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The print publishing world continues to adapt to survive the impact of the digital revolution, despite consumers increasingly getting the information they want via the Web and other electronic sources, says Rick Poynor

Rick Poynor

The relationship between print and the Internet is one of the most complex and important issues in contemporary culture. Our world was shaped by the printing press, and even the arrival of film, radio and TV did not change this. If you wanted to circulate a piece of writing or some pictures in a form people could easily read, share, store and consult, you committed it to print. Global industries – book publishing, journalism, printing and graphic design itself – developed over the centuries around this need. Print is, or has been, at the very centre of our education and civilisation, moulding our sense of where we have come from, who we are, and what our societies care about.

In a remarkably short time everything has changed. There is already a generation, and a generation of designers, for whom this is so much ancient history, not even worth talking about since it isn’t the world they inhabit. This digital generation has fully adapted to a reality encountered, mediated and interacted with online. Most of what they need can be found in its infinite network and they see no point in mourning for a ponderous, costly, environmentally damaging print culture that has never been central to their experience. For many, reading itself has come to seem much less necessary now.

Yet the old world of ink on paper persists, struggling to adapt and survive. We might be in transition, but we are still many years from being a society without paper-based publishing and printing.

We use the Internet to buy tangible, hoardable books, and book discussion thrives online. Too bad we stopped shopping at Borders and it crashed into administration.

The problem is that, financially, the new model doesn’t add up. Internet pioneers insisted that information wants to be free, and for anyone who wishes to read online it has been a golden age. At the end of the 1990s, I set my homepage to Arts & Letters Daily, a simple but brilliant portal to some of the best writing online from the world’s major newspapers and magazines. They give away their expensively produced words for nothing and, combined with a decline in advertising, this is slowly but surely enfeebling and killing them. The leading American design magazine ID recently ceased publishing after 55 years. Ten years ago that would have seemed unthinkable. An ailing New York Times has just announced that, from 2011, readers will have to pay for news. Rupert Murdoch talks about erecting protective ’paywalls’ around Times Online, The Sun and News of the World.

Many analysts think it won’t work. If it doesn’t, we are heading for trouble. If publishers can’t find a return on the huge investments they make in their businesses, they’ll go under. In some cases, that might not be such a loss. But only the most naïvely optimistic could imagine that an equally effective alternative system will somehow emerge on an amateur, no-funding, non-paying basis. There is a place for the personal blog, but we still need professional publishing.

The issue might seem dauntingly huge, yet design has an essential role to play. A desire to read is at the heart of it. How do we encourage this? Many people, including the Web-savvy young, say it’s impossible to read anything long on screen. A decade ago I felt the same way, but tempted by the wealth of online writing and tired of printing everything out, I got used to it.

Good design and typography are vital for comfortable and pleasurable reading, and online versions of print publications committed to good writing often do this best. The finely tuned Guardian site is much admired and Times Online is engagingly designed, too. The weekly news magazines New Statesman and Spectator both have a confident, characterful online presence, while Prospect’s site perfectly reflects the monthly’s sheen of authority by keeping things clean and uncluttered. Distracting panels, sidebars and ads crowding against the main text column can make an article a pain to wade through on screen.

Sites devoted to books are still some of the most readable around. In the US, The New Republic, an elegant Web partner to the printed version, has just launched The Book, an ambitious online literary review. Best of all, though, is the London Review of Books site. The central text column is framed by two discreet rules and the typography is so well balanced that even long paragraphs are negotiable. Uniquely, the editors provide a word count for each essay. To cite an article, you click on a button to put the details into a choice of four editorial styles. The LRB archive, with more than 12 000 pieces, is superbly searchable, and the site delicately reinforces the poise and ethos of the printed magazine.
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