Is print dead? It’s a question I’m asked all the time – in fact, for the 14 years I’ve been in publishing.
These days, however, I no longer have to field so many queries about the slowest death ever. I’m fortunate enough to work in one area where print is thriving: Luxury.
There’s a natural fit between print and luxury: The quality and craftsmanship that goes into a magazine is much like the quality and craftsmanship that goes into a refined product.
To answer your question, then, print is not dead. Rather, it has also become a luxury good.
If you’re a company which, for example, devotes 18 hours of labour to the construction of a single handbag, you are saying something about your brand: You’re unhurried, you value quality above all, you provide a product that most others are unwilling or unable to produce.
When developing a branding tool, you will look for a medium that reflects those values. That’s where print comes in. Our answer to the niche art of old-school hand stitching is an adherence to the niche art of old-school journalism.
Even after our stories are assigned and edited, we still invest in fact checkers to verify our sources.
That means, if we say “a blue mist rose over the mountains in the morning,” our fact checker gets on the phone to a local meteorologist to determine whether the refraction of light in combination with that specific time of day would cause A) mist and B) a blue-ish hue.
We still employ a copy editor to go over each piece of text with a fine-toothed comb, to systematically (some might say anally) root out obscure grammatical inaccuracies and ensure consistency with our extensive editorial style guide.
We still invest in proofreaders to lend fresh eyes to the pages before they go to press. Our art director spends the night at the printer once an issue to watch the pages coming off the machine and correct for any colour discrepancies.
Print is not dead. Rather, it has also become a luxury good.
These once-standard practices have become increasingly rare. Many publications have simply stopped putting content through its paces as a means of cutting costs.
Minimal quality control is the new norm in print as it struggles to keep up with the fast pace and low cost of digital. As Poynter.org revealed in a 2012 article on how Newsweek’s decision to phase out fact checkers has resulted in embarrassing errors: “Today, it’s viewed as a luxury.”
Aside from our processes being luxurious, so too are our materials. We go to great pains (not to mention great expense) to select high-quality paper stock that feels rich and creamy on the fingertips.
We seek out beautiful, textural cover treatments (varnishes, embossing, foils) that convey worth and substance.
We work in oversized formats that signal to readers “these magazines are keepers,” meant to linger on a coffee table rather than being tossed in the recycling bin when the next issue arrives.
So why do we still take the extra steps that many magazine publishers have long since abandoned? Why does Valentino still take the extra steps to make couture gowns?
Building a brand lifestyle
Douglas Elliman, a luxury real estate brand, recently revamped its publication to include travel and lifestyle content in addition to the usual property listings.
In an October 2014 interview with Luxury Daily, Nicole Oge, the brand’s global chief marketing officer, had this to say about the value of print publications:
Today, it is no longer enough to supply clients with market data and simple property listing information alone. By illustrating our markets from a lifestyle perspective, Elliman magazine [speaks] to buyers, sellers and renters in more meaningful ways.
Oge also describes a point that is key – a discriminating level of savvy that is unique to the luxury consumer:
Smart and sophisticated individuals want a fuller, more comprehensive sense of what a brokerage has to offer. Through Elliman magazine and the stories within its pages, we hope to achieve just that.
When the Elliman brand does make an appearance on the pages, it’s to reveal an otherwise untold part of the company story.
My recent favourite example of this approach has been The Karl Daily, a newspaper produced by fashion design icon Karl Lagerfeld.
Think of it as Vogue meets The Onion. From the first issue in September 2014 with its debut headline, “Haute off the press,” The Karl Daily has entertained its readers with clever content (even Lagerfeld’s cat, Choupette, has a column). Over the top and self-indulgent, yes, but then that is the aura of Karl.
The publication is a fantastic way for fans to engage with one of fashion’s most iconic figures, outside of the retail environment. But, of course, the idea is to eventually convince people to buy and that’s where building brand engagement through storytelling comes in.
Luxury mall Bal Harbour Shops in Miami (A.K.A. America’s most expensive retail square footage) does this with the print-digital one-two punch of a weekly e-newsletter and monthly magazine.
These aren’t glorified brochures, but thoughtful pieces of content that stand up to any consumer publication.
Think designer interviews, social pages, fashion-world news and beautifully displayed pieces (jewelry, clutches, shoes) that single out the spectacular.
That they all have a link to the mall is a mere footnote, but one that’s compelling enough to build ongoing engagement and encourage repeat shopping trips.
Reach out and touch someone
The luxury brands turning to print are also coming from an unlikely place: The web.
Print’s tangibility is being sought by strictly online businesses as a way of lending a physical component – a body – to their brand. A great example of the digital-to-print trend is luxury shopping site Net-a-Porter’s Porter magazine, launched last spring.
The beautiful fashion and lifestyle glossy is headed up by Editor-In-Chief Lucy Yeomans, formerly of Harper’s Bazaar U.K., who according to Women’s Wear Daily, promised:
The power, expertise and reach of Net-a-Porter will also offer [a woman] the experience and service that she has come to expect, turning inspiration from the page into accessibility within seconds.
And, indeed, one can pick up the magazine from a newsstand or by a subscription and shop directly from its fashion spreads with a page-scanning app.
The digital-to-print model is one being picked up across the board. One has only to look at Airbnb’s November 2014 launch of travel mag Pineapple and Etsy’s printed holiday “magalogue” to see how brands are using print to help turn the incorporeal into something you can touch.
In contrast to the above examples of modern custom-published magazines, a new crop of consumer magazines is demonstrating how a print product can deliver both ways. That is, not only can print publications build a lifestyle around a brand; print can build a brand around a lifestyle.
They include Kinfolk, a gorgeously photographed coffee-table book of a magazine focused on wildflower strewn, paper-lantern lit “small gatherings;” Four & Sons, about dogs who wear designer sweaters (and their equally stylish humans); and, my personal favourite, Modern Farmer, a magazine based around the kind of producers whose cows can be followed on Facebook and whose cabbages come with the papers of a Cabbage Patch Kid.
In fact, Modern Farmer began as a TV script based on a fictional magazine covering back-to-land entrepreneurs.
What founding Editor Ann Marie Gardner (who has since left the organization) uncovered, however, was such a wealth of untold stories that she abandoned the show altogether.
“What it needed to be,” she told The New Yorker, “was a lifestyle brand with a magazine and a website to explain it.”
Perhaps the food analogy is a good way to describe this recent revival of luxury print publications.
We went from small-batch, organic and artisanal everything for centuries to TV dinners in the ’50s. We’ve only just swung back around to wanting those meaningful connections with food again. (How “meaningful” you get, of course, depends on how much you’re prepared to pay.)
The same can be said for the craft of producing (and the satisfaction of consuming) high-quality magazines.
But with the rate of technological change being what it is, luxury brands don’t have to wait half a century for the pendulum to swing back in print’s favour. It’s already there.