it will work for a handful of others.

Many people will still want to own printed books if they offer something that is good to look at, touch and hold and has content that they a likely to want to return to many times. What’s more they will probably be prepared to pay a premium for it. The paperback novel you read once, take on holiday or read on the train doesn’t have a print future.

Add into this mix the economic arguments – the savings on paper, print and distribution – and the fantastic immediacy and measurability of response and engagement that publishers and advertisers get from digital publications and websites and the debate starts to look very one-sided.

For most publishers who are alive to the reality of the digital age it is no longer a question of if print will survive but when it will go. The brave ones are already facing up to that. The big question now is which will be the first national newspaper in this country to blink and stop publishing a daily print edition?

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* Just in case the importance of the Brentford v Leyton Orient result has eluded anyone it was a 2-0 win the unstoppable Os, maintaining their eight game winning start to the season. I didn’t need the result as I was at the match but I was hoping for a line or two of acknowledgement. Instead, they didn’t even have the result.

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