Friday, June 19, 2009

Digital vs. Print: Why Must I Choose?

Curious about how National Lampoon looked in its earliest years, I jumped at the opportunity a few months ago to buy (on eBay) an issue from its second year. It arrived in good condition, and I greatly enjoyed reading it -- lying down on the couch or sitting back at my desk with my feet up, paging back and forth, sampling an article here or there, picking up the magazine every time I wanted to read an article in it.

That experience made me remember how much I'd enjoyed the magazine when I discovered it in junior high school (early 1980s), so after testing a couple other issues from eBay, I decided to go ahead and purchase the digital archive of the magazine's complete run. I did a quick look through the issues on the disk when it arrived, and I was impressed. And I haven't put it into the computer since. I have, however, purchased some more old print editions off eBay.

Why? I already have those issues in digital format, right? Isn't it stupid to purchase some print copies (albeit inexpensive ones) when I already own the issues in digital form? Aren't digital and print all the same, if you listen to the print-is-dead crowd?

Well, they're not the same. I actually like the digital version very much. It's a high-quality, complete collection of every darned issue of the magazine, and I can read it at any time. If I take the disk out of the box. If I turn on my computer. If I put the disk into the computer, click the keys, access the appropriate year, access the appropriate issue. If I haven't lost interest by this point in whatever fleeting thought it was that first inspired me to pick up the box and try to find that issue.

Digital editions are great. Seriously. I love them, and I really applaud publishers using them to make available vast storehouses of information in the form of years of archived issues, or using them as an additional version of new print copies. They're just not the same as print editions, and therein lies a point that could hurt the editors who want readers to read what they assembled, and could hurt the advertisers who want the most people to see their ads the most number of times.

Starlog magazine, which went on print hiatus this past spring, has said that it will be producing digital versions of its entire run of the magazine. The archive of its sister mag, Fangoria, is also going to be out digitally, and it has already begun producing digital versions of its line of comics.
Playboy, in addition to the Cover to Cover series of deluxe disk packages, is selectively making digital versions of past issues available free on its web site. All of that is fantastic. I already own the Playboy Cover to Cover archive package for the 1950s, and I plan on buying each new decade as it is released. I will also be eagerly awaiting the Starlog and Fangoria (and other mags, too) digital editions.

But, as a recent conversation reminded me, publishers that rely only on digital editions are shortchanging themselves, their readers, and their sponsors. During a discussion about web sites and digital information, an internet professional noted the benefits of digital news, but then sheepishly said he hasn't given up his daily print newspaper: "I love print." He didn't mean that he just has an old-fashioned affection for it. He said that it's a sit-down (or lie-down) experience to really read something. You have a different experience (including a different degree of identification with and amount of time spent with the publication) when you hold it in your hands than you do when you stare at a computer screen.

So I say, Long live digital and print. I love them both. I understand them both. I want them both. But business and marketing trends are generally led more by emotion and group-think than by clear thought and experience. So we'll continue to see print devalued, even when it's profitable, and we'll continue to see print abandoned for online-only, even though there are other ways to cut down the waste of print (by changing distribution methods, for example). Mainly, we'll continue to see publishers shoot their brands in the feet.
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