11/17/2010 04:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Love Letter to Print

The definition of "print" is changing, and changing the way advertisers reach consumers.

It seems barely a news day goes by without someone, somewhere, proclaiming the "death of print," sometimes with lament, at other times with no mean glee.

Some weeks ago, you will recall, it was announced that the venerable, 77-year-old newsweekly, Newsweek, was sold to hi-fi stereo magnate, Sidney Harman, for a reported $1. The magazine, which employs a staff of some 300, had lost $44 million since 2007. Steep declines in print ad revenue appear to be the main culprit.

Daily and weekly newspapers have also been hit hard, with The Huffington Post reporting back in 2008 that newspaper ad revenue declined a record $2 billion in the third quarter of that year alone. Business prospects in 2010 appeared to be a little more upbeat as the nation climbs out of recession and advertisers begin to re-invest, especially in newspapers' online versions, though newspapers will still spend $1.6 this year on their core product -- news-gathering -- than they did three years ago.

Looks bleak, doesn't it?

At first blush, it does. And that, to me, is a sad thing. I all but grew up in a newsroom. My father reported, wrote and edited for the Sacramento Bee for more than 40 years. The first time I visited him in the newsroom, paper copy, pounded out on IBM Selectric typewriters, was shunted around via pneumatic tube, as were memos and notes -- the "email" of the day.

The "happy persuability" of turning the page

Even though I'm an online guy -- and have been for years -- newspapers have always held a fascination for me. Even with shorter news cycles and their lack of clickable links, newspapers have some advantages that news viewing in the digital space sometimes lacks. The first is what I call a "happy perusability." In short, you never know just what you're going to get when you turn the physical page. Online, you're always pointing and clicking on the thing you want right now, short-attention-span-theater style. But as reading technologies advance, as we shall see, it's not an "either/or" situation of print vs. online, anymore. There's a "both/and benefit" when the two compliment one another -- for both readers and advertisers.

With a newspaper -- or a magazine -- you're offered a whole page of stories, a grab-bag of news and opinion happening across the globe. There's a kind of serendipity when you suddenly come across a story that piques your interest, something you didn't know would interest you before. Another benefit of reading "the paper" the old fashioned way is the relaxing, contemplative zone it forces you into. You read a story in its entirety -- if you really want to know about it -- and then you move on to the next. A good newspaper is like a companion, sitting there next to your morning coffee or tea.

Where will your facts come from?

Lastly, there's the (hopefully) solid reporting and analysis that comes from well-trained journalists. It would be a shame to lose that. After all, where are all of us bloggers and Tweeters and Facebookers going to glean reliable facts if not from reliable reporters writing for reliable publications? Of course, there are reliable news sources emerging that are strictly online. Websites like Politico and Yahoo! partner, The Huffington Post, are making inroads into territory previously only held by newspapers and newspaper websites. Yahoo! itself has recently dipped its purple toe into the local news reporting business, employing real, experienced journalists, where we previously only aggregated but carefully curated content.

But despite all the hoopla about its demise, perhaps the death of "print" has been, as Mr. Twain might have said, "greatly exaggerated." In fact, I believe this is actually a very exciting time for both newspapers and magazines, and for the advertisers who invest their dollars in them.

Game changer

On January 27, 2010, Apple unleashed the iPad, the latest and most advanced tablet computer. About the size of a magazine and lighter than the summer issue of Vanity Fair, three million of the touchscreen devices were sold in just 80 days (more than 5 million were sold in the first six months after launch). iPad apps quickly began rolling out of Silicon Valley, with major newspapers and magazines offering apps that allow users to peruse their content in a way similar to the way they do in print. Users can simply "turn the page" to see what will surprise them next. In addition to that happy perusability, the connected device allows users to see vastly more content than is available in print and, moreover, allows advertisers to deliver highly targetable, measurable, performance-based ads to their prospective audiences.

Here's how "happy perusability" works for the New Yorker on the iPad:

Speaking at the 4A's conference in San Francisco last March, Wired Magazine CEO, Chris Anderson, enthused that tablets "could provide the most measurable advertising ever." And tablet users don't even have to be online to consume ads -- the ads' performance will be measured once the device is synced to the Web.

At the same conference, Anne Moore, chair and CEO of Time Inc., noted that her company's print products are read by 45 million readers each week -- and that magazine readership is actually up, even among young people. Magazines, she notes, are complemented by digital rather than threatened by it. She, along with Hearst Corp. President, Cathleen Black, announced an awareness campaign to let advertisers know that magazines -- regardless of format -- are still in the running. (You may have seen it if you haven't already canceled your magazine subscription.)

While the sales numbers for iPad magazine apps so far have not been staggering (for example 14,000 downloads for Popular Science vs. 115,000 buys on the newsstand in the first six months since the iPad debuted, according to a recent article in Ad Age), they appear to be growing steadily, with tech and science mags like Wired leading the charge.

Of course, Yahoo!'s a big fan of "print" newspapers. In fact, the Yahoo! Newspaper Consortium has driven more than 100 million visits to local newspapers through distribution of headlines across the network, while offering Consortium advertisers unique opportunities to reach local customers. That's a boon to much-needed local journalism, helping keep your neighborhood reporters in the shoe leather they need to keep walking their beats while offering local advertisers an interactive way to reach their audiences.

"Print" evolution, not revolution

The trick for advertisers today is how to continue to work "print" into the overall advertising mix that includes search, display, branded entertainment, social media and all the rest. After all, it's fine for Old Spice to come up with killer viral campaign, but that's only one ingredient to success (the ads quickly went to TV and elsewhere).

Print, TV, radio, even billboards aren't going away anytime soon. (Heck, Yahoo! uses billboards all the time.) They're just evolving and redefining themselves -- and becoming interconnected. Advertisers must evolve, redefine and interconnect with them.

Actual print on paper may go away someday, but the things that made print great can still live on. The kid who used to love to hear the sound of the printing press and the feel of the newsprint will miss it all. But if I can have great reporting, a surprise on every page -- and great advertising -- I could live with that.