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Gen Z Actually Likes Print, But It’s All About The Aesthetic

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I’m Gen Z and I’ve never subscribed to a fashion magazine in my life, but when I moved into my college dorm, I splurged a whole $30 on a clothbound hardcover Kate Spade coffee-table book at T.J. Maxx just so I could display it on my desk.

It was beautiful, and it still sits proudly in the center of my desk, surrounded by a stack of Steinbeck books, a ceramic jewelry dish, a lamp, and a gold pencil jar. I didn’t buy it because it had interesting articles inside telling me the top 10 hottest swimsuits of the season or who wore what at Milan Fashion Week. I bought it for the aesthetic.

With all the tips, tricks, news, and advice we could want at the tips of our typing fingers, Gen Z has the problem of too much information rather than too little. There’s enough info vying for my attention on social media and in the news that I have no reason to want more of the same thing in magazine format. (Factor in the political propaganda that’s in vogue at places like Vogue, and I’m even less interested.) Harry Styles gracing a magazine cover in a light blue Gucci dress is not an aesthetic I’m interested in. Neither are the “raw nude photos” Cosmopolitan has used to glorify obesity. But what my generation does love is beautiful aesthetics.

It’s not that Gen Z is against paper copies; actually the opposite. A survey of 300 students at American University found that 92 percent preferred reading physical books to reading online. Reuters also found that, in an age of “fake news,” Gen Zers tend to trust what we read in print more than what we read online. The average member of Generation Z will also spend an hour per week reading magazines, according to Folio.

So if print isn’t the problem, what’s making so many magazines switch to digital-only content? Teen Vogue responded to declining print sales by switching exclusively to an online format in 2017. The next year, Condé Nast got rid of the regular print copies of Glamour magazine after losing over $120 million in the previous year. Seventeen did the same thing after a decline in subscriptions.

But getting rid of print isn’t what Gen Z wants. We are the generation that prints out square artistic photo prints with thin white borders and arranges them in collages on our walls — it’s like Instagram but better because it’s real life.

Why Young People Love Print

There’s a reason companies like Rifle Paper Co. thrive among young customers. Millennial Anna Bond started the paper goods brand in Winter Park, Florida, in 2009 and brought in over $22 million in 2017. What makes Rifle Paper Co.’s (print) designs sell? “Our customers just gravitate towards the aesthetic,” Bond told Fast Company in 2017. “I think the brand is more about the design and the look.”

Bond’s “distinct, Southern twee aesthetic for gouache-painted florals and scripted hand-lettering” is what makes Rifle Paper a lifestyle brand, Fast Company’s Aileen Kwun concluded.

In a similar way, Joanna Gaines’ “Magnolia Journal” has already gained an audience of more than 5.5 million after beginning in 2016. Gaines’ brand is cohesive, centered around the HGTV show “Fixer Upper” and the Texas-based design company she and her husband Chip run. From her magazine to her line of home decor products at Target to her TV show, Gaines has created a recognizable aesthetic that draws people in. And yes, my Gen Z friends buy her print magazine.

It’s not just having a recognizable, charming aesthetic that brands such as Magnolia and Rifle Paper Co. have in common. They also understand the appeal of their smaller, more personal size.

“This generation loves independent businesses, and they love local,” the owner of Greer, a Chicago-based greeting card company, told Marie Claire.

British company Stack, founded in 2008, capitalizes on this personalized, small-business appeal in the magazine industry. Stack pledges to “hunt out the best independent magazines” and deliver a new magazine title to subscribers each month.

In 2018, the New York Times noted the increasing popularity of small independent food magazines in an article titled “A New Generation Of Food Magazines Thinks Small, And In Ink.” Twenty-year-old Shayne Chammavanijakul is one of the entrepreneurs fueling the trend; when she started foodie magazine Dill in 2017, she began with 10,000 print copies.

“Other publications are limited because they cater to such a large spectrum of people,” she told the New York Times. “With us, everything is unreservedly traditional.”

The ‘Built-in Reward’ of Physicality

I can’t speak for every member of my generation, but I can confirm a lot of these apparent trends based on my own choices and those of my friends. We aren’t as anti-hard-copies as you might think. Several of my Gen Z peers (including my roommate) own record players and delight in record-hunting at thrift stores. I keep a physical journal, as do many of my friends; I don’t think I know anyone who journals online.

“There’s an inherent built-in reward that comes from something’s physicality,” argued David Sax, author of “The Revenge of Analog.” “To touch something, hold something, to look at something, to smell something, to have to go out into the world to acquire something may seem like an inconvenience,” Sax continued. “But actually, it’s incredibly rewarding, because it engages us in all our senses.”

Gen Z values authenticity and aesthetics, and print can often achieve those forms better than online content can. The print industry needs to lean into that strength rather than just replicate the same content that can be found more conveniently on the internet.