5 things I learned from working in print

opinion 4 minute read

For four years, I worked for a popular print magazine, developing marketing strategies, selling advertising space and coordinating partnerships. Being a monthly publication, we often jokingly compared it to giving birth once a month: at first you get all excited, then it becomes super hard and you want to die and then all of a sudden it’s over, you’re happy and hold the result in your hands and already forgot about all of the pain. (I’ve never had a baby, but that’s what I sort of imagine it to be like.) It was stressful but exciting and surprisingly, it completely changed the way I look at the internet today.

1. Quality wins.

Most of the print publications that are still around and manage to stay alive, have one thing in common: They either produce extremely trivial content, like tabloids and gossip magazines, or focus on the exact opposite: high quality editorial and design. And the worse the trivial nonsense becomes, the more demand seems to arise for quality journalism.

I often hear people complain about the modern internet and the alledged “death of journalism”, all because lazy millenials don’t read anymore and only want bite-sized pieces of shallow content. And I’ve seen a lot of blogs and online magazines I once liked turn into “You won’t believe what happens next!” monsters. Looking at an average Facebook newsfeed, it’s easy to assume that listicles (like this one) and clickbaity headlines have won the game. But that’s simply untrue. Long-form content gets shared more often than short content. For popular long articles, audiences like length: the longer the text, the more it gets shared. And the social networks themselves play a key role in this. Facebook has been rewarding so called “high quality content” with a higher reach for years.

But it doesn’t stop there. Readability and accessibility have become staples of modern web design and traditional online media outlets have been trying recreate the “magazine reading experience” for the web with some pretty impressive art-directed long-form articles on Wired, Medium, The New York Times and even Pitchfork. This is why I don’t believe in the “death of journalism”. Publishing is now easier than ever and the more fluffy content the internet produces, the more people will want the complete opposite.

2. A deadline is a deadline is a deadline.

The logistics of print publishing can be extremely complex. Printing large quantities takes time, delivery has to be coordinated and subscriptions have to be labelled and sent out. Therefore, a delay is not an option. If it needs to go to the printer today, it’s going to the printer today. And it needs to be perfect. Thus, print deadlines are often harsh and final. No “Oh shit, I forgot. Let’s do it next week!” or “I can’t find out about this now, they’re not answering the phone”. It’s quite impressive, though, how much you can get done if you absolutely have to, and how many things are suddenly possible.

I’ve learned to appreciate and respect deadlines for what they are: the dead final last chance to accomplish something that absolutely has to be accomplished. It’s incredibly hard to get things done without a clear idea of when it needs to be finished. Tasks with no deadlines will always be pushed back and delayed until the last minute (something I’m extremely guilty of).

3. People still don’t trust the internet.

Print is prestigious and instantly makes people take you more seriously. The assumption this is based on isn’t even so wrong: establishing an actual print publication takes a lot more than setting up a WordPress blog and throwing a swanky media kit together. If you run an established print magazine, you’ve made a substantial investment, and you’re going to manage your reputation to protect it. Advertisers understand this instinctively, and obviously value it. And, believe it or not, even fairly big companies still don’t trust online advertising and social media at all. In four years of being in touch with different clients from all kinds of different industries, I’ve witnessed a lot of arbitrary resistance and skepticism regarding online marketing and a lot of unreasonable decisions made because “it’s print so it must be better”.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to take people from “I’ve heard I need to do something on the internet now” to understanding how online media works and what it offers. You need a coherent strategy that plays to the strengths of the medium you’re using. Instead I see people throwing money at Facebook randomly, getting frustrated by the results for obvious reasons, and coming to the conclusion that it’s best to “not do anything with that internet again”.

4. The classic “advertorial” is never a good idea.

Traditionally, print mostly knows two different ways to present “sponsored content”: a PR text that looks like editorial content with a small caption saying “advertorial” somewhere in the corner and random unmarked product placements and endorsements. Usually it all happens in a grey area somewhere in between those two and usually it all ends up looking really bad. I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with alternatives to classic advertorials and new ways of presenting sponsored content in print and online, and the result was always the same: native advertising only works if it’s honest and actually makes an effort to be truly native. And that means, providing purposeful content which is just as good as what the reader would normally expect to read.

Realising this has changed my entire perception of online advertising. I’m glad to see copy-pasted press releases slowly disappear from the internet and one day, this will also happen to boring, self-important brand events and bloggers desparately spinning stories to shill sanitary wipes. (On a related note, I always found it funny how the people who voiced the loudest opposition to sponsored cooperations were usually the first ones to snatch invitations to yet another brand event with free food, drinks and goodie bags.)

5. Print is not dead.

“Oh, it’s print? Does that still make money? I thought print was dead.” While I can totally see newspapers die in favour of real-time online news reporting, there is still a demand for print and the demand is high. People are reading more than ever before. Initially, print was the mass media, and online publications were devoted to niche interests. Now mass media is almost entirely online, but falling costs have opened the door for boutique print publications. The physical and three-dimensional experience of reading a magazine works perfectly for art, fashion, design and long-form reportages. People buy print for the experience. Instead of being a necessity, it has simply evolved into a novelty.

Ines Montani
About the author

Ines Montani

I'm a software developer working on Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing technologies, and the co-founder and CEO of Explosion, makers of the popular NLP library spaCy and Prodigy, a modern annotation tool for machine learning. Read more →