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Print, Slowly March 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I recently wrote about the demise of print media, lamenting the loss of PC Magazine as they shifted to an online-only distribution model. I received a lot of sympathetic email from people who also liked printed magazines. We all agreed that the world really needs printed media.

With such a fan base, why do print magazines make it so hard to subscribe to them? Subscribing to a magazine is, by far, the longest and most tedious process on the web.

With PC Magazine gone, I had a slot available in my reading hierarchy. In my world, you must always read the more transient items ahead of the less transient. Thus, you should read any available newspapers first, followed by any available magazines, and then any books you have on hand. I find that bringing rigid rules and structure to a relaxing pastime like reading makes it that much more compatible with a compulsive lifestyle.

I decided to replace PC Magazine with Wired. I had abandoned Wired years ago, when its propensity for ransom-note typography and “we’re too avant-garde for you” layout made the magazine illegible. Nonetheless, I had recently picked up an issue while traveling and found it much improved. At $1 an issue, a subscription was hard to resist.

I went to the Wired website and ordered the magazine. That was six weeks ago. I still haven’t received my first issue! In a time when second-day delivery is considered to be the slow, economical choice, taking six weeks to get anything is incomprehensible. I can go online and order a custom-made dress shirt and get it sooner! Why can’t I get a magazine in a few days?

I know why: my subscription was processed by some aggregating service center in Iowa and dropped into the Wired subscriber database. I’ll get a magazine when the next issue is mailed. This is the model the magazine industry has used for about 100 years. They’ll continue to use it until the last issue is sent to the last subscriber, about ten years from now.

Here’s a bold, out of the box idea: print a few extra copies of the magazine and keep them in Iowa. When my subscription arrives, send me a copy of the current issue right away. Even if I’ve already read it, the quicker response will earn you brownie points. You could even start my subscription with the next issue and spot me the current issue in the interest of (gasp) good customer service.

Will this happen? I doubt it. I fear that the print industry has all but given up. Their only focus is on making some sort of transition to online delivery that can still pay the bills. Rather than finding a way to make print work with a receptive audience using modern technologies, they are chasing the trailing edge of digital technologies with clumsy efforts at blogs and such.

It’s sad to realize that we live at the end of an era: 550 years of printing, drawing to a close.  We’re witnesses to history, but will be left with no way to permanently write it down.


1. prissyperfection - March 30, 2009

I share your sadness about the apparent demise of the print industry. What you have to say though makes a great deal of sense.

For me, sitting down with a new, glossy magazine is one of life’s simple pleasures.But,reading a magazine as a casual pastime is quite different from reading a magazine for business or personal development purposes.

I can wait for my issue of “Canadian Living”. In fact the anticipation of getting a new copy each month is part of the fun. But for you to have to wait for your copy of “Wired” is unacceptable. In fact, by the time you receive it, the information it offers could very well be redundant given the pace of technology development.

I’m hoping there are some people out there who will smarten up and start thinking more about customer responsiveness before we both have to give up our respective magazines.

2. notsofast - March 31, 2009

I’m reluctant to trade the physicality of interacting with printed media for browsing online. But I won’t miss the destruction of millions of trees and the huge expenditure of energy to transport that printed information to my doorstep. We’ve gotten much better at moving information in 550 years.

I’m optimistic that e-books and e-paper or some other technology will evolve into a satisfying reading experience. Maybe the demise of traditional newspapers and magazines will help to move us along.

3. Chuck Musciano - March 31, 2009

@Prissy: Losing the tangible pleasure of reading from paper saddens me. But my real point, on the lack of customer responsiveness, is inexcusable no matter what you want the magazine for. Print media was poised to dominate online media, and they simply looked the other way. Now they will be crushed, and it didn’t have to be that way.

@Notsofast: Moving information and preserving information are different problems. Data that we’ve recorded just ten years ago is now useless, either through media failure or the loss of the tools to read the data. Paper, for all its imperfections, lasts a long, long time.

In the interest of full disclosure, notsofast and I were co-publishers, long ago, of a monthly technology newsletter and share a love for fine printing, beautiful design, and effective communication via printed media. Like him, I do hope there is a middle ground that marries the speed and efficiency of digital data with the beauty, permanence, and pleasure of paper.

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