A.J. Leibling famously observed, “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” (Your witness, Mr. Murdoch.) These days, though, it may be more apropos to talk about the advantages of owning branded content, the largest share of which still reaches its intended audiences in the form that Leibling revered above all others: print.

The Custom Content Council (CCC), a trade group for custom publishing, recently reported that corporate America’s spending on the production and distribution of branded content—media created by businesses for marketing and customer relations purposes—came to nearly $1.4 million per company surveyed this year. Print accounted for 43% of the spend, with electronic and “other” media representing 35% and 12% respectively.

The custom publishing of branded content is a $47.2 billion industry in the U.S., according to CCC, which heard from about 200 companies as part of the research for its 2010 Spending Study. The group’s 10th annual Characteristics Study, released last May, reported that nearly one-third (32%) of respondents’ marketing, advertising, and communications budgets were dedicated to content marketing in 2009. The share dropped slightly (to 29%) this year, but 31% of those surveyed for the Spending Study said they expected to increase their investment in custom content in 2011.

Some of the growth will occur at the expense of other kinds of marketing activity. Nearly seven in ten (68%) of Spending Study respondents said that their organizations are shifting moderately or aggressively from traditional forms of advertising and marketing to investment in branded content, content marketing, custom publishing, or custom media. (This shift was among the trends noted at last month’s “Media Evolved” Conference, sponsored by Advertising Age and covered by WhatTheyThink.)

CCC says that custom-published content is on the rise because those who generate it believe strongly in its efficacy. About two-thirds of marketers (66% and 63% respectively) are said by CCC to consider branded content superior to direct mail and public relations. In another CCC study from 2009, 78% of respondents reported that branded content is “more effective than advertising.”

As social networks and other electronic media grow in popularity as channels for both B2B and B2C communications, print probably will lose ground as a vehicle for delivering branded content. Its share of total spend was smaller this year than in 2009 (43% vs. 51%) despite the economy’s emergence from recession.

But, if an article in a custom publication produced by a leading vendor of printing technology is correct, there’s still a big role for ink-on-paper to play in the media mix for branded content.

According to the latest issue of manroland’s expressis verbis, downloadable in PDF here, print holds many “trump cards” in corporate publishing thanks to the faith that the medium continues to inspire among marketers and consumers alike. The article says that among 160 German companies surveyed by Stuttgart Media University, 97% of those with more than 250 employees use magazines to communicate with their customers. About 15,000 printed B2B and B2C titles are said to be published annually in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, resulting in the production of more than 950 million copies.

Citing CCC data, expressis verbis says that more than 40 billion copies of 124,000 custom-published magazines were produced and distributed in North America in 2009.

What accounts for the popularity of branded content in print? According to expressis verbis, people just trust it. The German Postal Service has found, for example, that 70% of readers would recommend their custom-produced magazines to others. Even more (89%) believe in the “professional competence” of the titles. Perhaps best of all for marketers, 72% of readers confirm that the magazines succeed in bringing customers closer to the companies that issue them.

CCC reports that about half of all branded content initiatives take place with the help of outsourced services from custom publishing firms, marketing and p.r. agencies, video producers, and other providers. Reliance on outsourcing is especially prevalent in projects involving print.

All of this strongly suggests that the question for printers to ask of their business customers who aren’t producing branded content in print is, Why aren't you?

And doesn’t it also cry out that the follow-up question ought to be, How can we help you to get started?