Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Here's How Paper Trumps Digital In The 'Attention Economy'

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 27, 2014

Here’s a column by Matthew Buckland, publisher of  tech news site Memeburn - a Silicon Valley Watcher syndication partner. 

By Matthew Buckland

There are few good things to say about printed media these days. It’s wasteful, inefficient, static, expensive to create and distribute. That’s why it’s all going digital.

But apart from a nostalgic affinity (“I like the feel of a newspaper, it’s what I have always done”), there is a huge advantage that print has over its digital rivals that perhaps no one could have foreseen.

But before I get into that, I’d like to tell you how I got here: I’ve always been somewhat of a digital evangelist, but I’m not a zealot. My drive is to find truth, which leads to understanding, which leads to good business decisions, which leads to ultimate prosperity.

In the face of confusion and conflicting information, we try to work out the fundamentals behind our habits. Why do we access brands on Facebook? Why do we read this website? How are media consumption patterns changing? Why do we read magazines on tablets? Will print be dead?

So here’s a digital guy (me), about to tell you that print magazines and newspapers are great. They will have a long prosperous life and they are, in fact, a good business.

Don’t get me wrong — the business model for publishing is changing. Magazines and newspapers are feeling what theatre felt when radio and TV were invented. However, these mediums didn’t kill off theatre — they forced it to adjust its business model and made it a premium activity.

So yes, print costs will soar, but then again so will the cover price and the cost of advertising. It will be harder and harder to produce print magazines and fewer and fewer will do it… and therein lies its attractiveness: the barrier to entry will rise to the extent that it will become a good business for those who are able to reach economies-of-scale efficiencies.

For newcomers, it will be difficult to compete. This is the case with TV (very expensive, needs licences) and radio (moderately expensive, limited frequency and licences), and so it shall be the case with print magazines.

The big argument: It’s about attention

But the real reason why I think print magazines and newspapers have a great future as businesses is actually as a result of the digital onslaught on our limited attention spans.

Remember in the old days when our grandparents only had a handful of TV channels, newspapers and magazines to choose from? How different is this today, where a dramatic fall in the cost of media production has turned this on its head?

One thing remains constant though: We can only take in so much and we have limited attention to give to media. It’s a concept known as the “attention economy”, which treats human attention as a scarce commodity.

And there is so much competing for my attention on digital platforms: social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, communication tools such as Skype, WhatsApp, email, aggregators and search engines that try and filter this information… and hundreds of thousands of quality digital publications and blogs.

And it’s coming at me from everywhere: my laptop, my phone, my tablet and my TV (which I use to Skype, tweet and Facebook these days) and increasingly now my car and my home automation system (will it ever end?).

For digital media, the competition is huge from other digital media and tools. There are games, email, digital magazines from all around the world, and pretty much every digital tool out there all wanting me to spare some of the 14 or so hours a day I have.

On my iPad, there are countless digital magazine titles and websites from all across the world screaming at me “Read me! Read me!”.


And then it struck me. I was on holiday slouching on a generously angled chair, and noticed one of three magazines lying on the table next to me. I grabbed one, I read it and I enjoyed it.

Why did I read it? Not because I set out to read it, but I read it because it was… there.

This is the case in waiting rooms, toilets, studies, restaurants and everywhere in the real, physical world. Print magazines exist in the same physical space as us human beings, digital magazines don’t.

Digital magazines are behind an “on” button on your tablet, or behind an app or a browser… they are not just there. Print magazines are dedicated “devices”, digital magazines share their devices with a thousand other digital magazines and tools.

So that day, on holiday, while my favorite digital magazine was behind an “on” switch and endless layers of apps and amongst hundreds of digital choices, there was that single print magazine, right in front of my eyes, quietly lying next to my iPad occupying the same physical space as the device, whispering: “Read me”.

So I picked it up and read it. It successfully grabbed my precious attention and, at that moment, it trumped its digital cousins. It cut through the digital noise, actually trumping the endless deluge of digital media stuffed into my tablet.

Therein lies the simple, and pretty obvious truth: As inefficient as they are, a print magazine or newspaper is able to effectively grab my attention and get a read out of me because they exist in the physical world. They do it all the time.

In the airport I pick up newspapers lying around. In doctor’s waiting rooms I browse through magazines.
Don’t get me wrong. Digital media is massive, it’s the future and it will trump print (it’s already attracting more money from advertisers in a number of markets and is set to do so globally by 2015).

But the low barriers to entry for creating digital media mean there is massive choice and competition, which is set to rise even more exponentially.

[SVW Editor’s note:  My prediction from 2009 - The Media Tsunami is coming…]

Ironically — the more pervasive digital media gets, so the more unique and special print media becomes. Ultimately a goal of a media publication is to attract readers, spread its ideas and advertising.

If it’s able to cut through the digital noise and get a read out of me, then it is still relevant and still has a life.

Are those who say print is dead living in cloud cuckoo land?

- - -

Foremski’s Take: Matthew Buckland is right — there is always going to be a business for printed magazines, even newspapers.

Paper or electron - it doesn’t matter how the content is delivered, the only that thing that matters is the business model.

People outside of the media industry forget that we live in an “And” world rather than an either/or world. There is no reason why paper-based media needs to go away.  

There is no reason why Matthew needs to feel self-conscious or cuckoo because he likes to read a magazine. I read them all the time, especially Harper’s and Wired.

If paper were a new invention it would be phenomenal. 

- Imagine a lightweight display as thin as a single hair, capable of displaying high resolution color images.

- It’s always on and more than one hundred of these paper displays can be stacked together into a $5 information appliance (called a magazine, or book). 

- Each display is flexible, tearable, and can be folded into a myriad of origami forms.

- It is very green. It is constructed from a sustainable substrate that is 100% recyclable and each display contains a high percentage of recycled paper displays.

- The material substrate for the paper displays comes from large outdoor production areas that protect tremendous numbers of wildlife.

- It is made through a natural solar powered process that captures massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to slow the greenhouse effect. The waste product is pure oxygen. 

- Paper is touch responsive and highly interactive allowing users to quickly thumb through content. 

- No batteries required — paper uses ambient light to display its contents. If there is no ambient light available, one of the displays can provide light for the others, through a non-reversible oxidation initiated with a single click of a Bic lighter.  

- The displays last for decades and archives can be hundreds of years old and are still legible and legal.

- They are 100% hacker proof.

- They are resistant to all tracking technologies, commercial and NSA.  User privacy is protected and there is no history of pages viewed. 

- Paper displays extremely rugged. They can be run over by a steam roller with no damage. If dropped, each display will gently flutter to the ground.  

- They are water resistant.

- They are shareable.

- They can be annotated with a stylus using any color.

- The displays can be rolled up into a useful dog training tool or crumpled into a fun cat toy.  

- Paper displays are available in a 3-D pop-up format that doesn’t require special glasses to view.

- The displays are safe to use in a bath or hot tub. 

- Paper can be used transmit data wirelessly to smartphones and computers at the speed of light, using QR codes, or data embedded in images. 

- The displays can be scaled to the size of a house and used in giant outdoor displays in all weathers. 

That’s an impressive list of technical specifications for paper and the environmental features are incredible:  it is produced in a natural, solar-powered bio-chemical process that eats up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the waste emission is pure oxygen. 

The paper then traps the carbon for decades, sequestering it away from the environment in a normal landfill, unlike special deep wells used for carbon dioxide sequestration efforts, which have caused concerns that they could leak and suffocate people.

Digital displays don’t look as good when compared to paper.

Paper or electron? You can have both.  

(Split this into a separate post: 

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The Holmes Report names Tom Foremski one of the top 25 Innovators of 2013.




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