There’s been heightened interest of late in the effectiveness of the printed word. It started with direct mail associations finding higher response rates to print than to electronic equivalents. Printed book sales in developed markets are outpacing e-book sales. And even the newspaper industry is still seeing 60% of revenues coming from print. According to Michael Golden vice-chairman of the New York Times company speaking at the recent Wan-Ifra World Publishing Expo, “readers have stayed with print and they are paying an increasing price for it.”
This is unsurprising for a couple of very basic reasons. As well as the content it carries, print is perceived as the product and we like to buy stuff. Print satisfies our urge for things we can actually hold in our hands. We appreciate print’s physicality, its tangibility and its convenience. That printed paper is also recyclable because it is based on renewable resources is an added bonus that can soothe their troubled ecoconsciences.
These are all well rehearsed and compelling arguments for print, made since the emergence of electronic media in the last century. And it was always the case that as the novelty of electronic media wears off, people could choose to return to print. The question is, are they returning in sufficient numbers to sustain modern publishing business models.
In this ever more splintered communications environment, it might be that electronic media may actually be starting to drive consumers back to print. Increasing numbers of people choose to trust an editor or publisher to curate their content for them. Many of us prefer to look at a row of books on the shelf (or piles on the floor), instead of admiring a lone electronic device. Even when attractively accessorised with a dangling power supply and the tease of a flashing LED, the joyless aesthetics of an e-book simply don’t cut it.
Consumers, especially of newspapers, prefer to trust a brand rather than rely on a platform with no commitment to content integrity whatsoever, and commercial motives based on traffic and not probity. The whole fake news discussion overlooks the fact that information is a tool wielded to support a specified objective no matter how morally suspect. Social media platforms want to drive engagement and interaction in order to deliver audience numbers for advertising and nothing more. They claim a social purpose, but the real purpose is commercial and their users are unwitting raw material for a highly profitable business model. Social media platforms are not in the business of driving fact based debate or encouraging information that supports the public interest. They are in the ad sales business.
That people embrace fake news at all should remind us that in the words of Arthur Hays Sulzberfer a former publisher of the New York Times, that “along with responsible newspapers, we must have responsible readers”. Print readers can take comfort in the fact that they not only have they a better chance of being about to trust a more expensive and substantial medium, but they can also trust that the medium itself is recyclable.
– Laurel Brunner