As a digital anthropologist, I spend a lot of time at that liminal space between humans and technology. An area of interest for me, for personal reasons, is print products such as books, magazines and newspapers. I’m sure you yourself have thought that print books and especially magazines and newspapers are dinosaurs on the path to extinction. It’s a narrative that carries with many technologies that are threatening consumer products or analog industries. And sometimes, it is true. Combustion engine cars will be overtaken by electric cars eventually. I believe it is unlikely that print books and magazines however, will ever truly die. But print newspapers? Yes. Why?
Books and magazines have one major and one minor aspect to them that ensures their survival; they are an experience product. People enjoy browsing for books and magazines, discovering something new that intrigues them. There is a cognitive pleasure to flipping through a magazine or opening a book. It stimulates something in our brain. Secondly, books and magazines enjoy a longer lifecycle than newspapers. Books and magazines can have resonance for years. Newspapers don’t and suffer from faster deterioration than books and magazines.
The main reason that newspapers as a print product will fade away however, isn’t due to physical experiences with the product, it is that when it comes to breaking and immediate news, digital is perfect for disruption. Even the outgoing CEO of the New York Times believes print newspapers will be gone within 20 years. In a world where smartphones and tablets are increasingly embedded in our lives, where we can access multiple news media channels through a single app such as Google News or Apple News, where we just want to stay up to date, newspapers in print form can’t compete cognitively.
The data also backs up the idea that magazines and books will survive and may very well thrive again. Sales of eBooks in both Canada and the USA are down nearly 8% in 2019. One of the biggest growth categories for print books, surprisingly, is “board books”, which are hardcover children’s books and juvenile books, which grew a whopping 19% in 2018 and are expected to continue to grow. Book sales in the US and Canada, when combined, suggest about a 2.3% CAGR into the mid 2020’s. Not huge, but growth nonetheless. Sales of eBooks have flattened out, with some categories, such as fiction, actually declining.
For newspapers, they are short-term products that don’t match up to media consumption habits. Few people save up weeks or months of newspapers to browse through them months or years later, but as we’ve discussed, this is the case with magazines. My stack of The Economist magazines is one I’ll refer to months or a year later, much to my wife’s frustration. Daily and immediate news is much more comfortably consumed on our smartphones.
There is a tactile experience to newspapers, but it is becoming one more of nostalgia than of need. Print newspapers will go away. Some may survive in smaller formats or dailies may do well moving to be a weekly with better journalism. Most newspapers today are also dying because they won’t invest in good journalism. The New York Times and Washington Post in the US and the Globe and Mail in Canada have invested in their journalism and the result has been more paying subscribers and the survival of their print products. But they too know that how and when they actually print a product, is fading.
Books and magazines however, will survive because they have the advantage of long-tail value and are an experience. There’s a wondrous experience to being alone and quiet with a good book. It is an escape that is affordable and easy.
I would also disclose that I’m the group publisher and partner in a media company that has print and digital magazines. In the middle of a pandemic, we launched Silver, a print magazine for Canadians aged 47+. It has surpassed our greatest expectations for news stand sales. No, magazines in print aren’t dying, nor are books. It will be sad to see print newspapers go, but it is perhaps, inevitable.
But newspapers themselves likely won’t die. They’ll just become 100% digital and they’re figuring this out. And it’s important that they do survive, incredibly important.