Print Is Not Dead, But It May Be Soon

My grandfather owned and operated a printing company for the vast majority of his professional life.

For about half of my corporate career, I worked at the company responsible for stuffing your Sunday papers with five pounds of recyclable materials. You're welcome!

In short, I've heard for a long time that print is dying; and over the same period I've heard insider and outsider explanations for why this is, isn't, or never will be true.

I used to subscribe to Architectural Digest. If I could pick up a subscription for less than $10/year, I'd do it simply because I like looking at beautiful architecture in a glossy magazine. But towards the end of my last subscription, I started seeing the Power of Print ad pictured at right with alarming frequency.

This always struck me as the print equivalent to a giant, tacky "Your Ad Here" message on a battered billboard along a rarely travelled stretch of highway. It reeked of desperation and self-delusion. Ironically, the target audience of this ad is the potential advertiser; not the reader, and definitely not one of the 300 million paid subscribers (who says you have to be a tech company to practice user hostility?). You don't demonstrate your value to potential customers by showing off your excess inventory.

The implicit message of the Power of Print is: "We sustain our business by selling ads, but for this issue we came up a couple pages short. So we decided to use the space to remind you (and convince ourselves) that our format is still relevant, valuable, and - dammit - thriving! Don't over-think this, just take our word for it. And hey, if you're a media buyer for a company with a substantial marketing budget, let's do lunch! Have we got a deal for you!"

Incidentally, I think "300 million paid subscriptions" is a totally meaningless value proposition. Advertisers today place a diminishing value on anything they can't measure. "This magazine shows up in someone's mailbox every month" says absolutely nothing about the recipient's interaction with the magazine itself, or the ads therein.

My continued stupefaction* with the popularity and existence of Twitter notwithstanding, I consider myself to be neither ahead of nor behind most cultural trends. So, for what it's worth, here's how an average guy has come to use magazines in their print form:
  • I will probably never subscribe to AD again. They reached their zenith with their coverage of Jennifer Aniston's house; and every issue seemed to contain one project I loved, one I hated, and a bunch that were meh. Also, about 50 pages of ads for stuff I'll never, ever own. Between the lost time and the $10/year, this became a net drain.
  • I've kept a current subscription to Esquire for the past few years, the most recent of which was a much-appreciated gift from a thoughtful friend. I still find time to flip through it cover-to-cover every month, and Lori likes to read it too, for some reason. I think it's the interviews.
  • Around the time iOS 5's Newsstand was announced, I picked up 1-year subscriptions to GQ and Wired for $4.99 each, and another for The Atlantic for about the same price, because I figured the print subscriptions would come with free access to their iPad counterparts (and I was right!). I wanted some content to view in Newsstand, and I'd be damned if I was paying $4.99 per month to get that content. My point is, the print versions of these magazines were an afterthought; a means to an end.
  • When packing for a flight to San Francisco a month or so ago, I scooped up about half a dozen of these magazines that had accumulated unread around the house. I figured I'd need something to read in that critical time between the closing of the airplane door and the ascension to 10,000 feet, when all electronic are (supposed to be) turned off. I pulled the first magazine out in the waiting area of the airport, because I'd already become annoyed by the weight they added to my bag. I flipped through two and a half magazines before boarding, and - in what I thought was a stroke of minor genius - tore off the half of the one magazine I'd already read. That amounted to about 2.5 pounds in the airport recycling bin. I also tore out an article that I thought a friend might appreciate. I gave it to him, folded and crumpled, and I'm quite sure he threw it away unread. (Would he have read it if I'd e-mailed him a link? Probably.) By the time I landed, I'd flipped through the rest of the magazines, but I was surprised at how much of their content I'd already stumbled across elsewhere and read (usually in Instapaper). I left them in the seat-back pocket. I spent most of the flight catching up on Reeder and Instapaper stuff I'd stashed away. Also, inexplicably, I listened to the Dead Milkmen's first three albums. Overall, good flight!
  • When packing for another recent long weekend, I again scooped up the magazines laying around; but this time they were all still in their plastic wrappers. This is not a good sign for the Power of Print. I got through about half of these over the course of the weekend, and left them all at the house where we stayed.
Recently, Darrell Etherington at GigaOM reported that Newsstand has been very good for digital publishers:
[Condé Nast], which puts out many top-tier magazines including Wired, GQ and The New Yorker, has seen digital subscriptions rise 268 percent since Newsstand arrived with the iOS 5 update almost two weeks ago. 
Not only did subscriptions increase, but single issue sales also skyrocketed with a 142 percent increase when compared with the eight weeks prior to Newsstand’s launch. Both represent increases as measured across all nine of Condé Nast’s digital titles available on the iOS platform.
I wonder if the Power of Print ads will run inside the iOS versions of these magazines. At least that way their impressions will actually be measurable.

*Today I Learned that stupefication is not a word. Has this always been true? Is this like nucular and resauranteur, or am I the only one who had this wrong?