The Second Life of Print

The notion of digital publishing obliterating print is as enduring as it is popular. This is in no small part due to the fact that it fits neatly into a nice and linear narrative of evolution. Just as the introduction of the printing press provided literacy to the masses and democratized the dissemination of information, the internet allows anyone to become a publisher, express themselves, and perhaps even make a lot of money. With little barrier to entry, opportunities for interactive storytelling, and the ability to be accessed anywhere, anytime, and on any device, provides a superior offering for consumers and a much more lucrative model for publishers. Print had a good run.

It isn’t that simple

Between banner ads, paywalls, branded editorial, and now video, digital publishers are still struggling to find a dependable model to monetize their content. They are also faced with maintaining the attention of a readership that is groomed to be continually searching for the unreachable horizon of “what’s next.”

Meanwhile, a deftly quiet revolution is taking place. Borne out of punk rock’s DIY ethos, a small but growing number of individuals are publishing content that – at first glance – is highly personal and niche, but whose editorial perspective has wide appeal. Take, for example, Apartamento, who published their first issue in 2008 in an edition of 5,000. Apartamento recently published its 14th issue, with a distribution of over 25,000 in 45 countries and is known as “the world’s hippest interiors magazine.”

Apartamento is not alone. Stack, a service that mails subscribers a different magazine each month, experienced a 78% increase in revenue in 2014. Their pool of titles is in the thousands.

Products that should not be profitable

For the most part, these publications are impractical and should not reasonably be profitable. They are generally printed on high-grade paper, feature long-form journalism, personal essays, photographic essays, as well as meandering interviews about nothing in particular. Oh, and they’re sold as luxury products with cover prices ranging anywhere from $16 – $80.

Most were started as personal projects with any revenue being a happy accident. Though, if we are to take a closer look, we see an increasing number of these happy accidents. From Amsterdam, Fantastic Man has now published a book, a hardcover compendium of articles and interviews from the magazine, and launched its sister publication, The Gentlewoman, in 2010. Björk, Adele, Vivienne Westwood, and Beyoncé have all graced the cover of The Gentlewoman with an international distribution of 96,000 (it has already eclipsed Fantastic Man, whose distribution sits at 85,000).

032c is another example. The magazine bills itself as “a manual for freedom, research, and creativity” and now sells products from their website. They also opened the 032c Workshop, a standalone event and exhibition space in Berlin. Their print edition was initially conceived as a tool to promote their website, which is now an archive of old issues and an e-commerce shop.

Brands buying in

Just like any trend, community, or anything really, brands have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. Some engage these publishers to consult on producing their own publications, events, or lookbooks. Monocle’s agency arm, Winkreative, worked with Porter Airlines to develop re:porter. The in-flight magazine is a bilingual global survey of food, drink, and lifestyle with a strong focus on creative industries.

Airbnb, valued at over $25.5 billion, began publishing the whimsically titled Pineapple in 2014. Pineapple’s razor-sharp aesthetic complete with washed-out photography and twee watercolor illustration allows it to pass for any other scrappy, boot-strapped publication available from Stack. Except it’s entirely different in both its intent and approach.

Designed to appeal to the bohemian explorer on a budget, Pineapple is a carefully considered piece of branding collateral designed “to explore our fundamental values: sharing, community, and belonging,” according to the introduction in their first issue. This inaugural issue also included a feature on Hans Ulrich Obrist – a star curator, publisher, and art historian whose reputation as “the curator who never sleeps” precedes him. Though the goal is ultimately marketing, Pineapple certainly isn’t free – the ad-free publication has a cover price of $12, more than double the price of the average magazine.

A behavioral shift

Independent publishing is just one of several signals pointing to a much larger sea change in thought and behavior. The record-breaking sales of vinyl records and the shop local movement – alongside major e-commerce retailers such as, Bonobos, and Warby Parker all opening brick-and-mortar locations – all represent a desire for real-life content and experiences.

With more screens comes more screen-time and, inevitably, digital fatigue. This is especially true for those born after the mid-80s who have been raised in front of a series of increasingly immersive screens.

Getting offline represents discovery, serendipity, and as it happens, great opportunities to generate digital content for Instagram and Snapchat.

Defining identities

A search on Instagram for any of the aforementioned titles will produce a nearly infinite feed of the magazines placed among objects carefully selected to imply good taste and a well-lived life. Most common are weathered hardwood tables, cappuccinos, succulents, eyeglasses, and of course, cold-pressed juice. This is not a coincidence. The content we publish on social platforms now plays a very important role in defining who we are, and tangible objects are still very much a part of this.

Basically, don’t discount print just yet. Done well, a good print publication can reinforce your brand’s values and outlook by building a strong community and providing your customers with a beautiful object that they are proud to own and share. To do this successfully, it is essential to first clearly define your brand’s outlook. What do you value? What does your idea of beauty look like? What about excitement? Or discovery? How can photography, storytelling, and collaboration bring this to life? Once this is concisely and confidently defined, it will become your guideline for editorial and a unified vision that is echoed by your audience.

Just make sure the cover stands out on a hardwood table

the author

Geoff Snack

Geoff Snack is a strategist and instructor at OCAD U.