Print’s not dead

When the internet became more broadly available and a variety of new media emerged around the turn of the millennium, there was a lot of concern about how these new developments would change and re-shape the world of media. People were particularly worried about the effects these changes would have on the consumption of printed goods such as books and magazines. The general assumption was that the attention of the general public would shift towards the new media, thus rendering the more traditional ones obsolete. »Print is dead« was a common mantra of lamentation.

While today we know that in a shift towards »new media« did happen, we also know that still, print is not dead. In fact it is very much alive, it’s just changed its lifestyle a bit. In a sense, print became more accessible than ever before with desktop publishing providing billions of everyday people with the means to publicise and distribute their ideas in the form of self-published books, magazines, booklets, newspapers etc. – these days print media is not only readily available for passive consumption, but also for active participation.

In this respect, print media isn’t all that different from digital media where, as we repeatedly hear, oftentimes the consumer has become the creator and vice versa as traditional roles of media players converge. At first glance it might still seem as if the production of a printed object is more complicated, time consuming and expensive than the production of a digital piece of information. But if you look at it in more detail it soon becomes clear that this is not completely true. It only seems this way because there are more services that provide templates for the publication of digital content than there are for printed content. Just imagine if every blogger had to write the code for their website themselves – there would be a lot less blogs out there. Thankfully, services like WordPress provide content management systems that are easy to understand and can also be adapted to achieve more complex solutions if you have the respective codings skills. As far as printed objects go, on-demand printing services would be an appropriate analogy (although, admittedly, on-demand printing, unlike the standard basic plan of any blogging site, is not free). Funnily enough, these on-demand books are mostly ordered online.

And thus, the media production kind of comes full circle.

It seems that even if they’d have the means to avoid it, a lot of people still crave printed media products. Why is that? I don’t know, but for some reason print seems to continue to fascinate.

Maybe it is because we humans are physical creatures living in a physical world. This physical world is both requirement and condition of our mere existence. While we may well transfer all of our intellectual endeavours into the cyberspace, we can never disconnect ourselves from the physical reality. We still need to breathe, we need to metabolise, we need to go to the doctor’s when we’re ill. And as we are so connected to the physical world, tangible, printed things somehow feel a little more real, a little more valid.

Another reason as to why the affinity to print remains might be based on habit, maybe even nostalgia, and lie in the way we are being brought up. It’s not too far-fetched to assume that parents pass on their relationship to printed products to their kids. People tend to mimic the way their parents behave – and if the parents read a lot of printed books and magazines, the kids are more likely to read printed books and magazines as well. I know this to be true for a lot of friends as well as for myself where the constant purchasing of books is starting to become a bit of a problem (and makes moving flats particularly unpleasant). I think this might be the case for a lot of other people all over the world as well. I wonder if this is going to remain this way with the generations to come, though. With a lot more of different media available to choose from, parents’ attention might shift away from print and their kids’ attention might follow, and hence the demand for print will decrease.

However, we can’t really see the long-term effects of the »digital revolution« yet, and they will only reveal themselves to us in hindsight a few decades from now. As of now, we can only guess. This year marked the point where for the first time since the invention of the e-reader print book sales were rising while e-book sales were declining. This change is being attributed to the realisation that some forms of publications don’t translate well into digital and that reading a physical book provides an altogether different pleasurable experience. This is not to say that print books will push e-books aside again, but it is an interesting observation. The whole publishing industry is undergoing major changes and we can’t say for sure what will come from this.

Still, I believe that there will always be demand for printed goods. The absolute market share will probably reduce, and the industry will have to find a way to adapt to this and develop new business models. But print will not disappear. History has taught us that media channels usually don’t replace one another, but rather continue to exist alongside each other.

So while the real change that the media landscape has been going through for the past decades, and will continue to go through in the decades to come, poses a lot of challenges that should definitely not be underestimated, I don’t think that print will ever die.

Julia Herrele