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The View From the Tree : 34 Tricks Printed Magazines Can Do That Apps Can’t

March 14, 2012 By D. Eadward Tree
It seems like only yesterday when we first heard about iPads and thought they were feminine hygiene devices. Now we in the publishing industry are talking so much about iPads, Nooks, Kindles, and their e-brethren (or is it e-sistren?) that we've lost sight of what ink on paper can do.

Doctors' waiting rooms that used to be bursting with a wide variety of "public place" magazines now sport only a handful of health-related titles. (Diabetes and You? Ooh, hand me that. I need to catch up on my sleep while I wait for the doctor.)

It used to be a big deal when you sold a fancy gatefold package to an advertiser. Now you'll get pushback from some premedia specialist complaining that the piece can't be re-created in this or that electronic format. We have quickly forgotten or overlooked some of the tricks printed magazines can do that have not yet been matched by electronic magazines (or by websites, for that matter).

Sure, electronic editions have their advantages. I've never heard of a Nook edition getting caught in the U.S. Postal Service's FSS (Flats Shredding System) or having out-of-register ads. You can embed sound or video, track click-throughs, count how many people saw an article or ad, and do all kinds of other tricks that would make Gutenberg's head spin.

So, which are better, printed magazines or electronic editions? The answer is the same as Ron Paul's reply to the infamous boxers-or-briefs question: "Depends."

It's like asking whether newsstand copies are better than subscriber copies. Better for what? And why would you choose? Magazine publishers are now living in a both/and world rather than an either/or world (and sometimes it seems like a both-this-and-that-plus-this-and-don't-forget-about-this-and-is-there-an-app-for-that?-world.)

Anyway, here are 34 things (bolded) you can do with printed magazines that you can't do, or do very well, with electronic magazines:

Be 3D: The e-world is flat. At their best, digital editions can sort of replicate belly bands, flaps, tabs, gatefolds, pop-ups, blow-in cards, embossing, and other pieces that make printed magazines a three-dimensional experience. But it's not the same. Even the fanciest iPad app is a two-dimensional medium.

• See me: Foil stamping, metallic inks and fluorescent inks create colors and visual effects that cannot be replicated with a digital device.

• Sniff me: Until they make a Nook with Smell-O-Vision, you can't put scented varnish or scratch-and-sniff inserts into an electronic magazine.

• Touch me: Varying how different parts of the magazine feel can communicate messages that words can't convey. An ultrasmooth insert says luxury. Textured paper grabs attention. The rough edges of a business reply card subtly remind us there's a call to action. A fabric swatch or special coating let us sample how a product feels. And stiff paper is especially suited to for Viagra ads.

• Peel me: Printed magazines can engage the readers' hands in so many ways beyond just flipping pages—cut out this recipe, peel this strip, tear along the perforation, pull out this card, open this product sample, gently remove this centerfold and hide it from the wife and kids.

• Fruit vandalism: A recent issue of Lucky Peach took the "peel me" tactic to a new level with a page of mock fruit stickers—for example, "Suspiciously Foreign Tomato," "Hand Harvested By Poor People," "Eat Me," and, for you J. Alfred Prufrock fans, "Dare to Eat a Peach" with a picture of T.S. Eliot. When shoppers started placing the little messages in produce departments and trying to use the "$6 Off Entire Purchase" stickers, Lucky Peach got kicked out of Publix supermarkets, and generated more than enough free publicity and online copy sales to make up for the lost newsstand sales. Try that with an app.

• "Like a version": Print magazines routinely mix a variety of regional and demographic offerings to create hundreds or even thousands of versions, such as affluent women in the Illinois portion of the St. Louis area or soybean farmers in southwest Pennsylvania whose subscription is about to expire. In theory, you can do that with electronic versions, but for the most part the software, procedures or workflows—and sometimes the customer data—is sufficiently lacking to make such versioning practical or profitable.

• Getting it for free: Some of you are reading this article in a copy you picked up at the Publishing Business Conference. Has anyone at the show handed you an app? Free print copies are an effective means of reaching targeted audiences at airports, hair salons, car-repair shops, hotels, hospital waiting rooms, and even in people's homes.

• Expose yourself: The U.S. newsstand system is in serious trouble, but it's still the most powerful way of getting a consumer publication in front of potential readers. Having a strong product on the newsstand even boosts e-edition sales and Web traffic. It's no coincidence that the app world has borrowed the term "newsstand" as a place to show off a selection of publications.

• Size matters: Digital screens can't do justice to a full-page spread. But small can also be beautiful: Digest-sized booklets, tipped-in product samples, half-page inserts, and narrow pages are real stand-outs in print.

• Keepin' it real: Many thanks to Deborah Corn of, who stirred up a helpful discussion about magazines among fellow print geeks at the Print Production Professionals LinkedIn group she manages. Deborah chipped in with this cutting-edge commentary: "With Print as your starting base, you can enhance that content with Augmented Reality or Documobi—and make that experience richer. Unless you have two tablets or two mobile phones, you can't do that with digital alone." Don't ask this old print dinosaur to explain: I can't move on to Augmented Reality until I learn to handle regular Reality (which my stoner friend says is just a crutch for people who can't handle drugs). PE

D. Eadward Tree is the pseudonymous Chief Arborist for Dead Tree Edition (, recently named by industry commentator Patrick Henry as one of the top 10 blogs for printers and publishers.


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