Tech Giants Have Gutted Publishing. Now Digital Fatigue is Giving Print a New Lease on Life
This article originally appeared on fortune.com.
Amazon’s decision earlier this year to end its service allowing people to subscribe to print and digital magazines came at a surprising time. The tech behemoth might want out of the publishing industry, but the industry itself is in the midst of a resurgence. And, despite popular narratives that print is “on its way out” or even “dead,” new surveys show that when it comes to both magazines and books, print is very much alive.
For nearly 20 years, I’ve been publishing City Guide in New York City, the publication that people pick up at all the hotels and at lots of tourist stops. For much of that time, I’ve had naysayers tell me to stop putting much focus into our print copies, since “digital is everything.”
Just like many other local and regional publications, we do have an active digital presence. But we have avoided the pressure to make print just an afterthought. And we’re among the many small businesses reaping the rewards for that decision.
For the past decade, overall magazine readership has been increasing. There was a momentary dip during the pandemic when people stayed home, which meant a decrease in “pass-along reading”–people sharing their copies. But numbers have been climbing back up since then.
Most magazine readers still prefer print. In a YouGov survey, only 29% of readers in the United States and 18% in the U.K. said they prefer reading magazines online.
For many newspapers, digital readership has overtaken print. But newspapers have seen their own share of good news. Subscriptions overall (including print and digital) increased last year in large, medium, and small markets. Average revenue per reader is up–and is expected to keep rising. This provides hope that dailies could return to more markets–and hope for the futures of the more than 100,000 people who work for papers.
Book sales, meanwhile, saw a big spike in recent years. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, publishers sold nearly 60 million more print books than the year before. The numbers kept going up in 2021, hitting a new record. While sales dipped from that high last year, they remained 12% above 2019 (pre-pandemic) levels. After years of decline, Barnes & Noble is now expanding again.
This phenomenon isn’t confined to the United States. In other parts of the world as well, readers “love the feel of turning pages in their hands,” the World Economic Forum reported.
In a way, the idea that digital is overtaking print among readers has always been a bit overblown. For publishers, the total number of people who access a publication in print vs. digital is only one metric. The time they spend reading can be just as important, or even more so. Surveys suggest that many readers commit more minutes to reading print than scrolling through articles online. This helps explain why you keep hearing about new niche magazines being launched.
While some people instinctively think of print as being almost exclusively for older people, about two-thirds of adults aged 18 to 34 said they love the touch and feel of printed magazines. When we surveyed our readers, we found that they run the gamut in age, and two-thirds are under 45 years old.
By not giving up on print, local publishers are also keeping more people employed. Magazines provide about 68,000 jobs directly and support another 200,000, according to the Magazine Media Factbook, an annual study from the News/Media Alliance. We’re also making sure to serve the all too often forgotten people who don’t have Internet access.
Print is well positioned to take advantage of a growing phenomenon: “digital detox” time. More people are beginning to schedule time away from devices and notifications, and many of them are looking for “tactile media”-good old-fashioned reading material. This is especially the case for many people on vacations, who have found that staying away from the web, even their smartphones, is a necessity in order to relax.
Another reason print is growing? Advertisers are showing interest based on research about the impact of print, and how it interacts with parts of the brain. Consumers often find magazine ads less “intrusive,” and say they dislike this kind of advertising the least.
So don’t count print out. There are more than 7,000 magazines in the United States, reaching 220 million readers. The local periodicals you see in stores, hotels, doctors’ offices, or in your mailbox have a long life ahead of them–with or without Amazon.
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