My impression listening to Jacek Utko is that well-designed print newspapers are rarer and rarer animals worldwide. The Polish designer talks up outliers like De Morgen in Belgium and Libération in France, yet his print best practices are mostly in the magazine world.

Let me merge Jacek’s observation with a common question while traveling these days: What is the future of print? 

Folha de S.Paulo’s Marcelo Benez shows off super-sized print advertisements that are among the most creative in the world.
Folha de S.Paulo’s Marcelo Benez shows off super-sized print advertisements that are among the most creative in the world.

First, a secret: Consistently over time, the most-read articles on INMA.org are related to print. The most re-Tweeted articles are related to print. Are the articles that good? Or do we cling to any evidence of print’s renaissance?

After variations of this questioning came up in a recent Sydney session by Jacek, I got peppered again by a Chilean journalist and another from the United States and another from Norway all within two days. 

Coincidence? 

Let me put this on the line, and let the chips fall where they may. 

Print has a long shelf life. It’s a little silly to look beyond a decade because we don’t yet know what the technology arc looks like in the long-term. 

Yet pushing beyond my lack of imagination in our Star Trek future, Jacek’s presentation teased our future. 

For more than five centuries, print was the primary conveyor of text-rich journalism, first as an influence industry then as a highly lucrative commercial industry. 

One of the frustrations from the past decade of digital subscription experimentation is the realisation that the deep fusion of print and journalism over five centuries had left a hard-to-remove scar on the psyche of consumers: They were paying for printing, packaging, and delivery – not journalism! Who knew?

That wave is washing ashore by the day. Netflix, Amazon, and many others (World Wrestling Entertainment!) are re-conditioning audiences to pay for content. Consumers are reluctantly coming around on text-based journalism.

Walk into any hotel breakfast area in the world and you see people glued to their mobile devices as print newspapers sit unread at the registration area. That’s the new breakfast experience.

So, whither print? 

In Jacek’s presentation, he showed a newspaper with a two-arms’ length accordion fold-out that was artfully done. Yet I couldn’t help wonder: Who the hell is going to read that?

That’s newspaper as art or a newspaper as a brand vehicle – not a newspaper as a conveyor of information. Nobody rationally reads an accordion. 

If the role of print becomes a hybrid information conveyor for older readers who cling to it and a brand conveyor to a broader digital ecosystem for younger readers, that means design standards for print need to rise. Commodity design just won’t cut it if the objective to printing is to convey a brand image or personality. 

Among the best-designed print newspapers in the world are Belgium’s De Morgen, France’s Liberation, and Colombia’s El Colombiano.
Among the best-designed print newspapers in the world are Belgium’s De Morgen, France’s Liberation, and Colombia’s El Colombiano.

We need to think in terms of greater and great creativity and fun in print. De Morgen does that in their sleep. El Colombiano does that while juggling with the other hand. Folha de S.Paulo can out-creative almost anyone in print advertising.

But to standardise that? How can that be done with limited budgets? Jacek argues it’s about committing to creativity – it’s easier to achieve with a green light from management. 

I can imagine three roads for print:

  1. No commitment: For the company not willing to commit to print as high art, then print economics will dwindle and collapse in the coming years. There is no point to continuing print if advertisers and readers don’t have a differentiating reason to commit.
  2. Medium commitment: My guess is most companies, reluctant to commit to high creativity, will aim for an economic middle ground. Print will decline slower than those doing print on the cheap – but seven-day printing will devolve to five days, three days, and then one day. 
  3. High commitment: What I suspect is – long past the horizon I can imagine today – print will become a once-a-week loss leader kept alive as a marketing exercise and a door-opener to agencies and politicians. But it still has to be high-creativity, with gimmicks and fun contributing to the news brand’s personality. Printing frequency will be higher if advertising demands it. Content will be reverse-published from every brand under the media company’s umbrella.

It is not “talking down print” to reasonably imagine that digital ecosystems will overwhelm print economics in the next two decades. It will not happen in one big swoop but the collapse in economics on certain days of the week. In some candid discussions during my travels in recent months, publishers pointed to some interesting barriers to reducing print from seven days a week: If you own printing presses and you own a full-time distribution network, it is a mighty hurdle to just reduce from seven-day printing to three-day printing, as an example. There is talk of outsourcing those functions to create flexibility for these moves in the future.

Strip away the emotional canvass of print. Strip away the “ultimate app” of print and its engagement for advertisers. Ask yourself, honestly, what the purpose of print becomes. I think you will be left with reasons to continue print in a limited format. 

And if I’m wrong at INMA’s 100th anniversary in 2030 and we’re swimming in print newspapers, then I promise to jump in and waller in that pool. I will gladly do that.

In the meantime, have honest conversations about print’s value in your ecosystem. If it makes money, keep those presses churning. The answer will likely evolve every year moving forward.

Thanks, Jacek, for the gentle nudge at the recent Inform News Media Summit in Sydney about how to get the most value out of print.