FRESH: The complete disruption of publishing

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Published:  April 30, 2014
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Student article. Words by Rachel Hammerton, a Sydney based graphic design student at CATC.

This article could be just another voice in the global debate over the uncertain future of ink on paper. Instead, it is about the possibilities that are beginning to present themselves, and particularly, the possibilities of print becoming a relevant and integral part of its digital counterpart.

There will always be readers who are drawn to the physical presence and permanence of a printed title, but this future limits print to the domain of niche collectables. There is more potential than is routinely explored — gone are the days when a magazine could simple pop its printed content into a pdf, more commonly now  publications are more immersive as digital titles. However, in this rush, many publications are leaving their once well-crafted print titles to languish as they race to be ahead of absolution, irrelevance of the unknown, longing to be at the forefront of digital publishing, whatever that place may be. It’s no surprise considering digital publishing is one of the fastest growing industries, according to Linkedin Analytics, with traditional print media being one of the fastest shrinking.

Rather than denounce publications for this state of affairs, let’s empathise with them. It is easy to get caught up in the fast pace of technological development and be of the mindset that you should be using the latest technology to showcase the latest tricks. Yet as Flipboard designer Craig Mod stated in his excellent essay Subcompact Publishing, “…the simplest thought exercise is to make additions. The more difficult exercise is to reconsider the product in the context of now.”

Flipboard tablet app. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired

This is where publications must innovate again. Imaginative design solutions that ensure print as an indispensable ally of digital publishing. As Mod proclaimed, “The publishing ecosystem is now primed for complete disruption.”

Surprisingly, the titles that are starting to kick-start this disruption are those early pioneers of online only publications. Digital titles such as Rookie Magazine and Pitchfork have started to produce printed editions akin to a yearbook or anthology (be it printed annually or trimonthly etc.). While these editions are pricier than your average newsstand magazine, they are also usually on high quality paper stock and contain few, if any, advertisements.

Rookie Yearbook Two

Here lies the opportunity for publications to print a selection of their best or most popular content, with some exclusive content thrown in. It benefits the reader who desires to own a bound collection of quality printed material, rather than searching through online archives to find an article once enjoyed. This idea recognises print as a documenter of time, free of its editor or risk of deletion. As Los Angeles Times journalist Matt Pearce stated, “The Web is timelier, but paper lasts longer than browser tabs.”

Where does this leave ventures that began in print, and exist on a set of principles and processes from another time? A simple place to start would be to create online content that can only be accessed via scanning a QR code or the like, printed in a publication. But is divided content enough? Printed publications need content that only those with the printed title can access – videos that you can only access through unique codes, or shopping discounts that need to be scanned from the printed page. This may not entice new readers to print but it may halt some readers moving away from it. A good example of this are the magazines produced by shopping websites such as ASOS and Net-a-porter, which allow readers early access to items of clothing that can be scanned directly off the page and then purchased.

Another method print established titles could start to think about is to utilise the popular ‘fermium’ model to include self-curated print – this would allow the reader to print a selection of the articles, free or subscription, enjoyed the most, for their own archiving. With digital printing becoming so cost effective, readers could start to individualise their printed experience a set number of times a year according to their payment model.

The biggest question to ask is, what is the publication’s strength? If it has value as a piece of print — as an object, or an important document — it is worth printing, and printing well — a tactile companion to the digital content. But if it is disposable, perhaps wholly digital is the best method by which to publish, saving money and resources at the same time.

The publishing industry has been turned upside down by the arrival of this digital era. It is still yet to be seen whether digital tomes can come close to producing the qualities that readers of print magazines venerate – the attention to layout, typography and detail – but maybe they don’t need to. Instead the future of publishing could lie in creating a title where print and digital are both unique and congruent and the reader not only wants access to both, but is strongly prompted and enabled to use both. This era of disruption is the time to break previous models, and pave the way for a new collaborative age.

Rachel Hammerton is a Sydney based graphic design student at CATC. She completed a bachelor in Fine Arts at COFA before realising that design and its ability to influence how people interact with the world was her passion. 

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