Why Digital Can’t Match the Tangible Quality and Perceived Value of Print

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February 28, 2017


In a previous work life, I was the publisher of a Kansas City weekly newspaper, The Pitch, for over 10 years. The format offers distribution of local entertainment, food, music, and long form investigative journalism. I enjoyed it immensely, and lived through the highs of the industry throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, to the lows in recent years. Based on the timing of my tenure, you can imagine that I heard the comment “print is dead” on a near daily basis. This rally cry, in my opinion, was exaggerated and still is, although there is no debate that print publications have taken a hit. My contention is that much of the lost revenue from ad sales which led to the downward spiral of the publication industry is because too many people bought into the hype and couldn’t see the enduring value that print brings. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I recently met with the Pitch editor to catch up and see how things are going. Over a couple of cold craft beers, he said they are going through a format change, moving to a monthly publication starting in March. At first, I was disappointed at this news. This seemed to be part of a never-ending cycle to keep costs down and stay relevant in a world dominated by tweets, blogs and posts. But then, he mentioned that the change would also include The Pitch being printed on glossy paper, giving the publication more of a magazine style and look. This got me thinking that perhaps this is not only a necessary move, but possibly a positive one. I’m a firm believer that when print pieces have a strong perceived value, they will be read more, kept longer and shared with others.  According to the Pfeiffer Report, a newspaper in Austria, Die Presse, produced an elegant, perfect bound book-like publication that featured archived stories from its 150+ year history. The book was produced in-house, and they hoped to break even by selling 4,000 copies. It went on to sell tens of thousands of copies. The Pfeiffer Report goes on to say that “the paper managed to bolster its revenue and competitive advantage significantly by then diversifying print products for niche markets: there is a publication for luxury real estate, for instance, a glossy magazine that draws significant advertising revenue; special issues of the newspapers for significant events such as the presidential election; and even a high-touch product guide for the curated store for selected products that the newspaper runs. In other words, Die Presse uses print in a very targeted way, not as an additional output channel for on-line content, but as an increasingly diversified way to engage with customers.”

Conversely, while we all understand the value of digital (The Pitch also has a very successful and popular online version), the perceived value of digital cannot compare to that of print. Why do you think vinyl records are making such a resurgence?  Because it’s tangible, you can hold it. It tells a story beyond the music. Digitally downloaded music just cannot provide that kind of connection. And, you have to ask yourself, would you pay for Facebook, Google Maps or Snapchat?  As mentioned in a video from Sappi North America we shared in a previous blog post, a new study done in Norway found that readers using a Kindle were “significantly” worse than paperback readers when asked to recall certain passages in a mystery story they read.  The researchers found in the study that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does”.  

Keep in mind that marketing requires multiple types of touch points.  You need digital as a compliment to print, not a replacement. The two in tandem can reap benefits beyond their solo limitations. Print can deliver an emotional connection, knowledge retention and value to the subject, while digital can offer convenience, speed and affordability. And from a marketing and advertising standpoint, the delivery of a message through simultaneous print and digital channels can lead to increased conversions and brand recognition.

Print is not dead, and basic observation shows that it will be around for a very long time. People want to hold, touch and share the valuable, tangible quality that only a print product can provide. I’m looking forward to seeing the first issue of the monthly, glossy version of The Pitch, and am optimistic of its success.


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