Common sense tells us that print is not going away. If print is no longer an important part of your life, that is undeniable. But to extrapolate from personal experience to a statement about what is going to happen in the world doesn’t work. But that’s exactly what many of the people foretelling the death of print are doing.

That’s because most of the public discourse tends to be dominated by information junkies and there is little doubt that if you’re an information junkie, the web is the way to go. But the reality is that info-junkies are only a small tribe. They consume the news at a prodigious rate and the web is the fastest way to satisfy their appetite. Thus, they’re also the most vocal tribe — so it’s easy to get the impression that theirs is the most widely held conclusion. But if you listen to some of the discourse, it soon becomes apparent that it’s only one way to look at it.

Print is still king

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Martin Langeveld

You can get a flavor of it in some of the responses to a series of recent blog posts by former newspaper publisher and current consultant Martin Langeveld, who presented a clear articulation of a path forward for journalism and newspapers. One of the posts was titled, Print is still king — only 3% of newspaper reading is happening online. While the exact numbers are open to further investigation, the thrust of the argument is that the overwhelming majority read newspapers in print, not on the web.

The fascinating thing for a Boomer print evangelist like me is that the blog post received 76 comments and 38 trackbacks in seven days. Clearly, Langeveld’s suggestions struck a nerve among the visitors to The Nieman Journalism Lab. The comments had a good mix of helpful and not so helpful. Here are some that are helpful in revealing a mindset that has hindered an understanding of what is going to happen next:

“I barely spend 25 minutes a week now where I once spent 25 minutes a day. Don’t know if this was your first-ever article (since I have never heard of you) but hopefully a peer can teach you some research techniques.”

“The print edition is read by a disproportionately high volume of older readers — who will, if you will pardon the bluntness, be dead relatively soon.”

“This is total bs. The only printed publications I read (outside of books) is when I travel on planes. Crap, my 80 year old dad only reads on-line newspapers. This story is a total industry plant. If this was the case why has the size of my local paper shrunk down to “high school” paper size in the last couple years?”

“I only read the newspaper online, so do most of my friends, my mom and dad and brothers. In my circle I would say that 50% of the people I know now read the newspaper online.”

Unlike Langeveld, though, these commenters didn’t base their conclusions on research and analysis; instead they provided anecdotal evidence. At Comment 53, Langeveld responded to his critics with the point I want to highlight:

I based this on a whole lot of solid data and a couple of reasonable assumptions. Change those assumptions if you like, but it won’t change the conclusions, I’ve explained why. What I have NOT done is thrown in anecdotal observations about newspapers left unread on chairs, 80-year-old dads who get their news online, and the like, and drawn global conclusions from that.

Generational Shifts

When I was 20, I wore a T-shirt that said “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” It seemed to be completely clear at the time. It made so much sense. Anyone who didn’t see what I saw was destined for the dustbin of history. I was wrong, but it happens every 40 years or so. 1920s, 1880s,1840s, 1790s. A new cohort enters the global arena. They think the way they see the world is the Truth. It’s the error of clarity in a very complex world. The same thing is happening today with young info-junkies so eager to discount print.

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Many brick-and-mortar stores continue to thrive

The “End of Print” is a meme that has gained ascendency in an environment of disruptive change in the communication ecology. It’s similar to the dot-com boom meme that bricks-and-mortar stores were doomed and would soon disappear. But fast-forward 10 years and you’ll see that prophecy never came to pass. Stores with physical presences are still strong: Wal-Mart had the third most visited e-commerce website last Christmas and continues to lead retail sales by using stores and the website. Pets.com didn’t work out as predicted, while brick-and-mortar pet stores continue to thrive. (However: Independent bookstores have been decimated by Amazon.com.)

What’s next

But even if talk about the death of print is very noisy, there’s no denying that the web has changed and will continue to change the nature of print journalism. Langeveld does an admirable job of articulating a useful thought model for thinking about journalism in Managing the Content Cascade and a useful model for thinking about newspapers in Newspapers Have to Grow their Online Audience, Can They?:

Newspapers must become digital enterprises, even if they choose to continue to print on some days or on every day of the week. The corporate culture of newspapers is still very much that of an “industry” with its bricks and mortar, iron and steel, trucks, vans and smokestacks. The daily work flow of most newspaper employees is organized around the central event of the daily press deadline. That culture is hard to change, even in the few newspaper firms where top leadership understands the need for reinvention as a digital enterprise. And it’s hard to do this, because there’s no blueprint and the few industry pioneers who are leading the way don’t necessarily know exactly what they’re doing. It’s very much a “fire, ready, aim” process.

The game changer that Langeveld implies is that newspapers can abandon the obsession with the daily press deadline. From the editorial and journalist point of view, that means there will no longer be any need to run after “breaking news.” Leave that to the web or the cable channels, whose fast pace more suits info-junkies anyway.

For newspapers, a “World in Brief” update on pages 1, 2 or 3 with links to the website will do that job. Or it might be a content feed from EveryBlock.com, sort of a weather report for a community’s social capital. Once stories are freed from the drop-dead press deadline, journalists and editors will be free to tell one, two or three interesting, nuanced stories as appropriate. With the addition of digital printing, it means that different stories can appear that are interesting to different people, with little muss or fuss.

From the cost-of-production point of view, that means the awesome productivity of offset presses can be finally harnessed. Instead of having to keep overhead to deal with peak loads, it is now possible to even out the manufacturing load. Once that’s accomplished, it’s possible to harness the “Long Tail” of print manufacture. The marginal costs are very low.

Because every business understands the value of print advertising, the trick is only to make the buy for a print/web ad combo easy and affordable.

Go Print!

I’ve been a print evangelist on the web since 2005. (If you are interested you can read my columns at WhatTheyThink.com back in the day.) In my first MediaShift column on February 17, titled Print is the Next Big Thing I said:

1. The best interactive tools for learning are still a page of print and a highlighter.
2. Print is the best search platform in proximate physical space.
3. Print can be seen as a toy, a token or a tool — things that people have and will continue to gladly pay for.
4. Once print is connected to cloud computing, everything will change again.

Despite the noise of info-junkies, that’s still my story and I’m sticking to it. But on the other hand, all of us over-40-year-olds will, if you will pardon the bluntness, be dead relatively soon.

Michael Josefowicz spent 30 years at Red Ink Productions, a boutique print production brokerage he co-founded which served New York-based design studios and non-profit organizations. He came out of retirement to teach production at Parsons The New School for Design for the next 7 years. He now blogs about print at Print in the Communication Ecology and about the digital printing industry at Tough Love for Xerox.

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