Digital is Not the Enemy and Print Retreat is Not the Answer

By: Leslie C. Norins, MD, PhD

How publishers can resurrect circulation of their print editions.

The "Big Three” national print newspapers (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today) have been battered by declines in circulation and advertising. Their initial retreat turned into a rout, which has degenerated into sauve qui peut. The battleground is littered with the carcasses of cutbacks and layoffs. Pessimism permeates print. The enemy is claimed to be "digital.”

This dying ground is not the sole providence of newspapers; many associations are spilling their blood on this front, fighting the same fight in the same way. Even at this late stage, the situation can be turned around. With apologies to military heroes, hark to the words of World War I Marine Captain Lloyd Williams: "Retreat, hell, we just got here!”

What have most publishers done so far to help their print editions repel, or at least hold the line against, the incursions of digital substitutes? Candid answer: nothing. It’s been one abject surrender after another. Slash, not the attacker, but your own print staff and budgets. Corporate seppuku.

Time to counterattack. The new goal is not vanquishing digital, but a prosperous modus vivendi: regain sufficient print circulation to restore print’s respect and finances.

Smartphones did not cause all print’s losses. Digital has been a convenient villain, because blaming that medium has headed off incisive inquiry into the weaknesses in marketing the print enterprise. Smartphones are not winning the battle with print; they are sheltering the refugee readers and advertisers who left print or never learned its advantages.

The print edition conveys an image of success. The medium does convey a message. The image of the print edition was, and can be again, much more powerful than digital’s.

Here’s the new paradigm for the Big Three: The print newspaper is a visible badge of membership in a desirable club. Reading, even carrying, a Big Three newspaper says something to others about you, including your view of yourself, like the car you select, the beer you drink. Upmarket sneakers. Platinum credit card.

Illustration: You’re seated at your flight’s gate at O’Hare. Across from you are two casually dressed men of similar age. One is reading the print edition of the Wall Street Journal. The other is scrolling and clicking on his iPhone. If you had to bet, which one are you more certain is a person of substance? Which one would you ask to watch your kid while you run to the restroom? Of course, it’s the newspaper reader, because the cellphone guy could be browsing emails, Facebook, Snapchat, Tinder, even porn.

Print is positive. Digital is iffy.

The inherent power of the print edition’s image has been ignored too long. It’s time to employ it to attract new subscribers. Your association’s print edition should not only show membership in your organization, it should be a badge that the reader is among the most knowledgeable in the profession, because they read you.

Notice the tables have turned. The ubiquity of smartphones has rendered mere possession useless for the image reinforcement it used to provide the owner. Buying the latest iPhone won’t help; the new generations of the device are recognizable only to the cognoscenti

The print edition has a better display than digital. You can buy the Lord’s Prayer engraved on the head of a pin. But reading it there is a lot different than reading it in a Bible. So, yes, technology can shrink the display size of content. But there’s a cost. As the initial article fills more and more of the contracting screen, the surrounding content is progressively excluded. Voila, the smartphone.

Suppose, in an article’s fifth paragraph, there is the nugget that will save your business. On the smartphone display, you get the first two or three mini-paragraphs, but have no idea what lies beyond them. If you already know this initial stuff, why scroll on? Unless you are prescient and know that the text you need lies ahead, you click and move to another article.

The small screen of the smartphone is not even fully available for conveying article content. My "big” iPhone7 screen measures 2 ¾ by 4 ¾ inches. Just 13 square inches. When held vertically, the top ½ inch is taken up by ever-present phone operational displays.

And every two, maybe three, short paragraphs of one-column text, a 1 ¾ inch picture is inserted, or an ad, per digitalian revenue dicta. During this particular examination, a 1-inch obstructive pop-up also appeared, urging me to subscribe (apparently not recognizing I already do).

But here’s where the print edition shines. It’s an easy-to-read display; each Journal page is 12 by 22 inches (The Timesis ½ inch narrower). A glorious 264 square inches. Twenty times the smartphone’s.

You can see the entire article at once by merely moving your eyes. No scrolling or clicking. No mid-column pictures to interrupt thought, or ads to click you away to an advertiser’s website. And the print ads are not fighting the text, they are living harmoniously alongside it. So the print edition is more interesting, pleasant, and fulfilling.

Beware that when you point this out to the tech zealots, they will scream something like, "DPICPCUI720X90!” Respond: "Go double-truck yourselves, with a dink.”

Only the print edition provides depth and serendipity. Don’t today’s readers want their information via online tidbits? Maybe the teens, the going-no-wherians, the illiterate? But these are not, and never have been, the logical subscribers and prospects for publications like Big Three or association print editions. Yes, content snacks have migrated to smartphones, furnished quickly and often free by curatizers, summarizers, condensers, and plagiarists of all stripe. Facebook trending headlines? Amateur hour. Fuhgeddaboudit.

But answer this: Which airline would a successful person (who’s not a masochist) rather book for a serious flight: the one that serves a full dinner or the one that serves only peanuts? However, if peanuts are vigorously marketed as much better than dinner, and the dinner airline does nothing, travelers can be brainwashed to prefer the nuts. They’ll keep you from starving, but not meet your nutritional needs.

Only the print edition provides the depth and breadth sufficient for a well-informed person.

Breadth confers print’s most striking benefit: the opportunity for serendipity. As your peripheral vision takes in the other content on the page and the facing page, you are alerted to other worthwhile developments which had previously escaped your notice. I’ve gotten many new useful ideas this way, unexpectedly.

Conversely, this advantageous breadth of print is a major weakness of the "curated” narrow feeds on digital. They often furnish content only according to your expressed or algorithmized interests. These formulae lead one into ever-deeper ruts. They provide no fuel for creative cross-pollination or increase of a person’s broader knowledge.

Crypto-elitism may hinder print marketing. Because of the stature of the Big Three, some of their failure to market their print editions aggressively seems to stem from an attitude that subscribers enroll at the sufferance of the company. Something like, "If the peasants want to have our print edition, it’s their job to find us and apply. And if they are lazy, and the print edition dies, it does so nobly, without soiling its boots with the mud of commoners.”

It’s time for an attitude adjustment.

Missing in action: creative campaigns for print edition. Print publications are discretionary purchases, so they must be marketed. But when’s the last time you saw an ad, or received a solicitation, to subscribe to print? OK, excuse the past couple years, because newspaper executives have been busy putting on their life preservers.

But before that? I’m an avid follower of such things, and I can only recall two — probably decades old. The classic, oft-repeated, long-profitable Wall Street Journal ‘s "two men” campaign (two similar guys started out equal, but one read the Journal and prospered; the other didn’t). And, "I got my job through the New York Times,” but that was to boost the classified section, not subscriptions).

Now, ponder on Red Bull, Nike, athleisure, tattoos, and craft booze. How did these products come from nowhere to enroll armies of new subscribers? Effective marketing.

Some opine it’s futile for print editions to try to attract Millennials or Boomers. Nonsense. Not one of these newspapers has tried effectively. Too busy with the digital seductress.

Three tactics to recruit print subscribers. Millennials and Boomers are pliable and very subject to persuasion and peer pressure. Accordingly, here are three tactics guaranteed to provide fuel for convincing ads which will attract younger prospects to the print editions:

1. Search diligently, and find a dozen successful ones who profitably read the print edition. They are out there. Their stories will be inspiring. Include why they depend on print and find online presentations aren’t sufficient.

2. Hire a panel of ambitious Millennials, and one of Boomers, to read the print edition diligently for 90 days (yes, pay them to do this in good faith), and provide you their honest opinions of its usefulness. Maybe it won’t suit some. OK, we respect their views; the print edition is not for everybody. But harvest and promote the conclusions of those who did find it useful, maybe surprisingly so.

3. Engage selected influencers of Millennials and of Boomers to honestly endorse the print edition. Politicians, entertainers, athletes, politicians, even a Kardashian?

Imagine a year from now: One successful Millennial, holding your print edition, says to his employee, "Are you still using that iPhone for news? Isn’t it time you graduated to the print edition?”

Finally, here’s how to scare the bejesus out of your editors: Provide new subscribers a money-back guarantee of 100 percent satisfaction with content.

The bottom line. Print editions can again earn their rightful place at the media table. But this requires recognizing their many advantages over digital and effectively marketing these advantages. With renewed courage and incisive initiatives, a prosperous journalistic and financial future for these editions can be assured.

Author: Leslie C. Norins, MD, PhD

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