OPINION: Stop talking about the decline of print

Chris Stephenson
By Chris Stephenson | 15 November 2012
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Many of last week’s media headlines made gloomy reading for all the wrong reasons. Every Sunday metro newspaper title showed some decline in print consumption, some by more than 20%. Only Famous and BRW bucked the downward trend in magazine circulation, with the current climate seeing the demise of Atomic and Good Food Magazine.

This round of ABCs has prompted a particularly potent dose of hand-wringing and debate. One trade title’s email subject of “you want depressing headlines? We got ‘em” also saw a debate between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media fill a discussion thread, as Delimiter’s Editor and Publisher Renai LeMay took Publishers Australia chairman Geoff Hird to task for all the wrong reasons.

It goes without saying that publishing is experiencing unprecedented and fundamental structural change; as reader consumption and engagement with platforms change, it is inevitable that some platforms will show systemic decline. Yet all too often our headlines and commentaries focus on the decline of print circulations and readerships – a decline that is largely inevitable. We may as well report and lament that summer is here, or indeed that winter is coming.

The fact is that the internet, and the digitisation it heralds, cares little for ‘things’. EVP and Global Chief Creative Officer at R/GA Nick Law gave an elegant keynote at The Communications Council’s Circus event in March, where he made the case for putting play at the heart of brand participation. His point was that experience delivers more engagement than either storytelling to an audience (on one hand) or delivering information to a user (at the other). Experience, and indeed emotion, always wins.

Despite this, industry after industry has fallen into the trap of protecting the ‘thing’ – the platform – rather than the product experience. The music industry protected the CD as iTunes and Spotify innovated experiences around them; Instagram is an experience-based photography application that Facebook valued at $1bn, whilst as I write Reuters is reporting that Kodak has reached a financing deal that will see it escape the bankruptcy it filed for in January this year.

The music and photography industries are not alone – Secret Cinema is injecting experiences (and revenues) into movie-going, and in even highly-regulated sectors such as finance, Kick-Starter’s experiences are taking on the banks’ traditional loan solutions.

Print is a platform and is therefore subject to the evolutions and fluctuations of consumption patterns and trends – it is at the mercy of external forces. Winter is no doubt coming for the ‘thing’ that is print, but this is not the print industry – and as long as they and we think of it as such, it will be in decline.

Product is something different. The products of the publishing industry educate and inform us, they challenge and inspire and entertain us. The publishing industry tells stories that would otherwise go untold, hold our governments and institutions to account, and present us with knowledge without which we would be ignorant.

This is important. What’s crucial is that beyond the depressing headlines, and hand-wringing and mediation between the old and the new we remember that this is important. We must remember that behind the headlines of the platform story is a product of such importance to our culture and society, that its survival should be all our responsibilities. This is of course the opportunity for marketing news: much less pointing people to a platform, and much more amplifying its product out.

The music CD platform still exists, although for many people its place and role is diminished. The lesson is clear: whilst he same will inevitably be come to be said of the print platform, the music of its product will very much play on.

Chris Stephenson
Head of Strategy

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