In praise of paper

Why do most of us prefer to read a newspaper article in its original ink on paper format when a perfectly good Internet version of the original is available? Why do we gravitate towards the magazine version of that recipe rather...

Why do most of us prefer to read a newspaper article in its original ink on paper format when a perfectly good Internet version of the original is available? Why do we gravitate towards the magazine version of that recipe rather than the one that’s Web-down-loaded and ink-jet printed? Have you ever wondered why you might be uncomfortable reading an electronic book as opposed to a real paperback?

I’ve talked to lots of media people about this issue over the years. Most readers share my preference for the real McCoy – book over laptop, newspaper over Web. The explanations behind these preferences have been varied:

‘The original paper version is more convenient… It is hard to cut an interesting tidbit out of a computer screen… The eye is a far more efficient scanning device than even the fastest computer.’

Apart from being an interesting theoretical question, there are practical reasons for wanting to understand the motivation behind these consumer preferences. Media people need to place their clients’ ads in environments that encourage reader involvement. If the target group prefers paper to a Web site, the ad needs to get placed in the paper, not the Ethernet.

For those of you unconvinced that there is a strong, almost sub-conscious human need to be exposed to original media, I strongly recommend Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper by Nicholson Baker. (This is a good book so you’ll have trouble finding it, but it is well worth the backorder wait.) It tells the story of how libraries, in their drive to microfilm and digitally scan books and newspapers, end up destroying the originals in the process. Books are dissected so pages can be photographed, and bulky newspapers are discarded in the false belief that the microfilming process is less expensive than simply building more storage space. The attempts to preserve our paper-based cultural history is resulting in the destruction of our most precious paper-based artifacts.

Particularly fascinating, from my point of view, are the insights offered by Baker as to why humans need original paper formats, and therein lies our media lesson for the month.

What’s so important about the original paper artifact? Is an art postcard a valid substitute for the art itself? Of course not. The postcard has no connection to how the original was designed, created, produced and used by the viewer. The same can be said for an original newspaper article versus an Internet derived copy. The electronic version has no connection to the original design, context, colour, texture or tone. Much is missed when the reader interacts with the scanned replica.

In his book, Baker differentiates between two types of information: that which people search for, knowing it exists – ‘you know you want to know’ – well served by electronic search engines; and information people stumble across in the search for something new and surprising, what Baker calls ‘stuff you didn’t know you needed to know.’

The paper original, especially when gathered in research libraries, is the ultimate conduit of the latter type of information. Quoting from an interview between Ian Brown and Baker in the April 21st issue of the Globe and Mail, ‘There is something about turning a page that is deeply connected within us with the passage of time. You feel the life of a city going by, day by day. You just don’t get that feeling if you’re controlling the little forward button on a machine or clicking a mouse.’

The media planning implication is clear. We need to place ads in environments that offer the opportunity for discovery, because it is unlikely that readers of a magazine or newspaper are reading in order to find my client’s ad. All ads contain the ‘stuff [consumers] didn’t know they needed to know.’

You probably stumbled across my piece here in Strategy by accident. Hopefully the information is valuable stuff you didn’t know you needed to know. You discovered this primarily because it is here, in its original paper form. And it has been passed to you because I discovered the Double Fold book review in the original paper version of the Globe and Mail. You and I have just now experienced the real difference between paper and digital facsimile, and the value of one over the other.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at