During an interview published last week, in which he spent a great deal of time talking about the importance of digital, Lionel Barber launched a robust defence of print.
Barber, editor of the 125-year-old Financial Times told the Guardian's Roy Greenslade that print is "still a vital source of advertising revenue", and added:
I want to make sure the newspaper survives for quite a while. It's also a fashion accessory, a marketing device. And some people, admittedly our older buyers, still want to read newsprint.
Look, we're engaged in a delicate balancing act in this period of transition. It's like a seesaw and we don't want to slam down on one side. Let it drift down without calling up a storm. We need to make a managed transition, and that's what we're doing.
All straightforward stuff – the challenge of the transition to digital and the enduring pleasure of newsprint. But how about the FT as "fashion accessory"? Dwell on that for a moment.
A few days after reading this interview, I came across a (small) series of essays which attempted to answer a deceptively simple question: What is a magazine? Kicked off by Christopher Phin and followed up by Alan Rutter and others, here was a collection of thoughtful ideas and definitions.
Among those definitions, Rutter suggests that a magazine is:
An experience, not a commodity . . . Magazines that were primarily functional (classifieds, listings, basic news) have been the hardest hit by the rise of digital. But buying most magazines is an emotive act rather than a rational one. Vogue is not 'task-oriented'
Okay, so the FT is not a magazine – and it is probably more "task-oriented" than Vogue – but emotion matters as much, as Barber appears to acknowledge.
Don't believe it? Well here's the leader of the free world back in 2009:
I read the Financial Times before other people read the Financial Times. Now it’s trendy and everybody carries around a Financial Times
The Ogilvy & Mather-created “No FT, No Comment” advertising campaign crystallised and propagated this idea, just as the memorable White out of Red poster campaign aimed to do for The Economist (“Somebody mentions Jordan. You think of a Middle Eastern country with a 3.3% growth rate.” etc).
Magazines and newspapers are (or can be) fashion accessories, status symbols, a badge of honour, membership to a club. That’s certainly possible in print but it’s a little trickier in the digital world where the device, not the publication, has become the symbol of status, the badge of honour.
In short, nobody knows what you are reading on your iPad mini.
The very thing (anonymity of reading habits) that allowed E L James to attract a critical mass to her trilogy of novels might also stop digital magazines from reaching their potential.
Replicating that sense of emotional attachment for an app or HTML 5 website remains the challenge – and I doubt newspaper membership schemes such as Times+ and Guardian Extra are the solution.
Several years ago I suggested that Moleskine might be the model for newspaper survival, a profitable niche aimed at those “who crave the aesthetic of the printed newspaper as much as Moleskine owners crave their little black and bound notebooks”.
Perhaps digital publishers also need to discover their Moleskine moment.