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GUEST BLOG: Print still resonates with the tactile consumer

One of the questions rarely raised in all the media commentary sloshed on to circulation shrinkages is that, given the always-on availability of instant-refresh headlines, why does the smartphone set continue to read a newspaper at all?

Talk to embattled editors and they will declare that the sandbags holding back the digital tide are packed full of ‘uniquely valuable content’. Yet, unless you have erected a paywall, it is likely your audience can slash open these self-same sandbags online for free. Moreover, in an era of commoditised content and ceaseless social chatter, news articles inimitable enough to merit any kind of price tag (money or effort) are an increasingly endangered species.

The stark truth is – the need for newspaper content has diminished much faster than the decline in newspaper sales. Take Metro – the exact need we were launched to meet in 1999 no longer exists. There are now multiple ways to freely access paid-for newspaper quality content conveniently on the way to work. Indeed, much of this content trickles down digital pipes direct from paid-for newspaper lakes.

But as those that studied Maslow in social studies will know, there are needs and then there are needs. Successful newspapers have long since clambered up Maslow’s pyramid towards esteem and even self-actualisation. What your daily paper says about the kind of person you want the world to perceive is more telling than any one of the 500 people you follow on Twitter, arguably more profound than those 500 people combined.

All successful print products ultimately transcend basic needs to become part of the irrational tapestry of individual wants and aspirations. Upon his recent return to Metro (and subsequent departure) managing director Steve Auckland insisted on a strikingly simple mantra: Love Print. But what does it mean to ‘love print’? The phrase implies an emotional relationship, not a rational one.

Modern multi-platform editors love print. Metro’s new editor Ted Young is far from the last to relish a return to crafting a front page splash after a stint spent tinkering with a homepage algorithm at New York Daily News.

Clients love print. Of course, like anyone in media, they are distracted by shiny new social toys but the relationship with print is a shared history too deep and complex to be thrown off for a spring Twitter fling. Provided they spent the right amount to reach the right audience, advertisers still love print in a way that cannot be captured in spreadsheet alone.

But what about the consumer? Do they love print? Or are they simply handcuffed to old favourites by force of habit? Indeed, it is prudent to ask – will future generations ever even learn to love print? It is not science-fiction to imagine paperless classrooms – Google Docs has a (digital) white paper explaining how to do it now.

Even print’s unique tactile interaction may not be limited to print for much longer. At the Mobile World Congress this spring, Fujitsu showcased a tablet with ‘ultrasonic haptic feedback’ – what this jargon means is that within a decade tablet editions of newspapers could indeed feel like the real thing.

Or at least, that’s what the nerves in your fingertips will tell you. But while it’s scientifically possible to trick the brain, will the heart be fooled so easily? We all flirt with tech novelty but will anyone really fall in love with haptic feedback?

True love is truly more than the sum of its constituent parts. Metro was launched as a free news digest for commuters. It soon became a friend, a companion, a shield. Yes, routine plays an important role in this relationship, but the same could be said of every long-term couple. Successful print products of the future will all have claimed a similarly defined and distinct emotional role in busy consumers’ lives. When content is free and paper is not, it is no longer enough for people to need newspapers, they must indeed love print.

Colin Kennedy, Commercial Editor, Metro

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