In an increasingly digital world, with social media at our fingertips, the news on our TV screens and audio content in our ears, Emily Bishton asks if there is still an appetite for the traditional printed word.
In March 2018, the Guardian reported on the closure of the printed weekly music title NME after 66 years, joining the likes of the UK’s 10th biggest magazine, Glamour, which went online only in November 2018. For journalist Mark Sweney, this was “the latest warning sign that the shift to digital media is threatening to kill the British love affair with print (1)”.
Matthew Cheeseman, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Derby, agrees: “I taught a module on writing for magazines and when asked, only one of the students in my class had bought a magazine in the past week. The media is always changing, but this is especially so since the advent of the internet. Young people prefer to read the same content online, for free.”
However, Lecturer in Journalism Emma Oliver doesn’t think that the growth of the internet is entirely to blame. “Print circulations were in a long-term decline trend before the growth of digital publishing began to gather speed. The explosion of user-generated content with the advent of Web 2.0 in the early 2000s certainly accelerated this. Advertisers were suddenly getting a host of new ways to reach customers beyond traditional print advertising.
“Falling advertising revenues and increased production costs were offset through rising cover prices, which further affected circulation. It is not cheap to run a print publishing operation and big decisions were made about the sustainability of products. NME for example, was the ‘Bible’ of British music and sold more than 300,000 copies each week in its 1960s peak, but by 2015 it was down to 15,000 copies and needing a new business model.”
Exciting times for journalists
For Richard Bowyer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, it is not an entirely negative picture: “The magazine industry is a particularly niche market place. Yes, there have been some magazine closures, however Condé Nast has recently announced the launch of three new magazines, so this industry seems to be relatively thriving compared with regional papers. This is because magazines have always been niche, which is something newspapers are not. With the creation of search engines, people now just search for niche topics which interest them. We call this the unbundling of news.
“I think this is the most exciting time to be a journalist. When I started I did one thing – I wrote stories – but students these days are multi-skilled geniuses. They can tell stories in so many fascinating and brilliant ways, whether that is writing for print or online, or broadcasting via an Instagram story, audio, podcasting, TV or video. It is endless.”
The advantage of print
So, with the move towards digital content, what will we lose if we give up on print? For Emma, it’s about the lack of trust online news can foster: “We are already seeing the spread of misinformation through social media and it is corroding societal trust. We will reach a point where people return to traditional news models in search of accountability and authority.”
Richard agrees, saying: “Newspapers have the advantage of taking a view on the news, unlike online organisations who are updating a story second by second. They offer the chance to sit back and take in the full story – that’s the beauty of print.”
Reading print can be more relaxing and offers more of an all-round experience. Richard adds: “I love the feeling of reading a paper on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee. That touchy feely experience is one I miss online.” Matthew described his reading habits online as being “a bit like a poacher, getting what I want and then quickly getting out of there. When I read a book, I’m there for longer, I finish them.”
This appreciation of the tactile nature of print is something that is also being seen in the book publishing industry. The introduction of e-readers initially spelled disaster for publishing but, since 2015, ebook sales have continued to fall (2). Sanne Vliegenhart or, as she is better known online, Booksandquills – a YouTuber, consultant and content creator with over 177,000 subscribers – shares her thoughts: “Ebooks are super practical and you can get some really good deals, but for me personally the feeling of holding a book in your hands can’t be beaten. Plus physical books look great on your shelves, make for a beautiful gift and sometimes reading them in public is like putting a statement out there.”
Buying into beauty
David Barker, Senior Lecturer in Publishing, also recognises that aesthetics can have an impact on book sales: “There is an increase in people buying books because of their covers, despite the old cliché. It is now typical for ‘bookstagrammers’ to post pictures with their beautiful book collections and this has genuinely impacted the design trends that you now see on book covers. Around 18 months ago, lots of publishers started putting out really pretty pink book covers and this was purely driven by Instagram.”
For David, this visual focus feeds into the increasing success of bookshops, which are continuing to beat the downward trend of the high street (3): “If you think about Waterstones or an independent bookshop, all of a sudden you’ve got nicer looking books you can place face out, making your shop an inherently more appealing place to hang out in.”
Sanne agrees that bookshops offer a unique experience: “Bookshops (and maybe the occasional plant shops) are the only ones I go to just to cheer myself up, browse the shelves and discover books I might never have found online, and sometimes just to feel at home.”
David adds: “I also think bookshops have done a really good job of turning themselves into a hub in their local community. Shops now often have a kids’ book area where there are toys and seats, allowing parents to have a quick 20-minute break. They also now get authors in for events, which really embeds the reading experience in the high street.”
Trusting the printed word
However, it isn’t just the commercial business around it that has caused the resurgence in reading. Agreeing with Emma’s point about print being perceived as most trustworthy, David says: “We are living through a time of extreme turbulence, so people actually find real comfort in books. Either, in the case of fiction, because it’s a way of escaping from the chaos and stress of the modern world. Or in the case of nonfiction, which is growing faster than fiction at the moment, it’s a desire to make sense of what’s going on.
Many people make the assumption that nonfiction books are more reliable than ‘fake news’.
“The bottom line is that more people are reading than ever before. The other real positive is that children’s book sales are going up enormously, which is almost entirely driven by print, as children prefer the more tactile experience. I think once you grow up with that as a child, then you are probably never going to lose that affection for holding the physical book and the memories it evokes.”
In Derby, the growing success of the Derby Book Festival, which was established in 2015 and celebrates the joy of books and reading for all ages, would seem to demonstrate that our love affair with books is as strong as ever.
As Elizabeth Fothergill CBE DL, Chair of the Derby Book Festival, explains: “At the heart Festival is a collective love of books and an understanding of the pleasure and benefit that reading can bring to our lives. Whether that’s the sheer delight of ownership, queuing to buy a brand new copy to be signed by the author, or the familiarity of a well-thumbed edition, perhaps years old with notes in the margin, its lovely binding and end papers evoking memories, the shared touch with previous owners, and the pride in one’s own library, however small.”
1 https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/mar/12/ nme-vogue-death-print-magazines
2 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/14/ ebook-sales-continue-to-fall-nielsen-survey-uk-book-sales
3 https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/apr/11/ tough-year-high-street-internet-shopping-weak-pound