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Print versus digital: a ripe battle ground or a match made in heaven?

by Edward Vargeson , 05.03.2014

In 2013, the Financial Times announced that it will lead with its web offering and scale back on its print output. With 100,000 more digital subscriptions than print sales, the move reflected an ambition to provide news on a more instant, reactive basis.

Against a backdrop of consumers being more likely to ‘pick and choose’ media content, this shift is representative of wider changes in readership habits. It raises a number of questions over the future of newspapers, and other physical forms of publication.


It is widely accepted that newspapers and magazines have declined in circulation. Increasing laptop and tablet ownership (tablet ownership rose 52% from 2012-2013*) and a rise in the use of social media have facilitated access to the internet, and thus diverted attention away from more ‘traditional’ sources of information. As such, more and more publications worldwide now run a website in line with its print edition. Some major national newspapers have even introduced a paywall (such as NTTimes.com) for online access, highlighting the increasing importance of digital media to market strategy and revenues in the current climate.

The decline of print?

It would be easy to assume that print is on its last legs. In a world where ‘instant access’ to news is the norm, it is incredibly difficult for this format to keep up with breaking content. And combined with the drop in circulation and readership, it is understandable why the Financial Times (FT) has decided to change its approach. So why are hard copies of all major newspapers and magazines still readily available?

Figures show that print revenues continue to dominate. The rise in ‘free’ magazines (ShortList, Sport) has successfully been serviced by mass advertising, but the decision taken by the London Evening Standard to remove its cover charge was still seen as a potential risk. However, circulation has since trebled and advertisers have been receptive – proving that print isn’t finished just yet.

Digital and print working in conjunction

In a wider context where the consumer experience is now more personalised, both digital and print can support each other in an over-arching product offering. Fundamentally, the two offer very different ends of the spectrum, and the success of The Sun and its paywall could act as a benchmark for newspapers going forward. On one hand, you have the act of picking something up and making the conscious effort to read – which is arguably a more ‘rewarding’ experience. On the other, the website is capable of offering interactive material and breaking news in a more ‘instant’ fashion.

Magazines, in particular, offer ‘unbundled’ content aimed at niche markets, and a number are taking this further and offering more ‘tailored’ propositions across the board. Take new UK football quarterly, The Blizzard. This was launched in 2011 across both digital and print space, and has led with an optional pricing strategy. Consumers have the choice to pay whatever they like, with the income from advertising off-setting the minimum download fee of one pence. This bespoke offering has already proved a success, with the initial print run for its first issue selling out and downloads performing well.

Going forward

Whilst The Sun and The Blizzard are just two examples, they can offer an insight into how mass-market publications could operate in the near future. It may seem illogical to launch print versions today, but there clearly is still demand for a hard copy. The Sun admitted that prior to installing its website paywall, “it didn’t make a great deal of money” via online – emphasising how charging for content, and of course, physical sales, are still key to its business model.

It is undeniable that print versions of newspapers and magazines have dropped in circulation and readership terms. But on further inspection, it is clear to see that it can still be an important component to what publications offer. Whilst the focus may well be shifting from print to digital (the FT), it doesn’t have to mean that print is being marginalised. This is especially the case whilst consumers still enjoy reading physical copies of newspapers and magazines. Moreover, the relationship between the formats is evolving, and both can continue to operate in tandem. Optional pricing strategies may well play a key role in this – be it payment for a single article or a full-scale edition online.

With the sustained demand for both online and print versions, having ink smeared all over your fingers and shirt isn’t a problem that will go away just yet…

*Source: GfK’s retail sales data