What's the true value of print media?

It's been a bit of an interesting week for print media. 

  Print media is only ever about the writing on the page and never about the physical page itself, yet research into books hints that the physicality of the printed object changes our response to the text.


Print media is only ever about the writing on the page and never about the physical page itself, yet research into books hints that the physicality of the printed object changes our response to the text.

Sir Martin Sorrell told The Broadcasting Press Guild last week he thinks the "shift online has gone too far", and hinted that newspapers and magazines may have hidden values that the rush towards digital may have overlooked — "There is an argument at the moment going on about the effectiveness of newspapers and magazines, even in their traditional form, and maybe they are more effective than people give them credit [for]."

As Adage and others pointed out, this looked like a U-turn from Sorrell, where only a week earlier, he had cited a stat from Mary Meeker's Internet Trends 2014 report that highlighted the disparity between time spent (5%) consuming print advertising and the amount of money spent on it (19%), versus internet (25% vs 22%) and mobile (20% vs 4%). 

The price differential between print and digital media trotted out by both Meeker and Sorrell (before his U-turn) — and just everybody else in the digital media world — has been used to justify what they see as underpricing of digital media, and therefore, by implication, that print is over-priced. But, this analysis is over-simplistic and deleteriously misleading.

In last week's episode (Series 21, episode 4) of Channel 5's The Gadget Show, e-readers were tested against physical books for both retention and engagement, where printed books trounced their digital counterparts  — on retention of key facts, print scored 74% vs 41% from the same content on an e-reader; emotional engagement, measured via a skin sweat analysis, revealed a clear and unequivocal advantage of reading a physical book over a digital one. The Gadget show findings echoed a study at Norway's Stavanger University in 2014 that showed similar results, where readers were given a 28 page story to read and afterwards, asked to place 14 events in the correct order — "Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure" and paper readers reported "higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers" according to Anne Mangen, a lead researcher on the study.

  Comparisons between digital and physical separate the content from the object, isolating the physical qualities of the real thing to be measured. With shared writing, any differences in results can only stem from the medium.


Comparisons between digital and physical separate the content from the object, isolating the physical qualities of the real thing to be measured. With shared writing, any differences in results can only stem from the medium.

Before digital media, text and literature were inextricably linked with printing — it wasn't possible to lift the words off the page in order to see only the pages, nor understand their value in the communication. In fact, it was accepted wisdom that physicality had no value. Yet, as the Gadget Show experiments show, comparisons using the same writing can dial out its effects where it's possible to see the value of the physicality.

Should we be surprised?

In short, no, not really. Our intelligence systems are the product of millions of years of evolution in a physical world. Physicality is how we're tuned and what we read — via all our senses and via our basic ability to conceive. We have no evolutionary affinity for digital media and so it's likely that it will struggle to talk to us across a broad range of perception, as it's effectively talking to us via a very limited bandwidth. I'll write more about the mechanics of this, such as it's understood, later, but for now, let's accept that there's some evidence of value and use that idea to flip the Mary Meeker argument on its head.

Apple's recent announcement of pricing ($349 - $17,000) for its eagerly-anticipated Apple Watch has highlighted the power of price discrimination — commonplace strategies employed by companies to provide choices for consumers and broaden potential markets. Rarely do the differentials reflect the actual cost of making, or the intrinsic values of the different grades of products. Usually, we readily accept these differentials — whether they're in cars, watches, fashion, coffee or just about everything you can think of — even when the price escalation is very poorly correlated in the increased functionality. Price discrimination also enacts complex communications about scarcity, exclusivity, status and social standing — the RS badge on your Audi or gold case on your Apple Watch speaks volumes about who you are. It's a simple market mechanism that allows self-selection — if we think the added features of the higher-priced version add up to a better value that we percieve, we buy the upgrade. If we don't, we buy the cheaper version. And, as economist Robert H Frank points out in an article on Vox.com about the Apple Watch pricing, differentials allow significant R&D costs to be recovered early in the product cycle and ultimately lower the costs of the lower-priced versions for the rest of us.

Back to Mary Meeker and the 'time spent' calculation, which is a pretty blunt tool, designed to give a comparison across different media. It's a very one-dimensional, purely quantitative measure; it can't make any distinction based on quality of time. Magazine trade bodies, like the PPA in the UK and the MPA in the US, appear to focus on variations of the reach-and-frequency argument, rather than claim there to be any qualitative advantage of reading magazines than looking at computers. Surprisingly, the MPA website includes a study that claims that better research doesn't improve performance, so maybe the magazine community isn't interested in defining or justifying any perception of value differential.  

So, perhaps familiar pricing differentials are implied in media pricing. Just like watches, cars, coffee and anything else, media is a commodity which is priced according to simple economics of supply-and-demand. Where price differentials exist, people will buy the higher priced version if they think it's worth it. Even if the numbers are declining, many advertisers are willing to pay higher prices for print media than digital. So, there must be some perception of value in the minds of the advertisers. Just as the content of an e-book is the same as a printed book, the inside tech is exactly the same between the $349 steel version and the $17,000 gold version of the Apple Watch. Apple aren't trotting out loads of stats to say why people might want to pay a premium of $16,651; they let those value perceptions come together in the minds of the consumer.

Is it OK to just leave it there? 

Probably not, is the short answer. It would be easy (and lazy) to say the argument is already settled — people are paying more for print and the quality is implied. Yet, for those of us who are fans of print and believe that it has hidden values, the book-reading studies hint at a tantalising prospect of there being something quite powerful lurking in the physicality of books. It would seem to be a missed opportunity to not look into this further and/or to tailor other research around the specifics of advertising to better understand how physical signals inform our perception. Ad agencies are talking a lot about subconscious mechanisms at the moment, but cannot resist digital's accountability. To compete, print will need to justify its quality with lots of fancy charts.

Digital is changing the world around us and re-shaping values including our relationship to print. There is a difference between the digital and physical experience. Time spent online is often just procrastination — time with which we know we probably should be doing something better. Reading a magazine or newspaper is fast becoming a genuine indulgence (prompted by the fact that we have to pay money for a physical good, but rewarded by the acquisition of a tangible thing to own and interact with). So, it's perfectly reasonable to expect these two 'time-spent' values to have different qualities — time spent with print is nicer than time spent online — and as advertising media, would be priced accordingly.

Rather than allowing the digital community to claim the price differential as indicative of their media as being a 'bargain' (which, unless you're a pound shop is rarely a compelling argument in the real world), maybe we — or more specifically, those with a vested interest in championing its virtues: print media owners and their representative organisations — could be pointing to the differential as an indicator of quality and start to gather the evidence that supports the claim.

As Marshall Mcluhan pointed out, it's impossible to isolate how a message reaches us from the message itself. We can now isolate physical signals and learn more about our own human relationship with physicality and its connections with our primitive intelligence. The ad industry is currently enthralled by Daniel Kahneman's System 1 / System 2 models and how our subconscious drives much of our everyday behaviour. Physicality is perhaps the purist subconscious communications language — a direct connection to our primitive, physical evolution. If we had more measurements, better research and clearer understanding, maybe we might be able to qualify print's true value.