Jumping Into the Print vs. Digital Debate
Industry gurus (and Publishing Executive columnists) Bob Sacks and Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni engaged in a lively, spontaneous Twitter debate yesterday (nicely compiled by D. Eadward Tree in his Dead Tree Edition blog) on the future of print vs. digital.
Both agree reading on paper will not disappear, but beyond that the two diverge. Husni thinks paper will remain a vital magazine medium, encapsulating an experience not replicable on tablets, while Sacks believes paper will become a pricey niche format.
So, who's right? After an experience I had last night, while all this tweeting was going on, I find myself leaning toward the Husni camp.
I was lucky enough to attend a private talk at Rosemont College given by Patricia Carbine, co-founder, along with Gloria Steinem and others, of Ms. magazine. Carbine, a self-described print person who considers the closing of Newsweek "a big loss," addressed a group of students in the college's graduate publishing program. (I plan to write more about this in the upcoming April issue of Publishing Executive.)
Sporting a red hat, Carbine began her talk by referencing both her politics and her feelings about the momentous changes in media. "I am wearing not one but two hats tonight. The red one is the one that positions me as close as I am allowed to get to being a cardinal," she quipped, referencing the papal conclave. "… The other hat is invisible, but it's called ambivalence … I wonder, given all the difference in the publishing community, whether what I can share with you is as relevant as you want it to be."
For the students present, what Carbine had to say—about the importance of print in her life and to what she understands as the power of magazines—certainly seemed plenty relevant. To this audience of mostly millennials, her comments about the "real physical excitement" of receiving magazines in the mail, of the effect on her as a child of seeing her own words in type "like carved marble," seemed to resonate.
In a Q&A session after the talk, one student related her excitement at happening upon print copies of a magazine she had read online. Getting to actually touch it, the student said, made her feel "this is a real magazine." Others talked about their student magazine projects, the eye-opening experience of laying out pages, creating features and departments and choosing photographs. All, when asked, said they hoped to eventually realize their ideas in print.
"I'm kind of thrilled to hear that you'd like to hold on to the page," Carbine told the group.
This is a small sample group, of course, but the comments got me thinking that the magazine print market, while never again to be what it was in its heyday, will retain a substantial proportion of readers. The substrate does matter—not in the sense that content cannot be delivered just as effectively on a tablet as in a book, but in the sense that, for certain subjects and audiences, there will always be many who enjoy the print experience.
The difference between Sacks and Husni is partially one of degree. Sacks is absolutely right that, as he put it last night, there will eventually be a plateau where the decline in print readership will level off. The debate seems to be about when that leveling off will finally occur. I think it will happen sooner than Sacks—and many others—believe. Print readership will stabilize, and in a few years, we will be reading articles in Ad Age about the surprising survival of print in the context of a robust multi-platform market.