In a world of news breaking online 24-7 and declining circulation figures, the future of print media is at best unclear.
But it is widely accepted people like the feel of a newspaper or magazine in their hands. Print publications that move to an online-only model do not tend to fare well.
This leaves the publishing world in limbo and the time could be ripe for a ‘third way’, an initiative that combines the best of print and online.
Gadgets such as the Sony e-reader and the Kindle from Amazon have sprung up to bridge the gap between book and e-book.
Now printing company Hewlett Packard has taken a shot with Mag Cloud, a website being piloted in the US that enables people to publish their own magazines. In short, the individual provides the content, and HP turns it into a magazine. V-P for EMEA marketing Jean-Pierre Le Calvez says potentially users could create their own newspapers or magazines, featuring content pulled from the internet, turned into a PDF and printed out.
The idea has some strengths. News aggregation is already common practice. ‘Most consumers already collate news from many different off- and online sources,’ notes Lucy Kemp, senior account manager at Seal. Personalisation is undoubtedly becoming the buzzword when it comes to content. ‘The trend that effectively allows consumers to become editors themselves is driven by digital channels where more content is available and social connections on networks and blogs can provide targeted recommendations and referrals,’ says Danny Whatmough, director of Wildfire PR.
The idea also provides potentially exciting openings for PR professionals. Michael Molcher, press officer at Leeds City Council, says some news aggregators, keen to keep up to date by providing constant content, already publish press releases unedited. ‘From a PR point of view that’s a good way for us to get our message out directly, by using key words and themes,’ he says. ‘It frees up the situation for PR professionals in a significant way if your work does not go through editors.’
The key reservation around an initiative such as Mag Cloud is unfortunately also its unique selling point - the print side.
‘I have never had the desire to compile information into a single magazine for my own consumption,’ says Kemp. ‘It is also worth noting the environmental impact of this technology – in a climate where we are all looking to recycle and being told not to print emails, this service completely contradicts.’
Le Calvez says the concept is environmental in that users will only print what they need, and can then recycle the paper once they have finished reading. Compared with a fixed print run for a newspaper, this initiative is environmentally friendly. But compared with entirely digital readers such as the Kindle, along with BlackBerrys and iPhones, it starts to look a lot less green.
It is also less economical than a digital reader. Print cartridges are expensive and printing off six pages every morning will cost more than a daily newspaper.
Emma Cohen, MD of Skywrite, says the whole concept is too complex: ‘It is not the same as picking up Metro or London Lite on the tube. It is not as convenient. I could not see downloading and printing off a magazine every morning becoming part of the routine in the same way.’
She adds: ‘I think initiatives like Kindle and e-reader have more chance of taking off than a print-out. And with screens on mobiles getting bigger, it is becoming easier to read on them.’
Whatmough agrees: ‘Print is on its way out. E-readers like Kindle will gain some success trying to bridge the gap, but attempts to create a print-like experience in a digital format strike me as bizarre and backward-looking.’
The future for publishing still seems to be electronic, but this does not mean it is the end of the road for media companies with print assets. ‘Nano technology will come up with a medium like electronic paper where news can be read wirelessly and where content can be changed instantly,’ predicts Kemp. And it will not be the end of the road for print publishers, she says: ‘We will still have to source content from the big publishing houses as well as smaller blogs and specialised sites.’