How Print Magazines are Losing Core Readers

Dear Colleague,

Earlier this week, I got my annual physical (the doc says I’m in good shape for an old guy). My new MD looks to be about 35 making me about 15 years his senior—me having just turned 50 last December.

While waiting in various states of dress and undress, I found myself trying to read Time and U.S. News. I say “trying” because the type size in both print magazines was too small for me to read comfortably—even with my reading glasses in a well-lit room. My guess is that both magazines are running some variation of a 9 to 10 point serif typeface with some degree of compression.

I’ve had this experience before and talked to other over-40 magazine readers about it. It seems that none of the big newsweeklies care enough about older readers to bump up their type size and put in a little less content or make the magazine a few pages longer. Most research I’ve seen has concluded that 11 point Times Roman is the optimal font size for maximum readability for someone with near-normal vision. Making the change from 9 point to 11 point, would require 22% less content or 22% more pages. This seems to be too high a price to pay to maximize the usability of the medium for the core audience.

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This lack of user-centered design is, of course, hastening the demise of print.

In contrast, user-centric online publishers have the no-cost option of letting the user control the size of the type to some degree. In usability lab testing, we’ve found this feature to be very popular with the over-40-crowd. To see how it works, go to Johns Hopkins Health Alerts and check out the three A’s in the upper right hand corner.

Usability is no longer a nice-to-have for media products. Media products that are difficult to use will simply be replaced by those that are easy to use. Digital magazines, like those produced for the Zinio Reader, offer the user the ability to zoom, search and manage their subscriptions online. This is a step in the right direction, though still limited by the PC as a platform.

Print magazines will go the way of the horse and buggy, once the digital technology becomes cheap, portable and with fidelity and convenience that quickly pass ink on paper.

In the meantime, magazine publishers would do well to consider making their products a bit more user friendly to us old folks.

There’s no reason to hasten the demise of print by ignoring the needs of the user.

All the best,

Don

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