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The New Medium of Print: Material Communication in the Internet Age

by Frank Cost
RIT Cary Graphics Arts Press, Rochester, NY, 2005
272 pp., illus. Paper, $18.00
ISBN: 1-933360-03-8.

Reviewed by Kathleen Quillian


After so much theorizing about the death of print in the age of digital media, it is clear that not only will print never die, it has become an irreducible element in the pursuit of global communications. In the age of information, the savvy media producer knows that in order to build a successful communications campaign, he or she must harness the dynamics of a multi-channel communications structure if all intended and potential audiences are to be reached. The New Medium of Print by Frank Cost makes for a good handbook to embark on the vast and variable seas of contemporary information adventure.

The first half of the book examines the "old" medium of print––the various processes, techniques and histories of print communications––while the second half inspects the uses of print, including much speculation about its relevance in the age of the Internet. Much of the discussion in the book revolves around advertising, since, like it or not, this is the area where the print medium is most industriously and creatively used, thanks to the ingenuity of Benjamin Day, the creator of the "penny press." This revolutionary 19th century business model offset the cost of printing with revenue received from businesses to place advertisements in the publication. Thus began a life-long symbiotic relationship between editorial content and advertising––one that continues to this day in more complicated ways than ever. The relationship between economics, consumer culture, editorial content, and print media is given much attention in The New Medium of Print, in light of today's global market. After all, in our age of capitalist over-consumption, it takes a lot of ingenuity to make people buy things they don't necessarily need or want. Print media is crucial in all stages of this effort from advertisements and direct marketing right down to the label on the product. Cost examines not just the uses of print in every stage of the consumer's journey, but the psychological repercussions of every step along the way––from the first temptations solicited through billboards and direct mail to the navigation of lascivious packaging so abundant in super market aisles. Cost also shows how the Internet, with its multi-channel communication platforms, has become an indispensable tool for the advertising industry and how it can be used successfully in tandem with print communications in the ultimate goal of attracting customers.

One wouldn't necessarily think that a book about the medium of print would be so entertaining, but Cost, along with a cornucopia of knowledge and experience in print production, has a very astute sense of humor that he uses throughout the book to flavor his presentation. For instance, explaining the benefits of digital publishing technology, he introduces the topic by saying: "That book you have always wanted to publish of dinner recipes obtained during your recent abduction by aliens can now become a reality." The humorous language opens up an otherwise dry topic to creative speculation. Another engaging aspect of the book is the use of self-reflection to illustrate the various aspects of print publishing. In a discussion about the various things one can do using digital page design programs, Cost includes a screen shot of the very pages he is describing, allowing the reader to spiral into an esoteric rumination on the practice of page design through desktop technology. By the end of the book Cost engages the reader in a discussion about print-on-demand (which is the method he used for this book) and theorizes about how best to use the new medium of the Internet to add value and dimension to the traditionally printed book. He invites readers to leave comments on his on-line message board with the promise that the most insightful ones will be included in future editions of the book––easy enough to create through the print-on-demand method because of the immediacy to the author.

It is hard to disagree with Cost's argument that print media still reigns supreme by virtue of its quiet dignity in the face of fast and furious digital forms of publishing (spam, blogs, email). But with the virtual collapse of space and time on the Internet, value is no longer judged simply by quality, attention to detail or scarcity. Rather, value is a construct, driven by an entire industry filled with advertisers, marketers and big business ideals. Digital technology has opened up new doors in the print industry unheard of even 20 years ago. Accessibility, distribution, cost, material, and production are all shaped by new technology, and Cost makes a focused consideration of all of these elements in the determination of the evolution of the print medium. For anyone interested in embarking on a project that involves printed media or even for those who are interested in simply thinking further about their place in consumer culture, this is a comprehensive and engaging book to consult.



Updated 1st July 2006

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