The case for print magazines (with numbers)

Every conference I go to, I hear about the death of print publications at colleges.

When I first heard that schools were ditching their print publications years ago, I thought I understood why. Digital was the waaaaaaave of the fuuuuuture! Focusing on cool websites and social media posts and videos made sense. These kinds of media seemed more nimble than print.

But then, as the years went on, my own behavior belied my stated enthusiasm for this approach.

I love my own alma mater, for example, but the number of times it has occurred to me to head online to check out what’s going on there — I mean, beyond signing up for my reunion or donating to the annual fund — is just about zero. I don’t follow the institution’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts.

But I read every issue of my alma mater’s print magazine, which arrives in my mailbox reliably once a quarter.

At first glance, this probably seems strange.

Why do I spend a ton more time with my print alumni magazine than any of my school’s official online offerings? I basically spend my whole life in front of a screen, and could visit my college’s website and social feeds with just a few keystrokes.

It turns out that research has an answer for that.

Why print matters more than you think.

The reality is that print does something that digital just can’t. Not just in one way, but many.

As a result, it’s a hugely valuable asset to your school. It connects people to your institution in a way that almost nothing else can.

Here are the four reasons print matters. And why it might just be time to invest more in print, not less.

THING 1: People notice what’s in print.

For years, people have marveled how you could reach your audience of tens of thousands of people — maybe more! — “with the touch of a button.”

That’s great! You know who else can do that?


That’s why the typical office worker gets 121 emails per day. How much of that do you delete without ever looking at the subject line? How much is filtered out for you? (I recently learned, for example, that I missed out on a cool alumni event that I’ve gone to in the past because the email invitation got sent to my promotions folder, which I check…sometimes.)
But do you know how much stuff we get in the mail — like alumni magazines?  About a thousand pieces per year, according to the U.S. Postal Service. That’s a little more than three pieces of mail per delivery day.

Compare that to the 121 emails and decide what ratio you want to be part of.

Do you want to fight spam filters, promotion folders, and unsubscribe links, and then hope that your subject line is good enough for your alumni to open it, despite the firehose of other messages they get?

Or do you want to be the delightful magazine in the mail, competing only with dumb lawn care coupons, cable promotions, and bills?

These are not hard questions to answer.

THING 2: People actually read what’s in print.

Let’s not put too fine a point on it: people hate to scroll online.

If you’ve got a long story, don’t expect online readers to finish it. In fact, only about half of the readers who choose a given story online make it more than halfway through.

We’re easily bored and distracted online.

We’re a lot like Kathryn Schulz, who discusses the idea of online rabbit holes in a story for the New Yorker:

[Y]ou look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which — hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep. Thus I have gone from trying to remember the name of a Salinger short story (“Last Day of the Last Furlough”) to looking up the etymology of “furlough” (Dutch) to wondering whether it had any relationship to “furlong” (no) to jogging my memory about the exact distance represented by that unit of measure (an eighth of a mile), to watching approximately every major horse race since the development of the movie camera.

But if readers pick up a magazine — and one survey suggests that 90 percent of people read at least one a month — they’ll stick with it.

The qualitative responses from that same survey reveal why:

“You do so much on your phone all the time. When you sit down to read a magazine, you’re sitting down to just relax and read a magazine.”

Says another survey participant:

“I’ll actually read the articles in the hard copy. I’ll just skim it online.”

THING 3: People retain what they read on paper longer than what they read online.

If you’re spending a ton of time and money crafting stories for your audience, you probably want them to remember at least some of the things you’re writing.

That’s why you probably want to commit those stories to *actual paper.*

Studies by Anne Mangen, a researcher at the University of Stavenger, have found that people are more likely to remember the plot points of a story if they read it on paper compared to online. They’re also likely to have better comprehension of something they read on paper compared to what they read online.

It’s not about words. It’s something known as “textual topography.” When something’s on paper, we often remember the exact location on the page and how far into a publication we were when we read it.

Here’s how writer Ferris Jabr describes this process for books (though it also applies to magazines) in a story in Scientific American.

“Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has traveled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.”

If you want people to remember what you’re telling them, give them every opportunity to do so successfully. Print makes that possible.

THING 4: People value physical objects more than digital ones.

Your school may spend eleventy jillion dollars on its website. It is probably beautiful! Maybe you have some incredible web extras for your print magazine that you hope will send your readers scurrying to your website. Maybe they’ll check it out!

But here’s the thing: all that stuff in bits and bytes and pixels? It doesn’t feel “real” in the same way that a physical object like a magazine does. And so people don’t value it as much.

For example, in a series of experiments, Boston University’s Carey Morewedge discovered that people valued physical media far more than digital media. More specifically, people were willing to pay about 50 percent more for physical movies, music, books (and by extension, your publications) than the exact same thing in a digital format.

Higher ed editors I’ve talked to see this in their own experience. Says one:

“I’ve found that some of our alumni get upset when they’re accidentally dropped from the (physical) mailing list, because they see getting the print magazine as a perk of their alumnihood.”

The reason has to do with an idea known as psychological ownership.

That online magazine you worked on for months may “belong” to your alumni. But your alumni probably want something that they can hold in their hands. They want something tangible and that feels like it’s theirs.

Sheesh. Get to the point, Erin.

The larger point is print is an amazing way to engage your alumni and other stakeholders. That remains true even if it’s harder to measure than online engagement, which can be tallied in clicks, likes, and shares.

Certainly, there are plenty of things that we can all do with print to create actual, measurable numbers.

We can develop stories that are designed to spark conversation with all alumni, not just the superstars. We can add strong calls to action to encourage feedback. And we can do the behind-the-scenes work that moves the needle.

Of course, you should still be doing plenty of work on your websites and social media accounts. But to do so at the expense of your print publications is a disservice to your readers.

That’s why I believe that for many institutions, it’s time to double down on print.

Yes, it’s expensive!

But the goal of your work isn’t just to save money.

The goal of your work is not to add the newest, latest, buzziest thing, just because it’s cool.

The goal of your work should be to make the biggest and best possible impact with the dollars you have to spend.

Great stories are essential. But the medium you choose to tell the story matters, too.

For me, that means telling stories in a medium that will be:

  • Noticed
  • Read
  • Remembered
  • Valued

Print does that. It’s designed for that.

And it just may be the next big thing.