How print continues to adapt to the digital world

The author provides a variety of examples as to how print is making gains in the digital world, despite the attitude that ink and paper are sliding towards history’s dustbin.


I have long maintained that new media do not kill old media, but rather than old media adapt. Movies didn’t kill plays, television didn’t kill movies, and the Web hasn’t killed television (for example), but each has adapted to the changes wrought by the newest medium.

The rise of digital content has led many to consign print to history’s dustbin. The steady growth of e-book adoption, the news media’s shift to the Web, and a number of other signs seems to suggest that we’re on an inexorable march to the day when print is a quaint relic.

But there are also signs that print is undergoing the same kind of adaptation that has kept other media relevant.

For instance, Moo, the printer that altered expectations of the standard size of business cards with its shorter Moo Cards, is preparing to offer printed business cards with Near-Field Communication (NFC) chips embedded. As Kevin Tofel explained in a GigaOm article: “Just tap the card to any phone that has an NFC radio. The card will pass data to the phone and even tell the phone what to do with it.” It can open your LinkedIn (or any other profile), play a video, display driving directions, or take any other action available online.

Then there’s the QR code, which has found its way into hundreds of print publications. If you’re reading an article, the QR code is a handy link to additional resources. While a shortened URL would also suffice, you’d need to either be sitting at your computer to enter it or go through the tedious process of opening the browser on your phone and then tapping out the URL. With the QR code, just open the scanner, scan the code, and the content appears.

There are plenty of examples of smart applications of QR codes in print, such as Lee LeFever’s use of them in his new book, “The Art of Explanation,” in which the codes link to explainer videos that illustrate a point Lee is making on the printed page.

Now magazines are also starting to incorporate augmented reality (AR) as part of the effort to enhance print with a digital experience. USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences produces a print magazine, USC Dornsife, which introduced AR in its Fall/Winter 2013 issue (distributed in mid-November). Pages with supplemental online content feature a “Scan for Extras” icon. Using the freely available iOS or Android app, readers simply hold their phones to the page. In short order, the smartphone responds with the related content.

In the example below, I used the virtual version of the magazine available on the publication’s website:

Dornsife has partnered with Metaio, the German AR company behind the Junaio AR browser. Using the Metaio Creator, the magazine’s editors upload a digital version of the print page and assign a Web action to it. When scanned, the server recognizes the page and performs the action.

I experimented with the service for one of my clients, which has a large population of manufacturing employees. The idea was simple: We’d post a page on factory bulletin boards featuring a picture of the plant manager and a title, something like, “The Plant 22 Report.” Employees would scan the image and watch a two-minute video update featuring their plant’s manager, with a new video produced weekly.

However, we abandoned the idea only when we found that there was a limited number of smartphone models with which the software works. (We’re keeping the idea in our back pockets, though, since the technology is likely to expand to more phones while over time employees will likely acquire more current models.)

Print has plenty of characteristics that remain desirable even as the utility of digital content improves. For example, I always carry a magazine with me on flights. When passengers are told to turn off anything with an on-off switch, I see many reach for the SkyMall magazine in their seat-back pockets just for something to read during taxi and takeoff.

Of course, we could talk about several other benefits of print, from the increased loyalty of print readers to the longevity of print versus the ephemeral nature of Web pages.

The point is that print is adapting to the digital world by finding ways to be relevant and incorporating digital functionality. There may be less of it in the long run—for instance, some newspapers are looking to publish less than daily, while Newsweek has gone online-only—but as long as the producers of print media continue to explore new interactive tools for their products, and new ways to be relevant in the digital world, print will continue to have a role to play.

Are you integrating digital capabilities into your print efforts. Let me know in the comments section.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.

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