Gimmicks and the Decline of Print

In an article published this week on Folio:‘s Web site, Jill Ambroz reviews a panoply of print “innovations” that, she writes, “are breathing fresh air into a mature industry that is battling its own digital counterparts for survival.” It’s hard to tell how seriously she takes these innovations, especially as she twice refers to them as gimmicks (not counting the headline).

Either she believes the words are synonyms, or she’s sending a not so subtle message about her true feelings. Or perhaps she’s just fulfilling an obligation to be objective by looking for a middle ground between credulity and skepticism.

Fortunately, I have no such obligation, so I’ll just say it. They are gimmicks. That is, cheap tricks designed to attract attention, not tools to convey information. Far from saving print, they simply confirm its decline.

As gimmicks go, they are effective. What’s not to like about technologies like 3-D lenticular covers, tri-perf mix-and-match cover photos, or e-ink inserts—or the pure joy, evidently, of being able to “literally feel and hear” the head of a video game character tearing off as you turn a page? Maybe Esquire‘s recent augmented-reality issue fell flat, but at least it was fun for a few minutes to try it out.

To their credit, even the proponents of these gimmicks seem realistic about their value. The point is not to reverse the decline of print, but to get attention while you still can. “In this era,” Esquire‘s editor told Ambroz, “when everyone’s excited about new media, we need to do everything we can to make older media as exciting as possible.”

The reason these innovations cannot do more is that they, in essence, transform the medium of print into an object. They don’t enhance the communication potential of a magazine; rather, they give you reasons to possess it as a physical thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if, a hundred years from now, issues of Esquire appear alongside stereopticons and wind-up toys on a version of Antiques Roadshow.

I’m all for magazines playing with such gimmicks. But let’s be clear. True innovations they’re not.