Fourth Day

Is print media for the shredder?

P rint media is in decline. No surprise there, but where have all the readers gone?

Circulation figures are plummeting, printer companies are closing, the average newspaper readership age is rising and younger generations are spending increasingly more time online. With all that to digest, should publishers admit defeat and put all their efforts into digital, or is there a reason to press on with increasingly costly print runs?

Doom and gloom

This year we have seen newspaper and magazine distribution drop drastically. The latest monthly analysis of ABC national newspaper circulation figures from Press Gazette bears this out. The Evening Standard suffered the largest decrease, with distribution down 27% compared to October 2022. The last time it was that low – under 300,000 – was when it became a free newspaper in 2009. The picture is no prettier for titles that readers buy or subscribe to: between 2010 and 2022 their print number has declined by 70%.

A for effort

Throughout that timeframe, publications have really tried to provide an online experience that will attract and retain subscribers. When the iPad launched in 2010 a new format for reading material was born. This was an opportunity for publications already facing diminishing numbers of print readers, and they certainly stepped up to the challenge, producing attractive screen layouts and additional content including video and audio.

Sadly, they have not been fully rewarded for their efforts: digital editions account for only about 5% of total circulation, according to the Guardian. In a recent Reuters Digital News Report 65% of people in the UK (from a poll of 2000) said nothing could encourage them to pay for online news. Other non-subscribers said they might consider paying to subscribe if it was cheaper or offered more flexibility such as including access to more titles.

65% of people in the UK said nothing could encourage them to pay for online news
Reuters Digital News Report

Tactility vs convenience

My own (much less comprehensive) research among my Fourth Day colleagues concurs that flexibility could be a path to success. While we subscribe to some magazines and newspapers, we don’t always want to commit to an annual subscription, as buying publications can also be an occasional thing.

For example, some of us only buy weekend newspapers when we have the time to read them, and  associate it with relaxing and ritual: spreading the papers out over Sunday lunch in the pub was mentioned, and even reading them in the bath! Online news is convenient but it’s the tactile experience and time away from the screen that gives print the appeal.

So print still has its fans, but low demand in the UK magazine market, as well as rising paper costs, have severely impacted the printing industry, with just one major print business – Walstead – left in the UK as of this year. Magazine printing is expensive, as a publisher of a manufacturing title recently told me, each copy of his publication costs £7 to produce.

Wow! So why do it? He says it is worth the spend because his readers will buy it, or pay to be in it. They want a high quality, durable copy to display in the reception of their offices and sites so that their visitors and employees will see them in full glossy glory. If you’re wanting visibility for your brand, nothing really beats seeing yourself in print.

The greatest competition

Whether they’re producing content for online or print, publishers know that the real competition is not online vs print, or publication vs publication, they are competing with social media for people’s time. The Guardian article compared the time people spend on the top 100 UK magazine websites to time spent on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Instagram. The result – it’s a tiny proportion, ranging from less than 1% of the time on YouTube and 7.4% on Instagram.

This is largely a generational situation, with under 30s more likely to get their news from social media than traditional sources. It’s about how they prefer to consume content, and the type of content they want. Reuters found that younger people are turned off by news in a traditional format as it does not feel relevant or accessible, or they prefer hearing about entertainment to harsh realities.

Maybe they’ll be in the pub with the Sunday papers spread out, the morning after their 30th birthday, relishing the act of turning the pages. One of the beauties of print is that you can pick up a copy when you feel like it without committing to a subscription. You can access all the articles without hitting a paywall. Then, when you’ve sufficiently feasted your eyes, it can go in the shredder. Until then, print’s day is not done.

The author

Rachel is an account director in the London office

More about Rachel