By Charlie Corr

The recent introduction of Kindle, a wireless electronic-paper display that Amazon claims looks and reads like real paper, has resurrected the paperless debate. For print providers, this is a frightening thought as most of the value we provide is directly related to paper. While the primacy of print is being challenged, the reports of the death of paper are greatly exaggerated.

With the proliferation of media outlets, there is no lack of facts and opinions on this topic. The line between them has become blurred with opinion often being presented as fact. What follows are some facts related to paper use:

  • United States Postal Service mail volume is higher today than in 2000. Postal service data shows that for Q3 of 2007, compared to Q3 of 2000, total mail volume increased almost 6 million pieces.[1]
  • Cut sheet paper, the type we use in our homes and offices, is up 336,200 tons in 2007 over 2000, an increase of 6.3%.[2]
  • Book sales remain strong in the U.S. as publishers reported selling 3.1 billion books in 2006, up 10 million books from the year before.[3]
  • While from 2003 to 2007, the top U.S. newspapers lost 1.4 million copies in daily circulation,[4] overall readership is only down 2.4% since 2000 and 48.4% of adults still read a daily newspaper.[5]

Depending upon your timeframe and perspective you will draw different conclusions about the future of paper. A review of a wide range of data indicates that paper isn’t dying but is not growing very much. That may be the definition of mature.

Certain applications like direct mail, packaging and photo-related output are growing, others are stable (statements) or in decline (newspapers). The use of paper also varies by geography, with higher growth in developing markets.

Competition with other media is displacing print. It is forcing print providers to compete by demonstrating the effectiveness of printed paper, a point which has gone unchallenged for centuries.

Some reasons paper will not die for the foreseeable future.

  • Internet access is not universal, so mail remains the primary method of delivering transaction documents such as bills and invoices as well as marketing messages. While Internet adoption rates continue to rise, it is unlikely that it will ever reach the near 100% coverage provided by the postal service. A recent study in the U.S. found that only 62% had home Internet access.[6]
  • The Future of Mail and Transaction Documents Study concluded that the value of printed transaction documents will remain essentially stable, dropping .0066% a year through 2010 and that revenue related to printed direct mail will continue to increase at 4.5% a year. Demographic factors such as population growth, a better educated workforce, growth in the economy and a preference for paper based communications drive this forecast. The ability of the postal services to provide delivery to virtually every address and a lack of a universal e-mail directory will continue to limit movement to viewing only.[7]
  • There is a strong consumer preference for direct mail. A survey of 850 adults found that 60.6% preferred direct mail when being contacted for marketing or promotional purposes.[8]
  • Locations/situations where it would currently not be practical to view electronic text include reading a newspaper on the beach or near any water; reading without access to power for a long period of time; and where the use of electronic devices is prohibited, such as in air travel during take off and landing.
  • Paper is an efficient carrier of information. It has an intimacy of interaction. Paper lasts with limited backward compatibility issues.
  • Reading from paper is 20% to 30% faster than reading from a screen. Viewing results in lower accuracy for tasks such as proofreading and causes more eye fatigue. Evidence suggests that comprehension is higher and that ability to read and annotate, to navigate quickly and to facilitate spatial layout favors paper over viewing. Reading results in a deeper understanding of text, a better sense of structure, and making it easier to interleave reading and writing as it combines tactile and visual learning. There is an end-user preference for print that is related to flexibility, culture, and ease of use. This preference increases with high quality typography and print and is not age specific.[9]

Literally millions of printed documents exist and most are not going away anytime soon. From the classic movies Anchorman and Dodgeball we gain a clear understanding of the prestige associated with the printed page that is not found with viewers like Kindle. [10]

Even the generational argument against paper has its limits. Paper isn’t only for old folks. While those who have been raised in a connected world are less likely to use paper in some cases, they are more likely to use it for photo related output. Two major studies on transaction document use that I led did not show significant differences in the use or preference for paper based on age except for the very old. Variances and preferences were due to income and education.

While reports of the death of paper are overstated, those of us in the printing and publishing industry must do more to demonstrate both the value and continued preference for print. We must also work to make print more relevant and timely. Just as TV didn’t kill radio and the Internet has yet to kill TV, it is unlikely that new media will result in a paperless world any time soon.

[1] United States Postal Service

[2] InfoTrends, U.S. Cut Size Paper Market Forecast

[3] Book Industry Trends 2007, an annual report published by The Book Industry Study Group

[4] Editor & Publisher

[5] Scarborough Research Top 50 Market Report, 1998-2007, Prepared by NAA Business Analysis & Research Department (Rev. 8/2007).

[6] Pew Internet Project February-March 2007 survey of 2,200 adults

[7] InfoTrends study, The Future of Mail in North America 2006 - Direct Mail, Transaction and “Transpromotional” Documents, Charles Corr, Project Director.

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Hot off the Press, Why Print Still Works in Learning, presentation by Charles Corr at Chief Learning Office Conference, October 2007. Specific sources: Dillon, A (1992), Reading from Paper versus Screens, a Critical review of the Empirical Literature, Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326; Muter, Paul (1996), Interface Design and Optimization of Reading of Continuous Text, University of Toronto; O’Hara, Kenton & Sellen, Abigail (1997), A Comparison of Reading Paper and On-Line Documents, EuroPARC.

[10] For those not familiar with these classics in Anchorman, Ron Burgundy introduces himself  to Veronica Corningstone  by claiming he has “many leather bound books.” In Dodgeball, White Goodman introduces himself to Kate Veatch reading a book which he hopes will impress her (that unfortunately she recognizes it as a dictionary).