Are Printed Publications Relevant in an Online World?

The other day the first anniversary issue of DEVELOP3D landed in my office. As a rule they usually do not ship to India, but I guess there are few exceptions to that rule. I took the magazine home to read and as I did I started asking myself whether printed publications actually have a place in a world that increasingly getting online. In recent times we have seen more and more print publications winding up or going online, and not always out of choice.
This is the way I look at it. In my view, printed publications, such as magazines, have little value when it comes to news. For example, DEVELOP3D’s first item in the news section read “PTC’s Pro/ENGINEER Wildfire 5.0 to deliver real time model regeneration“. I didn’t read a word of it. Why? Because that news is a month old. Ironically, one of the first places I read about it was at DEVELOP3D’s own blog. The situation with the other news items in the magazine was no different. I get the daily news delivered straight to my inbox by the the Tenlinks Daily email newsletter. For breaking news I have bloggers reporting from live events which gets picked up by my feed reader instantly. And of course there is Twitter. What’s more, I don’t even need the press to interpret what a company said in a press release. I simply add the company’s press release RSS feed to my feed reader and I get to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, and that too instantly.
Having said all of the above, I feel that printed magazines have something that the online world has been trying to get for many years now – the complete and undivided attention of the reader. And that is precisely what gives them an edge over online publications. I need to explain this a little. For that I need to take you to my world.
From the moment I enter office, all that my brain can think of doing is getting my body to work – in my case, write C++ code. In fact, my brain is already organizing my day while I am still in the car. So as soon as I sit at my desk, I start Outlook and reply to my emails as fast as I can. The emails that need time to reply are saved as drafts to be attented to later in the day. I then quickly scan what my feed reader has accumulated for me. This is the time when one half of my brain is fighting with the other over whether I should spend my time reading something or not. If the headline or the first few words do not interest me in a big way, I find my finger click the mouse on the next item in the list. If I have not spent a significant amount of time in my feed reader, my brain may allow me the time to check on what the people I follow on Twitter are saying. After this last excercise my brain heaves a sigh of relief and wastes no time in putting itself in programming mode. While I am programming, the infighting in my brain stops completely and both halves think about nothing else but C++.
Now compare this to how I read the issue of DEVELOP3D. I read the cover story on Marin Bikes after dinner while relaxing on my couch after my boys were tucked away in bed. I read the Autodesk Inventor 2010 review the next morning sitting on my easy chair, on the front porch of my house, with a cup of tea at my side, while birds chirped above me. The only thing disturbing me was my dog licking my toes. I read the Solid Edge ST2 review that evening, again on the front porch. This time my dog figured that playing fetch with my five year old son in the garden was more interesting than licking his master’s toes. And to top it all, I read the uPrint 3D printer review while crapping. My point is that for every word that I read and every image I saw, both halves of my brain were in total harmony and I ended up giving total and undivided attention to the author or advertiser. To be brutally frank, if the cover story on Marin Bikes had appeared on the DEVELOP3D blog, I would never have read it. But I read each and every word of it on the DEVELOP3D printed magazine.
And this brings me to another equally important point, that of advertising. Advertising is the thing that makes a publication possible, whether it is printed or online. Thanks to all these years of looking into a web browser, my brain (both halves) has mastered the art of blocking out everything except the thing that I want to read. I can look at a web page with a million ads, brightly colored, animated or whatever, but my brain will only show me the words that I have come to read. I have almost never clicked on a Google ad, mainly because my brain filters it out for me, even though Google ads look quite similar to the text that I am reading. My brain treats a web ad as part of a universe that does not interest me. My brain takes the entire HTML content of a web page, isolates the portions that interest me and strips out the remaining. Ironically, this is exactly what my feed reader does. It shows me only the text and images that are referenced by the text. Everything else is gone.
I guess I am not the only one whose brain has evolved in such a way. I say this because there are online publications that inject ads right in the middle of the text that a reader has come to read. I think this is a desperate attempt to get the attention of the reader. I also believe that this is the most stupid way of doing it. Come one, do they actually think that the reader will stop reading the article, completely derail his line of thought, read the ad, understand and appreciate its content and then get back to reading the article. I definately would not. And I definitely do not. Such ads can only add up to nuisance value, nothing else.
On the other hand, I actually took the time out to look at every advertisement that appeared in the DEVELOP3D printed magazine. Page 6 contained a full page ad of SolidSolutions, a SolidWorks reseller, showing an ice carving of a motor cycle. I remember looking at every detail of the carving and then reading each and every word that followed it. I did that because my brain was at ease and did not have something hastenning it to get on with the next thing. I don’t believe I have seen a printed magazine that injects advertisements in the middle of an article. They don’t need to. The ads are either full page ads or are neatly tucked away in a corner of side of a page. They know that even though the reader is in the middle of reading an article, eventually the ad will come to his attention, quite simply because he has all the time in the world to look at it.
As an advertiser, if I want to advertise my brand or product, I would prefer putting in a place and time when my target audience is in the best position and state of mind to read and understand my message. Shoving something in front of a reader’s eyes when he is reading something that interests him is like a nagging wife constantly interupting you when you are watching your favorite sport on TV.
I have never picked up a magazine to read it in a hurry. The very act of picking up a magazine indicates that my mind is at ease. Neither have I picked up ten magazines and rifled though the pages to read only the articles. Yet, this is exactly what I do with online publications every day.
There is something else that I don’t understand about online publications. Some have now started to offer RSS feeds for their content. That is plain and simple crazy. Its like taking a printed magazine, tearing out all the pages that contain ads and then sending it to readers. Why the bloody hell would a company want to advertise on an online publication that offers RSS feeds? This is like the filtering that my brain does when it see ads on a web page, just that my brain does not need to take the trouble any more. The content is already filtered by the RSS feed. Somebody please explain this to me.
So to answer the question “Are printed publications relevant in an online world?”, I would say that they most definitely are. In fact, I would go further and say that their relevance increases in a world that getting more and more online. Its sad to see that an increasing number of them are closing down or taking the online route.
Maybe after they grow up my kids will read the local newspaper in their web browser. But I will always read it on my front porch with my dog licking my toes. I just cannot bring myself to read it any other way.