Vale the medical newspaper – or not

22 minute read

Australian B2B media’s last true weekly newspaper, Australian Doctor, is going monthly this year – but we could have a vinyl-type marketing comeback.

Over Christmas, I finally bought something advertised to me on Instagram.

After virtual bombardment – the algorithm sniffed me out earlier in the year, locked on and wouldn’t get out of my feed – I succumbed and ordered what is essentially a “digital” gadget called the reMarkable 2 (I already strongly suspect I’ll never use it).

I was eventually sold by its smooth-as-silk video, which opens with the voice-over:

“Paper is an exceptional tool for thinking … it lets your mind roam freely, without restrictions, it lets you focus, without distractions, but … what if paper …”

The video features fit, Scandinavian-looking, bearded, arty-hipster entrepreneur types, who seem clearly to have their act together – in fashion, in business, in life. 

There’s also a whiff of Indian mysticism in there somewhere, I think, although by ad number 156 in my feed, I might be just projecting that.

Long story short, the reMarkable 2 is a super-cool-looking, super-thin digital-ink device that feels like paper in every respect when you use it (according to the video, that is, as I haven’t got one yet), which you can take notes and sketch on as if it were a real paper note-pad.

Although digital, it has stripped itself of most digital distractions (maybe that’s the mysticism flavour I get) such as social media notifications and email access, the video explains. 

There are no connections to anything online while you work, and the digital-ink technology isn’t anything like an iPad or Surface Pro, both of which have pen-based note-taking functionalities, but both of which also use backlit pixel screens (so yesterday), and include instant access to thousands of actual useful applications

It feels like you are getting a lot more for your money with an iPad or Surface Pro (you are), than with the reMarkable 2. 

But you aren’t being minimalist, mysterious and cool, that’s for sure.

You can upload what you write or sketch on the reMarkable 2 “paper” easily to your “real online” devices or the cloud, so what might have been in a notebook locked in some cupboard or lost at a café one day is stored forever and retrievable instantly, and searchable. 

Ooooooh. I want to buy it again now.

You can even turn your scribbled notes into typed text … something I’ll never do as I have a weird thing for trying to decode my unintelligible handwriting after the fact.

I take lots of notes in actual paper notebooks to help me understand a subject, and a story. 

When I take notes, I draw stuff to help me remember things, with arrows, exclamation marks and other weird symbols. 

Sometimes I’ll add a manual table or Venn diagram as a shortcut to something someone says, none of which you can do easily on a laptop or iPad. 

Often I’ll do notes over notes … such as, “actually, this guy is a d***” … which might end up not as a written note but a symbol of some sort that I’ll almost never understand later.

The thing is, I hardly ever go back to the notes I make. Almost never, in fact. 

Note taking is never going away, and neither is a history of every note you ever took if you like

It’s taking notes that’s the important thing for some reason. 

On paper.

Paper is almost 2,000 years old and must have been somewhat magical to those who first started using it. Printing (on paper), almost 600 years old, was probably even more magical once it got going.  

That magic eventually became day to day for most people and societies, and then, after 2,000 years or so on the front line of being very important and practical to day-to-day life, whatever magic there may have been once in writing on paper for all that time seems to have been almost entirely dissolved into nothing by digital technology in less than 20 years. 

Boof: thanks Bill, Jeff, Mark and Steve. I did not see that coming in 1983 when I bought my first computer (286-16 intel chip, running DOS and Word Perfect).

After being seduced into buying the reMarkable 2, I find myself wondering how much of the residual magic of paper may have been obscured by the pace and madness of digital technologies in the past few years. 

If paper really is on the way out so much, why:

  • Are there are no paperless offices still? 
  • Do newsagents still do a great trade in most things paper, or still even exist?
  • Are digital book sales are dropping?
  • Are personal printer sales as good as they ever were?
  • Do most journos love paper notebooks still (just to be clear: I’m not a journo, I just love paper notebooks)?
  • Did I just buy a reMarkable 2?

I think reMarkable 2 worked this all out and used it to seduce me … which is pretty evil when you think about it because essentially, they’ve preyed on my unrealised primal love of the residual utility of paper to sell me a digital gadget.

Until now I’d only ever had two digital gadgets: a phone and a laptop. With them both always went a paper notebook. They all lived peacefully and even synergistically together. 

I wonder what the laptop and phone are going to make of the reMarkable 2. I think they might laugh.

If the written word on paper is just a little more magical than the digital revolution has led us all to believe, then is print media, what’s left of it, at least, really the Black Knight in Monty Python with no limbs left pleading “come back here and take what’s coming to you, I’ll bite yer legs off!”?

Or does print have some actual bite left in it? 

In medical and other B2B media, I think it does. 

(It’s not just the usual digital suspects that are threatening B2B print in this country – but keep reading and I’ll reveal the real bad guy at the end.)

Keeping in mind that I dearly love my vinyl-record collection but rarely actually play the records because it’s such a hassle compared to Spotify, that I’m starting a cassette collection, that I’m old, white and privileged, does anyone think (like I do), that now the global digital imperial platforms have all but destroyed print media, maybe we are at a point where print is a form of media that a lot of us punters find peace and quiet in, amid the madding digital channel crowd? 

When you read print there is a silence (from distraction), that allows you to focus a little more and you seem to have the luxury of introspection (I borrowed all of that from the reMarkable 2 video).

Paper won’t talk back to you if you don’t want it to (but it could if you like with a QR code) and paper won’t lead you down some ever-deepening rabbit hole of links that ends up somewhere you almost certainly never wanted to go.

I still love buying the weekend newspapers (right- and left-wing for balance … old, white male balance), a coffee, finding a sunny spot and reading for a couple of hours.

I just can’t see how you can reproduce that experience online. 

My millennial children (non-white, technically, due to a part-Tahitian mother, direct descendent of a princess apparently, which might explain a few things) read and love print things by the way. I don’t ask them why, but I see it a lot. Not newspapers for sure, but they love paper media.

When I don’t have newspapers, I will read online. It’s very different, though. I usually end up a bit exhausted. 

Reading newspapers, I will often learn a lot more new things I would never stumble upon online. 

Online is very directive in how you click from one thing to another. You get channelled (there’s always an algorithm in there guiding you, friends) and usually you end up snapping out of it at some point and wondering: “why am I reading this shit?” 

It’s hard to do that with a newspaper. You move on in the flick of an eye and where you move is much more random. You just browse to the next article and move on if you don’t like it. And there’s an end to it. The last page of the paper – the sport usually.

I’m not saying reading in digital is bad. 

I’m just saying it’s a different, that print hasn’t died so far, and digital isn’t going to kill it much, if any, more, despite many predictions of its impending demise.  

A form of equilibrium is being reached with print media, I think. 

By the way, sometimes if I get on “reels” on Instagram (flipping short video clips that are popular and moderated for you by an algorithm designed with some horrific intent), I lose time and emerge many hours later, none the smarter for having gotten completely lost online.

I might as well have taken magic mushrooms in the desert, like on that episode on Entourage (I’ve never taken magic mushrooms, Steven).

It can be captivating and entertaining (digital media, not magic mushrooms) but I often wonder what happened at the end, and am frustrated, tired, confused and sometimes all of the above. 

My mum told me not to take drugs when I was young as the family genes didn’t have the constitution for it (that’s why no magic mushrooms, Steven). 

I instead tell kids, don’t do “reels” on Instagram. No one has the constitution for that.

OK, that’s the intro to this piece about where print is going in medical B2B media in Australia. 

Long intro, huh? 

But context is important here. Paper in the context of digital.

I’ll try to be brief from here (lol).

There is some actual data to back up some of what I say past this point (more than a sample of one old, white male at least), in case you’re still here and wondering.

Late last year, I was told by a buyer in the medical media market that this year the most-read print publication and the only weekly business-to-business (B2B) newspaper left in Australia, Australian Doctor, was going monthly this year.

End of an era, I thought immediately, albeit an era hardly anyone but an old B2B publishing nerd like me would care about (and maybe some GPs who’ve been around forever). 

Last July, the Medical Journal of Australia, which was fortnightly, ceased print publishing altogether so perhaps Australian Doctor going monthly isn’t that much of a shock.

The folks at Australian Doctor Group might deny this still, as there’s a fair bit of cachet in the media-buying world around being the only weekly trade paper left in the country. 

But I think my source is good.

There is already talk (mainly from the monthly competitors in the market; not us – we are clinging on to fortnightly for some reason) that if it isn’t weekly any more, Australian Doctor would lose that most-read-medical-publication spot after almost 40 years at the top.

A quick glance at the September 2021 Australian Audited Media Association (AMAA) figures reveal that in fact, Australian Doctor wasn’t even weekly in 2021. It had 36 issues. Sneaky. But probably covid induced, so forgivable.

I looked high and low and this was actually it. 

No trade print weeklies left in the market in Australia. 

The economics just aren’t there any more, apparently.

The computer market and pharmaceutical markets were always the biggest B2B markets in Australia. 

I think the computer weeklies were the biggest B2B print publications once, but

back in its day (I was there for it), Australian Doctor ran 142-page issues at an advertising-to-editorial ratio of 60% ads to 40% editorial. 

That’s 85 full pages of ads. In today’s terms, that would be more than $600,000 in one issue. And given that back then it did nearly 50 issues per year, well, it was printing money.

I also remember that in Reed Business UK about the same time, Computer Weekly generated about 26 million pounds of revenue per annum and within a few years of the launch of an email IT job board competitor, it lost 22 million of that.

Digital versus print had started in earnest. I think that was all around 2002.

In the past year of Australian Doctor being a “nearly weekly”, I think its biggest issue might have been 42 pages, and paid ads made up maybe 40% of that book. So, 17 ad pages in the 2021 biggest issue, versus about 85 pages in biggest in 2002. 


Perhaps. Read on.

With such a trajectory, is the step down to a monthly frequency the “middle of the end” of print for Australian Doctor

It doesn’t have to be, I think, although, for reasons separate from commercial viability, it might be. I’ll get to that.

Monthly issues, good long-form journalism, bright tabloid format all managed the right way feel like it can work. 

The Saturday Paper, a consumer-based weekly newspaper covering issues in long form by good journos, started in 2014 against all major print versus digital trends at the time, and has been successful pretty much from its first issue. 

Why wouldn’t a big bright tabloid with some good browsable material, an esteemed history and brand, written by some good journos, not attract the attention of a GP who is taking a hard-earned tea break?

I think it will, if done right.

Notably, dropping to a monthly frequency nominally appears to put the paper head to head with two other surviving A4 medical-journal-style magazines: Medicine Today and The Australian Journal of General Practice (previously Australian Family Physician).

These, I would argue (powerful sample of one here), won’t really compete with what Australian Doctor will probably do as a monthly in attracting readers – which is hopefully going to be topical, issues-based, good long-form journalism.

The other surviving major print publication is The Medical Republic (us), of course. We are staying fortnightly (I think), and if anyone buys my logic in this article, we may be OK.

The journals will continue to do what they have always done – publish clinical articles by non-journalists mostly (sorry, but yawn), reviews of clinical topics written by local specialists or GPs with good expertise, peer reviewed to some extent for a sprinkling of clinical credibility. It’s good educational content and that is important, but it’s not much fun, and often not very interesting. 

In the game of eyeballs, the tabloids have an advantage, I think. They are topical, storytelling, journalism based. The journals are clinical, and there is an awful lot of that stuff at your fingertips online any time you want it.

There is long-standing and credible research in the medical market that says the “tabloids” are read very differently from the journals. Tabloids do stories and journalism; clinical journals do clinical medicine reviews. Simple. 

There is even longer-standing and more-credible syndicated readership research in the medical market that consistently suggests that, in this market, print is read a lot more than digital. 

That’s a bit awkward for some agencies and media people because it doesn’t synch with how most digital consumer media performs, how most people placing ads and content conduct their own average media day (that is, they use a lot of digital media each day), and mostly not how medical media is viewed by the big global companies at HQ, where either prescription drugs can be advertised to the public (they can’t here), or, where the local regulatory and pricing regime for drugs is very different to Australia. 

Part of the problem, if indeed you see it that way, is that there are only about 22,000 GPs who you need to get to for influence in Australia – which is a very small and targeted group really. Combined with local regulations for advertising drugs, and a long history of very strong print titles, print is technically still king in impact and reach.

Readership in print is a combination of receipt (how many doctors receive a publication) and brand (how many doctors know and respect it enough to open it and read it every time they receive it). 

For the past 37 years, Australian Doctor has won the syndicated research, but it has always been a weekly in that time and the two clinical journals are hoping that its move to a lower monthly frequency will remove some advantage and see them go to the top. 

If that happens, it might be a bit of a pyrrhic victory. Australian Doctor has been owned by private equity for many years now, and has been very busy building and pushing its digital credentials as a more digitally centric offering, a data one even, so it can be sold for a lot more than a print-centric business can. There’s a likely upside in having no print in this equation one day soon.

Their marketing people have tapped into the awkward situation in the media-buying market really well and convinced a lot of clients to spend really big on digital, and not so much on print. 

In the last official and syndicated medical media research, done in 2019 (covid has stopped the past two years of research being done but it will resume eventually), GPs were asked whether they read a particular medical print publication in the past week, fortnight or month (each of the frequencies that existed back then). 

The main medical GP publications got scores of 70%, 68%, 57% and 51%, respectively. Compared digital readership these are all good numbers. But if you think about not entirely surprising because in the digital world, whatever you do, you compete with everything else vying for you person’s attention on their mobile phone. In print, it’s mailed to them. It sort of stands out as something quite separate from the madness of the hyper-competition for attention on a mobile phone.

There is so far no common agreement on how each of the medical publishers compare their digital performances. 

Each presumably shows their clients their online analytics, and clients can check this information for themselves by putting tracking tags on their ads. This can be tricky, though. 

Up front, I’m going to say that you really shouldn’t try to compare print and digital against each other because the two mediums are very different in what they can do and how they do it.

But people will always try.

In terms of impact (I read it/saw it in digital versus print) per dollar spent, you get a simple and, to some, surprising result: in this market, print beats digital hands down. 

There are a lot of different iterations to take into account in digital but averaging things out, and putting your finger in the air, the cost per impact (CPI) of print is about 80c, and digital at least $6.

This feels a bit crazy and might be. If you want the detailed calculation behind that result, I have it, so email me if you like.

Again, it’s unwise to compare the two mediums.

In a digital execution, you can track, have live links, insert video and do all sorts of other digital wizardry that can lead to amazing things, such as a doctor actually making a live appointment to see a rep after they read some content about something. 

That’s hard to do in a print title, and difficult to put a value on in the context of the above, although you might argue you can do it in a manner now in print, using QR codes.

You could spend a lifetime arguing the merits of digital over print in ROI and cost per impact. 

Im not trying to argue somehow that print is better than digital by showing you a cost per impact calculation.

I just want to get your attention in respect to the idea that maybe as readers and advertisers we’ve been too distracted by digital in the past few years to see the actual utility of print that is left for us all to enjoy as readers, and use, as marketers.

The reMarkable 2 people seem to have sussed all this out. 

I suspect we may have sleepwalked just a little inside a lot of digital noise in the case of B2B marketing in the past few years, which isn’t surprising as anyone left from the old media world is like one of those unkempt and unwashed survivor types you’ll see in every dystopian post apocalyptic movie.

Back when the B2B medical market was non dystopian and very cluttered with a lot more players, products and opportunities, I used to work on a concept with clients that I called finding your brand some “clear space”.

In print, more than ever these days, you seem to have your target person in “clear space”, albeit a weird and disconnected one.

The upside is that it’s quiet, and undisturbed mostly. The downside, if it is a downside, is that it’s mostly disconnected.

reMarkable 2 makes a case that the disconnection is not a downside but an upside these days.

Should you pay a premium or discount for that quiet and disconnected space?

I’m still not entirely sure. 

But I suspect we should pay more relatively to what we pay now, although that’s probably never going to happen.

If there is some sort of equilibrium now with digital now, will B2B print die out altogether one day still, as so many have predicted over the years?

It almost certainly will, unfortunately.

But not because of what you’re probably thinking: the endless march of digital.

No, it’s Australia Post that will kill print publications now, not digital platforms.

Australia Post is unregulated, and has a licence granted by the government to profiteer in a monopoly manner on its business postal service. 

And it does this in a brazen manner. It raises the price of distribution in business post each year by an average of nearly 10%. Imagine if you tried this on even in banking, which we all know is already a comfortable oligopoly.

It would not be tolerated anywhere else in the community or business world by government or the public. 

Maybe some printed media will survive – certainly the consumer press that doesn’t entirely rely on Australia Post has a better chance.

Maybe newsagents somehow will keep morphing and will survive as distribution points, or, maybe, that other horrible digital platform, Amazon, being also the world’s distribution Godzilla, will figure something out for the last of our B2B print publications. 

That would be some sweet irony, getting my Medical Republic delivered every fortnight by drone, along with a few other impulse online buys.

By optimising distribution techniques, and eventually dropping print runs to where they can still be justified to advertisers, print B2B has some good years left in it, maybe up to 10 years even, so no giving up just yet, anyone.

As a sort of side note that might be interesting to GPs, I don’t think Australian Doctor in print is going to last that 10 years, although it probably could if it wanted to.

It’s owned by private equity and they are trying to convert the media business of Australian Doctor, and all its clicks, into a digital-only data play for pharma companies. If they succeed, they can sell the business for a lot more than they acquired it for, which is that game. 

Even if the print version of Australian Doctor makes a lot of revenue and profit, without print in the business, the business might easily become many times more valuable in the eyes of some potential digital-type buyers.

It’s a slightly weird dynamic.

Australian Doctor relies on good journalism to attract its readers. What they read, how they read, who they connect to while doing it and so on, online, becomes the data that the PE owners are trying to create for pharma, I think. 

But what Australian doctor (the individual now, not the publication) wants to be profiled in the manner that Facebook or Google has already profiled most of us?

The activity is not particularly egregious or unusual. Most everyone who uses a consumer digital platform and a credit card has been deeply profiled by said platforms, a bank or both (yes, they often combine their data now in a joint effort to get you!)

But I wonder if Australian doctors will still make that same trade-off professionally with medical media websites with their behavioural data, knowing what they now know about digital platforms and how they actually roll. 

It might prove tricky.

Outside of Australia Post’s efforts to kill it for quick bucks, B2B print seems to have found a place in the marketing mix for now, which is almost cool, like vinyl records has for music lovers.

Twenty years into the clutter of digital, it took a digital gadget company to enlighten me as to why paper is still pretty magical and cool.

We humans just love paper. 

We love writing and drawing on it, and we love reading on it.

We are never going to ditch paper entirely.

And if paper really needs to be digital (it really doesn’t, I suspect, reMarkable 2 founder guy) it can be.

Scissors, paper, rocks?

Paper rocks.

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