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KELLNER: Print vs. digital is ‘paper or plastic’ of publishing

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

There are two ways to buy an issue of National Review magazine: You can subscribe to the print edition, or to the digital edition. But buying print no longer gets you the digital version, as I learned last week.

In July, the publication decided to split off the two sides, partly because most digital customers weren't interested in print, and because most of their print subscribers weren't looking at the digital version, according to a phone chat I had with Erik Zenhausern, the magazine's circulation director.

By splitting off the two versions, National Review hopes to count the digital readers in a better way for circulation reports, he added. (To be fair, I should note that The Washington Times also sells separate subscriptions to its print and digital editions.)

The venerable conservative journal isn't the only publication standing athwart the Internet, yelling "Stop!" to digital double-dipping, of course. Time magazine will give you an iPad application to read an electronic version of the publication, but count on paying for each issue, even if you're a subscriber. Ditto for the New Yorker (yes, the New Yorker), which launched its iPad edition Monday, and for several other magazines.

I'll leave it to marketing experts and media scholars to discuss the business wisdom, or the lack thereof, in making this switch, but the changes in electronic delivery are part of what I believe is an hour of decision for us consumers: instead of "paper or plastic" — where those choices are still permitted — it'll be "printed or digital."

This is, in turn, going to have some profound effects on how we consume our media, and the information it delivers. I haven't quite decided whether all those changes are for the better, but it's something we as consumers (users) need to think about.

Obviously, the tactile feel and total convenience of a printed book or magazine is not easily duplicated with an iPad or eReader of some stripe. Books don't need batteries or Wi-Fi to operate; I can sit at my desk and gaze at bookshelves stacked with an assortment of titles, each evoking a specific memory. But while I can carry a few dozen, or a few hundred, books on my iPad, I'd need a handcart to carry the same number of print volumes around with me. That wouldn't be very convenient for the plane or the commuter bus.

So what do you do when the same item is available digitally and in print? Do you buy just one version or both? It might be a sign of insanity on my part, but sometimes I'm buying both. And, sometimes, it's the print product that contains some disappointments.

Take that all-time best-selling book, the Bible, as an example. Recently, B&H Publishing Group, the book-creating arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, released its Holman Christian Standard Bible translation in a study-Bible version. The printed version, in leather, weighs 4.4 pounds and costs about $65 at Amazon.com. As of today, you can get the iPad/iPhone version for $9.99 at Apple's App Store, though that price is described as a "limited-time offer" online.

I've worked with both products and find the print volume rather heavy (and the "genuine leather" rather lacking in substance, sad to say) and a bit unwieldy, even with thumb indexing.

By contrast, the digital version offers all the same study notes and word studies, the illustrations and timelines, and one can zip from verse to verse quickly and easily. This is a total change from decades of relying on printed Bibles for quick access to the Scriptures.

For now, I'm still getting National Review in print — my "dead-tree" subscription runs out in May, I think. But perhaps I'll renew for the digital version. How many of us do this — across a wide range of titles, of course — will have a great impact on the future of publishing.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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