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Why magazines matter

As we relaunch, our journalist Ella Rhodes considers style and impact in the printed form.

25 November 2016

We love magazines at The Psychologist. Although our roots and appearance may have been that of a strange hybrid of journal and magazine, at heart we are clear about our identity. Every now and then, our reader surveys will throw up a comment such as 'Seems to be more of a magazine than anything'. We believe that's a good thing, and that it's time to remove any doubt. With our January edition print relaunch, we hope to become unapologetically 'magazine'. We believe that magazines matter.

But is this just a sentimental attachment to a dead format? We've put a lot of time and effort into our presence online and in other forms of media lately… is that (increasingly) where the real action is? Is print irrelevant to the first generation of 'native' digital readers? Or does the research, by psychologists and others, suggest that magazines retain concrete benefits – and even intangible, mysterious advantages?

Left to our own devices

Let's get this out of the way: there are undoubted benefits to our various digital offerings. With our free apps (both The Psychologist and Research Digest), you can have dozens of issues and hundreds of the latest studies in your pocket, offline; you can search, share, jump off to other sources. With our Research Digest podcast you can catch up while you go for a run, or do the gardening. So why, whenever we ask the question of whether you would be happy to receive The Psychologist in digital form only, do we get a resounding 'no'?

Dr Nicola Yuill (University of Sussex) has recently completed research looking at the differences in child and parent interactions when reading a book or a tablet. She said reading, and the switch to digital reading we're seeing, encompasses many psychological questions about attention, comprehension and memory. But interestingly, the way we physically act while reading print is radically different to reading on screen.

Yuill and her team filmed interactions between children aged between seven and nine, being read to by their mothers and vice versa either using a hard copy of a book or reading on a tablet. She told us there was little difference between retention for the information read, but what was interesting was the posture adopted for reading the hard copy. 'There were some interesting differences in warmth and engagement. When they're reading the e-book children tend to be in a "vulture posture", crouched down and hunched over the tablet, but reading a paper book they tend to be in more of a curled up posture. From a relationship and embodied point of view they're quite distinct.'

Yuill thinks that screen reading should be seen as distinct from, rather than an alternative to, print reading; especially while the former is still 'finding its feet' in terms of how the material is presented. She said: 'I don't think it's an "either or". What I'd like to see is more work on the design of electronic print. We're at a difficult stage where there are lots of different platforms to read online – the technology is always changing. It's a very plastic kind of technology. But the cultural meaning of the object is important: when developers try to make a digital offering the same as a paper one, they're approaching it from the wrong direction. It'll never be the same, because the device you're using affects your approach to it.'

Matt Hayler (University of Birmingham) is an English Scholar who has worked closely with cognitive scientists, and a member of E-READ (Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitisation), an interdisciplinary network that connects psychologists, philosophers, social scientists and humanities scholars to develop a model of what it means to read and what electronic reading might change. His work has looked into the 'grammars' or unconscious rules we all have when approaching objects. Hayler told me that e-reading just doesn't feel 'right' to some because we are yet to develop a set of 'grammars' of how to approach it. 'When we're left without a standard way of approaching something we feel incredibly lost. For anyone who's learnt how to drive a car that feeling is very familiar: the first time I sat in a car it didn't feel like this piece of technology that would enable me to go places, it just felt like this terrifying thing. I had no standard model for how to interact with it, but you develop these standard models over time and they become the most natural thing in the world.'

I ask Hayler about Nicola Yuill's view, that print and screen reading are very different experiences. Is it only a matter of time before new generations see the two as equivalent? He suggests that as a society we view print reading as a totemic experience of what it means to be intellectual. 'We're not trained how to digitally read in schools, we're just trained how to read as if that's the same thing. And by not being sensitive to both of the experiences we always think of electronic reading as an impoverished version of paper reading, rather than thinking electronic reading and paper reading are important and are totally different skills.'

Jenny Thomson, Reader in Language and Literacy at the University of Sheffield, whose work explores the neuroscience of learning difficulties in children and developmental dyslexia, thinks that adults often struggle to have a 'flow' experience while reading on screen, perhaps because our brains are just so used to reading in print. She does feel the 'next generations' will handle this better: 'A lot of what children read is going to have lots of things trying to entice them to click here and click there, but I do think they will probably have a better time reading on screen and e-readers than we do.'

When living in Boston, Thomson worked with an astrophysicist at Harvard who had severe dyslexia. He told Thomson his reading ability was much better when reading on an iPhone screen. She carried out a study on high school students with dyslexia and found they could also comprehend quite extended texts, both fiction and non-fiction, when they presented them on a smartphone, compared to paper or even an iPad. 'That small window of text really helped them, but for people who have learned to read traditionally the idea of reading a novel on a smartphone induces pain!'

Thomson does point to disadvantages of reading online. 'We've got these massively powerful companies doing research essentially on how to get us to be distracted which results in commercial gain for them. Websites are designed to be multimedia and appealing but the big online players in this world are working on how we can get you to move from thing to thing – our brains don't stand a chance!'

However, this constant bombardment of ads and hyperlinks doesn't seem to be a problem for everyone. Research has shown that those with a smaller memory capacity have a huge dip in their comprehension when reading a text packed full of hyperlinks, but those with stronger memories seem to have improved comprehension. Thomson said: 'It almost makes them fight harder to create a kind of comprehension schema, and so they retain more. This has massive implications for textbooks and the digital design of these.'

So with benefits of digital reading – some obvious, some less so – why are we so attached to print? According to Thomson, 'it's partly how we're wired and partly a generational thing. Whether this will change over the generations I just don't know… we associate that physicality and even smell with really positive experiences and I think it can be hard to let that go. I wonder whether children will have the same nostalgia for digital… presumably they might, it just seems less of a pleasurable physical experience.'

More than information

Others I speak to keep coming back to this physicality of magazines. Journalist Ferris Jabr, author of the excellent Scientific Mind article 'The reading brain in the digital age', thinks that magazines matter. He describes them as 'chimeras': 'As physical objects, magazines are larger than the average paperback book, offering a generous canvas for words and images, which means more opportunities for visual landmarks that help people establish a sense of progress in a text and remember where in the publication they read something. Because they prioritise visual aesthetics throughout their pages, not just on the covers, magazines create a highly sensory reading experience, which improves memory. And because they are generally not regarded as permanent fixtures for the bookshelf – because we bend, fold, rip, clip them without much concern – they encourage sharing and social reading.'

Matt Hayler returns to that idea of a set of 'grammars' – in the case of magazines, developed over decades. 'A magazine is something you can cut things out from, a magazine is something you're happy to leave on a train or doctor's office, you'll use it as a coaster or fly swatter… there's something very functional about a magazine'. But Hayler also points to another advantage, suggesting that magazines are both playful and a serious arena in which to curate content – something that is becoming increasingly important in our information-heavy world. He added: 'Magazines like Wired still have their print edition but when the entire internet is full of technology news there's editorial principles, design principles, and you know you're getting the good stuff. This is so relieving and important in the face of a glut of information. It kind of gives people permission to say "if you only read this once a month that would be okay".'

According to Professor Bruce Hood (University of Bristol), what's in a magazine is more than just information. The printed word has an ability to become a sentimental object as well as an owned object. Hood explains: 'To become sentimental, an object must be authentic – a uniqueness that is increasingly important to many of us in this digital age of reproduction… Take a book… the closer it is to the author in reprint, the more authentic and valued it is. The smell and touch of the printed word is not something that digital formats can copy. When reading in print the reader is required to engage with it in a physical way that technology cannot easily emulate.'

Beneath and beyond

So, a magazine can be a 'sentimental object'… can we do better than that, and find more tangible benefits of the printed word?

Psychologists Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai have written that an immersion in reading that is largely online 'tends to reward certain cognitive skills, such as multitasking, and habituate the learner to immediate information gathering and quick attention shifts, rather than to deep reflection and original thought. The immediacy and volume of available information may well delude new learners into thinking they have what they need to know.' When information seems so complete, they write, what motivation is there to go beneath and beyond it? 'From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, the digital culture's reinforcement of rapid attentional shifts and multiple sources of distraction can short-circuit the development of the slower, more cognitively demanding comprehension processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking.'

Perhaps, then, magazines reward that greater cognitive effort. Ergonomics research on this appears increasingly conflicted and outdated – for example, this 2008 review – but psychological studies led by Rakefet Ackerman at least suggest that readers approach the printed word with more of a learning mindset than they might on a screen version.

This perhaps more arduous, linear journey through the printed page is aided by what Ferris Jabr calls 'more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open magazine presents a reader with two clearly defined domains – the left and right pages – and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the magazine begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a magazine is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail – there's a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has travelled. All these features not only make text in a magazine easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text. In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.'

Jabr refers to the importance of 'serendipity and a sense of control' in navigating the printed word, and points to research which suggests many readers skim through online text before printing it out for more in-depth reading later. All of this brings us back to that depth of understanding, and research led by psychologist Kate Garland suggests that print is the winner here. Speaking to Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist for, Garland explained that when you recall something, you either 'know' it and it just 'comes to you' – without necessarily consciously recalling the context in which you learned it – or you 'remember' it by cuing yourself about that context and then arriving at the answer. 'Knowing' is better – you can recall the important facts quicker and with less effort. 'What we found was that people on paper started to "know" the material more quickly over the passage of time. It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.'

Best of both worlds

Perhaps the destination is the same, and the bottom line is your preference for how you get there. Screen and print reading are perhaps best viewed as complementary, rather than competing, entities – clearly there are benefits to both. But as you sit with the latest incarnation of The Psychologist in your hands, we hope that you will value it and engage in a way that you might not with our digital offerings. We encourage you to take a look at our other channels, but we stand by our view that magazines matter. Let us know what you think… you are our guides on this journey!

- If you're not a member of the British Psychological Society, for this month you can see what the relaunched issue looks like in a special open access digital edition. But do consider joining!