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.

Earth to Esquire: Get Real

Last year it was an e-ink electronic display on the cover; this year, it’s 3D special effects—if you have a webcam handy, anyway.

As I learned this morning from Mashable, Esquire magazine’s December issue will feature something called augmented reality (AR). The way it works, as I understand it, is that you can hold the cover and a few other pages in front of a camera connected to your computer and see a nifty 3D, animated version of it on your computer screen.  As an Associated Press story notes, “it may be the future of print or just a dying medium’s last desperate grab at attention as the Internet swallows more of peoples’ time.”

Augmented reality as a concept has been around for more than a decade, as outlined in Wikipedia. The technology is just starting to be realized, in fairly clunky ways. As observed in ReadWriteWeb recently, venture capitalist money is not exactly pouring into AR startups yet. Someday something really earthshaking may come of it, but that seems several years away still.

Even if AR thrives, can it really do much to help print? You have to admire the Esquire staff for trying just about anything to keep their print franchise going, particularly if it can get them lots of publicity. But realistically, it’s hard to see their use of AR as much more than a gimmick.

As I’ve noted in a comment on the Mashable article, Esquire’s use of AR reminds me of the great CueCat debacle of 2000.   The brilliant idea was to distribute bar code readers to magazine subscribers, who would use them to scan bar codes in ads to take them to related Web sites. The problem, of course, was that no one wanted to go to all that trouble to visit an advertiser’s site when you could just type in the URL by hand. Needless to say, the Cue Cat was a Titanic flop.

Holding up a magazine cover to a webcam is, I grant you, easier than scanning a bar code, and the results are presumably more entertaining than an advertiser’s Web page.  Here’s an example of how it might work, using baseball cards rather than a magazine:

I guess that’s cool. But still, how likely is it to become a routine for readers?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t read books or magazines while sitting in front of my computer.  That’s the enduring beauty of print—I can read it almost anywhere, without the aid of technology.

Will I buy a copy of the December issue of Esquire? Absolutely. Will augmented reality save print? Not so clear.