Pick up a paper

The Gate London’s Florence Holmes looks at the challenges and opportunities facing digital news formats, and finds that there’s still a lot of love for physical newspapers…

Forget Joe Wicks and meditation – the ultimate morning routine has got to be lying in bed surrounded by unnecessary pillows, limitless coffee, and ‘the papers’. This was not my experience in lockdown. Like many others, I quickly developed a compulsive habit of refreshing BBC news’s live feed between every video call, keeping track of each new stat and prediction.

The first locked down Saturday I spent with the FT Weekend felt surprisingly serene in comparison. A lot of the content was bleak but without the bombardment that comes with consuming anything digitally – recommended next articles, links to click and WhatsApps pinging in – reading a physical paper was refreshing. A good opinion article creates the illusion of one to one communication, drawing you in and offering respite from the outside world in a way that enables you to engage more thoughtfully with it.

Reading in print is more effortful than being spoon fed by algorithmic suggestion but with the labour of choosing which articles to read comes the satisfaction of discovery. It is energising to find a piece of writing that makes you feel something, whether horrified disagreement or the uncanny sense that someone has put down in words, more eloquently than you ever could, a thought from your own head. Tim Wu’s 2018 article ‘The Tyranny of Convenience’ translated a nebulous half thought in arguing that our lives have become too much like taking a cable car to the top of the mountain rather than hiking there by foot. There’s no question which route leaves you feeling a greater sense of satisfaction or which is more memorable.

Print newspapers are undoubtedly less convenient than online ones but I am not alone in reconsidering their value. Last year, ‘The Joy of Print’ celebrated The Guardian’s paper edition with play on words referencing online consumption. Despite a price rise during the campaign period, it was the most successful subscription driver in their history.

Of course, multiple news formats have a role to play and I’m all for Times Radio and Tortoise Thinkins but digital news isn’t working in its current guise. The New York Times has been steadily reducing its reliance on ad revenue and there is a growing acknowledgement in the UK that wall to wall display advertising is an unsustainable approach. The number of Brits willing to pay for access is stagnant year on year, The New Statesman decided to end programmatic advertising in July to focus on subscription revenue, and free-to-read champion The Guardian recently announced job losses.

For advertisers, bombarding readers with banners encourages the unfocused, headline-scrolling behaviour we’re trying to interrupt. All the benefits of precision targeting and innovative formats are lost when we participate in a bunfight for eyeballs, clamouring for a reader’s attention for a couple of seconds to generate a meaningful engagement. Instead, we need to make the case to clients for investing in attention.

Not only are attention metrics a better predictor of sales than viewability alone, they benefit the whole ecosystem of advertisers, publishers, and readers by prioritising placements in uncluttered environments with quality content. Print – the original high attention, single tasking media channel – can deliver in spades for an attention-oriented campaign. It would be a loss for us as both advertisers and readers if the presses stop printing.