Why do we still print?

November 28th, 2011 Fast Thinking, Features

If you’ve listened to the news about books, newspapers and magazines over the last two or three years you’d think they’re finally experiencing the death throes one futurist or another has been predicting as long as the web’s been around. Predictions about the rise of electronic versus printed text are so old they’re now legitimate media and communications history themselves.

A charming and poetic story from The New York Times Books section from June 21, 1992 talks about the death of print in a world of ‘video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks’.

So if we’re still waiting for print to die after nearly two decades (a lifetime in the online media world), it’s fairly safe to say it’ll never go away completely. A more pertinent question is just what we love so much about it, when new technologies have finally rendered it obsolete after it was first conceived in the second century BC. Wherever paper exists in our lives we now possess electronic devices that deliver the same information faster, less destructively to the environment and in greater volumes than scribes of the middle ages could dream about.

If ever there was a time to abandon paper — or at least relegate it to a yesteryear-flavoured hobbyist niche like horse riding in the automobile age — aren’t we there yet? Just why do we still print?

The Numbers

You might assume that even though we still print on paper the volumes must have declined, or at least leveled off, in the internet era. Newspapers are dying because we all check the news on the web. Instead of printing out an interesting article or buying a book, we download a web page on our iPhone or buy an ebook on our Kindle.

But you’d be dead wrong. Between 2004 and 2010, printer manufacturer FujiXerox experienced a thousand percent growth in the Asia Pacific region. Market intelligence company IDC Australia reported recently the laser printer category alone has grown by around 30 percent consistently for the last several years.

And we’re not just talking about printing. Aside from a dip from 2001 to 2002 and a decline for the last two years attributed the GFC, paper consumption in Australia is up 0.7 percent in the last decade. In 2008 we used a record 1,515 kilotons of it, and that excludes newspaper and magazine production.

As Tim Woods, principal of consulting firm Fitzpatrick Woods Consulting, put it, “…consumption of communications paper and printed material is increasing at or above the population adjusted GDP figures, at the same time as the use of electronic media is increasing.”

Brad Monsbourgh, spokesman from FujiXerox Australia, adds that in our green-aware times, the growth is from the number of print devices rather than our use of the technology. “The amount of printed pages per device has gone down but the number of devices in the market has grown,” he says.

A coming compulsion deficit?

Of the new gadgets that have captured our imagination in the 21st century, none have cornered so much media coverage or sales as the iPod, iPhone and iPad in Australia. We bought 125,000 iPads after the July 2009 release, 4.4 million iPods in 2005 alone and by October 2010 a quarter million of us owned an iPad. Smartphone sales — with huge markets for electronic document consumption — rose 86 percent between the fourth quarters of 2009 and 2010. In July last year Amazon said sales of the Kindle ereader had tripled since a price cut, with ebooks overtaking sales of their hardcover counterparts through the Amazon store around the same time.

So clearly buying a book or wrangling a printed document is yesterday’s news. The catch-cry of the early ebook deniers about not being able to curl up in bed or lay on the beach with a computer have been put to rest with devices that are easier to handle than books ever were.

And the wholesale abandonment of printed news is continuing. Between 2008 and 2009, the circulation of most Australian newspapers dropped as much as 10 percent. News Ltd’s paywall experiments haven’t transformed the industry yet, and with news on our computers within minutes, updated often, accompanied by galleries and video footage and all for free, why do we even buy newspapers at all?

Maybe in the future Australia will be a land without download caps and wireless coverage as pervasive and dependable as it is in other foreign cities. When we arrive there, we might just pull out our full colour touchscreen device or updatable e-Ink sheet that receives updates as the publisher broadcasts them, the final merging of newspaper and TV.

Remember also that it’s not text itself that’s dying off, just old delivery models. The term ‘blog’ was coined around the time blogger.com was launched in 1999, but it wasn’t until Google acquired the company in 2003 the movement took off. It’s hard to pin down statistics about how many blogs there are and how they’ve grown, but in March 2008 ad group Universal McCann said 184 million people had started blogs in the world — quite a leap from the tens or hundreds of thousands counted around 2002/2003. Studies show 60 to 80 percent are abandoned after just a month, but at the movement’s height in 2006/2007 bloggers were making 900,000 posts every 24 hours, giving the combined daily content of the world’s professional media a run for its money.

Change on the wind

So if there’s no need to print any more why are we doing it more than we ever did, let alone at all? To borrow a term from technology parlance, paper is the killer app of human communication. The holy grail of technology is ease of use, a touchstone manufacturers have had mixed success with and which explains the huge popularity of the iPhone — we’re quite used to just pointing, after all.

But while electronic devices need to be booted up, plugged in, security-enabled and updated when they’re just not cool any more, there’s nothing that connects us to an idea or thought like grabbing a piece of paper and scrawling something down.

Roy Furr, a freelance copywriter and brand strategist, says his research involves ‘dozens, if not hundreds of pages to read’. “I need to highlight, mark up and flag certain sections for later use. Until I can mimic this on my computer with speed and ease, I still need to print,” he says.

Most of our experience seems to agree. Even though we spend so long working in front of computers, how many of us reach across the desk for a notepad when we have a great idea instead of starting a new project folder and opening a word processing document to type down notes? Paper has an immediacy and an informality we respond to.

But the reasons for our millennia-long love affair with dead wood pulp are as varied as the uses we’ve put it to. Ironically considering its physical properties, paper has a longevity we haven’t matched yet. Its handling and management is idiot proof — just put it in a folder, store it somewhere dry and in 50 years you won’t need any new technology to extract the information.

Contrast that with many of the early digital storage technologies. If you suddenly discover a cache of 5.25 inch floppy disks that contains critical business data it might be lost forever unless you can find an old disk drive on eBay. As the US-based LIFT Institute futurist and education PhD Maria Andersen put it: “Barely anyone has received training in organising digital materials so that they are easy to re-access, take notes on or grade.”

To further the analogy above, riding on horseback has been mostly ineffective in urban life for the last century, but it’s still with us just like cinemas are still around despite 60 years of TV — printing versus digital content delivery is a matter of choice depending on the information. We not only still print stuff, we still print stuff even though we don’t really need to.

It might just be we’re playing catch up. Books are still ‘dying’ after 20 years because few technologies transform society so completely so fast. The technology exists right now to completely digitise cheques (EFTPos terminals), passports and driver’s licenses (biometric data) and even paper currency — smart payments via your smartphone have been in use in Japan for years. In the same way, ebook technology has actually been around since the mid 1980s, when publishers — along with the other creative industries — started using computer-based desktop publishing to design books to send to print, the digital files that today form the basis for ebooks.

Some businesses have indeed found a new lease of life unshackled from paper. Law and university texts were among the first to move online in a big way, and they led the charge of a body of work where up-to-the-minute, raw information is more important than presentation. “We haven’t looked back on our 2005 decision to cease publishing the car-buying guidebooks that launched the company in the 1960s, even though we were still making a bit of money on them at the time,” says Jeannine Fallon, corporate communications executive director for online car-buying guide Edmunds.com “Information for car-buyers like pricing, incentives and recalls are best delivered electronically to keep up with changes that happen so rapidly.”

The other advantage of paper is that in a world where electronic information is so cheap to produce and disseminate, paper still stands out. We asked several marketing and advertising companies about paper-based versus online or email marketing, and the consensus on paper is almost unanimous. Michelene Maguire, director of marketing for IndustryBuilt software, says seconds count. “An email may only get a glance before its deleted, a text message isn’t even fully read and a web recording is fast forwarded to skip any ads,” she says. “That leaves print. People still scan quickly but campaign responses prove to me that print material sits around longer.”

Robyn Federman, director of communications for marketing agency Catalyst, has worked for names like Kodak, Goodyear and Valvoline and calls direct mail ‘the number one medium to generate a relationship with a potential reader or buyer. “Advances in variable printing make it possible to personalise a customer experience.” A recent campaign inviting customers to have their cars serviced at a Valvoline outlet in the US was generated with information provided willingly by the customers and resulted in an 11 percent lead rate, much better than the 2 percent industry wisdom says you should expect from a non-personalised approach.

Adrianne Barba, director of Perth-based graphic design studio bird.STUDIOS sums up what we love about paper with the term ‘cut through’. “We receive so many email newsletters or communications from companies it’s overwhelming,” she says, “and our bullshit detector is defensive towards anything sales-y, so we tend to skim through and immediately hit ‘delete’ or ‘unsubscribe’ to anything that smells even vaguely like a sales push.”

Cut through also works for Barba’s clients because of the comparative value they perceive in their own marketing projects. “Clients tend to take more time crafting the message and getting it right with print because the cost per communication is higher than online. When we pay more we value it more and we tend to target more specifically.”

Reality check

We’ve all heard the coffee table psychology about how we respond culturally to things we can hold and touch. As helpful as computers have been to life and society, a document on our screen is just a magnetic signal on our hard drive in the physical world. It’s hard to put into words, but when something’s on paper it feels more ‘real’.

As far back as the 1960s, artist and designer Pablo Solomon remembers intellectual discourse on ‘hot’ versus ‘cold’ media. “The more of yourself that was needed in order to interpret the media, the ‘hotter’ it was — more personal and connected,” he recalls. “For example, radio is hotter than TV because it requires more of your attention. When you go through the act of printing you connect with it because you’re investing time and energy.”

Some people talk about a love of the physical, tactile form of books as much as the enjoyment, education or entertainment of the content, but do we really find information on paper more tangible or authoritative? “Some people absolutely do,” says Sherman Young, an associate professor at Macquarie University’s department of media, music, communication and cultural studies, “just like there’s a similar type of demographic that doesn’t trust stuff unless it’s in the cloud. I suspect most people are getting quite comfortable with much of their billing and banking happening without paper, for example.”

Young remembers the advent of the ATM in the mid to late 80s and how most people would keep and file away their transaction receipts as evidence of the transaction. He says the overstuffed bins at the bottom of ATMS are because we now trust the system, calling such material ‘low level transactional stuff’. “There are things we hang onto like birth certificates,” he adds. “We’re wedded to the document, which is in many ways illogical.”

Young thinks the theory that Gen Yers are growing up more comfortable with abandoning paper than their parents is too simplistic, but he says things are changing, saying the ‘cultural engagement with information’ won’t be so anchored to the delivery platform. “One of the interesting things about the Queensland floods was the stuff people took out of their houses when they ran away,” he says. “A lot of people were saving their laptops instead of their photos because their laptops were their whole lives — their documents, photos and videos. That’s their ‘everything’.”

Young’s assertion about kids might seem disingenuous — kids today are so cutting edge they’re even abandoning email in favour of Facebook for electronic communication. But a surprising survey result came from the US based research firm ICOM, where North Americans aged between 18 and 34 preferred to learn about marketing offers by postal mail and newspaper in six out of seven product categories.

The print niche

As national sales manager of Griffin Press, one of Australia’s biggest book printers, Warren Griffin has plenty of experience with the way we consume information on paper. “I think there’s a digital mode of reading,” he says. “Desktop printers at home have made it so easy. You just find something on the web, print it out and go and read it somewhere else. I spend a lot of time on computers so when I’m in a reading session I tend to have it on paper and sit down to read it. If it’s just an information grab we generally read it electronically.”

Despite the proliferation of tools and software to take a magazine you’d formerly print and put it on a website — complete with little page corners to turn the pages — businesses like lovebookonline.com and lifehistorybooks.com succeed because of the pleasure of receiving something made especially for you in such a ‘legitimate’ form rather than just attached to an email.

“There’s a role for both,” says FujiXerox’s Brad Monsbourgh, using the example of our very different relationship to personal photography wrought by digital technology as an example (what he calls ‘having a camera in everything’). “We used to take photos on our cameras and take the film in to get them all developed. So we’d print every single photo we took, 100 percent of the content, and at least some of it was wasted. Now we take a lot more photos and we’re creating a lot more content but I’m printing less of them. I’m choosing which ones to print or share.”

Information overload

In the absence of deeper analysis it might occur to the casual observer that the reason behind the growth in print is because there’s so much more to print out. The 15-year-old explosion of content from blogs, tweets and the like has given us more information than history has a precedent for.

In fact, the increase in our reliance on print comes from some surprising sources, and from industries that have been contracting painfully. “Generally over the last seven years or so there’s been a constant increase in the volume of books we’ve printed,” says Griffin Press’s Warren Griffin. The reason? The very technology many believe threatens traditional publishing. Cash-strapped publishers have tried to avoid returns (unsold copies bookstores can be refunded for, the publisher not only absorbing the cost of an unsold book but paying to take it away and pulp it) by investing heavily in digital printing models like print on demand, where they can print the exact number of copies according to the orders they receive.

Digital or one-off book printing has also lengthened the long tail and contributed to global publish output. Previously a publisher sat on the rights to an older book and did nothing — without enough people interested in buying to warrant a reprint there’s no profit margin on the usual retail price. Today — particularly as ebooks take off — any book ever printed can be reproduced on paper for just a single dedicated fan willing to pay for it.

Griffin says any print order he gets for a traditionally printed book run (which is still cheaper per unit) will be 16 to 20 percent lower in coming years, but resurrecting much older book content for fewer numbers of buyers is already offsetting any contraction on new books. It’s the key to the death throes of the bookstores you’ve been reading about. Traditionally big chain bookstores make their money from stocking shelves crammed full of the latest bestsellers, but they can’t compete with online sources by stocking just one or two of the millions of books going back a century or two.

Printing saves the world

You can’t talk about paper usage in the 21st century without mentioning the environment. Of all the reasons to abandon the widespread use of paper, the need to stop cutting down trees would seem the most urgent.

The news isn’t all bad, but it’s still murky. A brochure from papereveryday.com.au a website by industry lobby group the Australasian Paper Industry Association, says Australia’s hardwood forest plantations (used for paper products) actually increased from 1.35 million to 2.02 million hectares between 1999 and 2009. As Fitzpatrick Woods’ Tim Woods explains, “It’s almost universally the case that as trees are harvested for paper production, they’re replanted.”

Unfortunately not all our paper comes from Australia. We imported 981 kilotons of paper in 2010 versus the 367 kilotons we produced at home. Paul Eastment is the director of IndustryEdge, a pulp and paper market intelligence company, and he warns the rules aren’t the same everywhere. “In some countries, especially in southeast Asia, there’s been a preference to harvest native tropical rain forest.”

We should also be careful when we see the ubiquitous recycled symbol. A page on the Greenpeace website points out that sometimes the symbol only means ‘recyclable’ (which paper is, comprising only wood), not recycled. Eastment also reminds us there’s an environmental cost in the recycling process hiding behind the market-friendly symbol. “The science [to recycle paper] uses a lot of energy,” he says. There have also been a range of claims by manufacturers but it’s tough to make 100 percent recycled paper since the fibre breaks down in the recycling process and the paper might be friable and dusty. But there are different manufacturing processes and [paper companies] provide the spin to make us all feel good.”

And that’s not accounting for outright corporate fraud. In 2008, two major Japanese paper companies issued very embarrassing statements admitting they’d lied about the proportion of recycled material in their paper. Claims of containing 70 percent recycled fibre turned out to contain 10 or five percent, or none at all.

Then there’s the little-mentioned aspect of abandoning paper for ones and zeros. According to the US Department of Energy, data center energy consumption (the powerhouses that fuel the Internet) doubled between 2000 and 2006, reaching 60 billion kilowatt hours a year — enough to power 25,000 households. Security vendor McAffee weighed in by comparing the effects of sending the 62 trillion spam emails we get every year — it produces as much carbon emissions as more than 7.5 billion litres of petrol.

But you might be surprised to learn that addressing paper manufacturing isn’t the only way to reduce the environmental impact of printing. A printer manufacturer would seem the last place to go to talk about printing less but at FujiXerox, Brad Monsbrough says customers are asking for it all the time, leading to the increase in business without more pages being printed.

He says customer concerns usually centre around reducing print costs, but the benefit to the environment comes hand in hand with practices like double sided or duplex printing. The company has also invested heavily in solid ink technology, ink ‘sticks’ you load up just like a printer cartridge, only when the stick runs out there’s no cartridge to end up in landfill.

HP is also one of the companies leading the charge in web-connected printers. That used to mean an onboard email address — environmentally friendly enough when its let you scan and send a document to a colleague without having to copy it. Now, you can save scans straight to the cloud to share or access them. An increasing number of multifunction printers now come with apps, so you can send a print of today’s weather or the cricket results from anywhere in the world without having to take your PC out of power save mode to handle the print job.

As the web’s blanketed the Earth (two billion users and counting), it hasn’t deposed old delivery methods any more than the advent of the car meant people stopped owning horses to ride. It seems that just like the cinema, the radio and indeed horse riding have evolved, printing is simply finding new forms to suit our needs.


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