How Print Survived: A Lesson in Evolution

How Print Survived: A Lesson in Evolution

Sometime around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press ushering in the age of mass communication. It jolted the world. Over five hundred years later, a scientist by the name of Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web, ushering in the Digital Age and what so many believed would be the death of print, including the “experts”. A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral, though. Printers took a lesson from Darwin and learned they could survive if they could adapt to a changing market, and that didn’t necessarily mean a complete switch to digital.

Look to Vinyl

To understand one possible reason print did not and has not thrown in the towel you only should look to the music industry. An industry with a habit of kicking old technologies to the curb as soon as a new one shows its face, though sometimes not without a fight. We’ve seen vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes, CD’s, MP3’s, streaming, and now…back to vinyl? Those old-school black platters have seen a recent resurgence, hitting a 28-year sales high in 2015 with $416 million. Artists are starting to release new music on the medium again. This isn’t chunk change. Why is vinyl the new rage again and is it analogous to magazines, newspapers, and physical books?

The Physics of Print

We can probably sum up the entire argument for why print isn’t dead in a single sentence; you can’t dogear (aka folding the edge) an eBook. But that would leave us with a ridiculously short blog, so let’s go more in depth. You can’t escape the fact that humans are tactile creatures. We like to touch things, turn them over, set them down and pick them up again. Until evolution breeds this out of us in a thousand years, print will not disappear. Another factor favoring print is the sense of rarity. A printed book, in particular, created with paper and glue, won’t last forever no matter how much you want it to. Digital? It never wears out and never seems quite as cool as a book or glossy magazine. Print is physical by design.

A World That Can’t Pay for Itself

They say that if you follow the money, you can find the reason for most human action. Despite the glitz, glamour, and new-ness of online magazines, the reality is that few if any have yet to figure out how to make online newspapers or magazines as profitable as print. In fact, one well-known British media conglomerate reports 90 percent of its income comes from print. Trying to move online has only resulted in underperformance.

Print cynics like to point to the rate of print magazine closures, but the rate is slowing. 2012 saw 152 magazines discontinue publication. That number dropped to 82 the following year. While these scant numbers are no proof of anything in particular, they do indicate a slowing of the negative momentum. Print magazines that existed on the fringes of profitability are falling by the wayside while others figure out how to adapt and overcome the digital challenge.

Changing the Business Model

Common throughout history, when a new technology comes along old companies either adapt or perish. While print publications have had to cede to digital, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place in today’s world for print.

The business model of mass print publications used to work, but less so now. Print magazines could be better off to choose a narrow niche and create the best magazine on the topic the world has ever seen. Maybe about historical fiction writers. There are a lot of historical fiction writers out there, published and unpublished. Think they’d be interested in subscribing? A large number would, even at a premium cost.

One idea that has found traction is going after specific niches with a high-quality publication that almost seems like art rather than simple communication. Let’s take an example. Time magazine was king of the business print heap for a long time. The problem was it was news-based and intended to appeal to a large swath of the population. 

Another idea is personalization. While long run print is decreasing, personalized digital print is exploding. Imagine receiving a postcard with a nice image of powdery snow and a discount for Ski sharpening just before the ski season. This is great if you ski but not so much if you snowboard. Personalization fixes that. Ski’s for the skier, snowboard for the snowboarder even snowmobile for the snowmobiler and accompanying ski/snowboard/ snowmobile image to make it relatable. You may have already received mailing like this about the car you own.


While eBook’s, digital news and magazine websites seem to have topped out, print is staging a comeback of sorts. Don’t count out Gutenberg’s product yet. Look to the music industry’s vinyl experience, and don’t be surprised if print manages to stay a viable medium now and forevermore.

Dare to try a new approach. Dare to try an old medium. Dare to try Print!