Measuring the footprint: dead trees vs live text

Artlink | Vol 29 No 4, 2009

This article was based on a presentation to the “Changing Climates in Arts Publishing” forum organised by Artlink magazine in Sydney.

“Information wants to be free.” You’ve probably heard this quote before. It has become something of a truism in the digital age. The statement from which it is extracted, made by Stewart Brand at the first Hackers’ Conference all the way back in 1984, was somewhat more nuanced. What Brand actually said was this:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free. because the cost of getting it out ls getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

So information wants to be free, and information wants to be expensive. Here is the tension all media laces in the digital age. If you are a media creator- an artist, writer, editor or publisher – you probably want your product to be worth something. The traditional mechanisms of distribution helped to serve that end. If you are a media consumer, however, you want to pay as little as possible. The new modes of digital delivery serve that end exceedingly well.

On the environmental aspects of print versus digital, the first point to be made is that electronics are not exactly eco-friendly. Making a computer takes more raw materials and energy, and produces more waste on a weight-for-weight basis than manufacturing a car. But lest this fill you with a false sense of consolation about print publishing, here’s a quick reminder of what it takes to get a magazine into a reader’s hands.

First a tree has to be chopped down, then transported to a mill where it is chipped. This is where the vast majority of our logged old-growth forests go – not to make beautiful furniture but wood chips to supply the world’s demand for paper.

Those wood chips are then loaded onto a container ship and transported to a pulp mill. Pulp mills are generally located on the coast because the pulping process requires huge volumes of water, and the ocean is a handy place to discharge equally huge volumes of effluent – including dioxins. a bio-accumulative carcinogen created through bleaching wood pulp with chlorine. From there, pulp fibreboard is transported (usually via ship) to a paper mill.

The paper is then transported to printing presses hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Depending on the press, the first several thousand copies of your printed magazine are likely to go straight into the bin as inking and colour registration are calibrated.

Then the magazines are transported to a distribution centre, either to be mailed or sent to news agencies; of the latter something like half will probably not be sold and end up being pulped without anyone ever reading them.

Of those that are sold, their purchasers might keep them for a week, a month or a year before throwing them away. Hopefully they put them in the recycling bin.

According to the Worldwatch Institute: producing one tonne of paper requires 2-3 tonnes its weight in trees, with 55 per cent of the global paper supply sourced from virgin trees; 38 per cent from recycled wood-based paper and 7 per cent from non-tree sources. The pulp and paper industry is the world‘s fifth largest industrial consumer of energy and uses more water than any other industry to produce a tonne of product.

I think, therefore, that from the point of view of minimising environmental impact, online publication beats print hands down.

Needless to say, though, the main driver of the trend to online is not environmental concern but consumer convenience and choice. and the drift of advertising that has followed. Newspapers have been the first to suffer because their traditional advertising streams (classifieds) are highly adaptive to online search solutions. Display advertising is following, because online targeting gives advertisers more accountability over their spend.

Another problem for the average magazine publisher, particularly the small publisher, is that cover price is an even more crucial part of the revenue stream than it is for newspapers. There are very few examples of successful internet models based on getting readers to pay the same for online editorial content as they were once prepared to pay for a hard copy.

This is a deep bind for established print publishers – how to preserve an increasingly precarious traditional print revenue model while grappling with the need to compete online. How to do both when the latter inevitably means cannibalising the former?

There are no easy answers. If there were, media empires would not be crumbling or newspapers laying off staff and even shutting up shop.

But magazine publishers have no choice but to think about about it sooner rather than later. For now there’s still life left in dead trees. The experience of paper is still far superior to online in terms of portability and presentation – especially when it comes to long-form writing and pictures. But devices like Amazon’s Kindle reader or the iPhone are just a precursor of what is in the works.

Digital paper – essentially a computer screen as thin as a magazine cover – will erode whatever experiential advantage paper now has to online. When that happens, I think, any magazine publisher that hasn’t invested in the capability to compete online or fundamentally rethought their traditional publishing model is dead.

“Information wants to be free; and information wants to be expensive.” How to negotiate this paradox? Open source is a good place to start if you’re looking to understand the dynamics of the digital economy and how a magazine might survive, and even prosper, in the face of such disruptive technological change.

I’m going to end with two quotes from the technology writer Kevin Kelly, who wrote a prescient book a decade ago called New Rules for the New Economy; 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World.

First: “Ubiquity drives increasing returns in the network economy. The question becomes: what is the must cost-effective way to achieve ubiquity? And the answer is: Give things away. Make them free.”

Second: “The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance ls human attention.”

You may also like