By Richard Romano on February 6th, 2012
Via Don Carli on The Facebook Machine, over at PIWorld, an interesting new take on the whole print vs. online/“which is greener?” discussion. It reported on a study recently conducted in Finland by publisher Alma Media “determine the life-cycle environmental impacts of three of its newspapers and their respective online services.”
The topline results:
The printed newspaper is, on average, a more ecological news media than an online service. This conclusion is based on a comparison of the environmental impacts of one hour of consumption of each media channel. However, taking into account actual usage volume and consumption hours at the current level, the annual environmental impacts of print media generally outweigh those of a corresponding online service.
The study acknowledges one of the primary difficulties in making head to head comparisons between print and electronic media is that they have very different environmental impacts which are not always easy to compare and contrast. To wit:
The amount of time spent reading does not factor into the environmental impact of the printed newspaper, whereas the impacts of online media are largely dependent on reading time, the number of loaded pages and the technical specifications of the device used to access the service. As a result, conclusions on which type of media is more ecological depend on which functional unit is applied.
The big difference is also where in the consumption process the environmental impacts occur. For print, obviously paper and printing—the front end of the process—are where all the action happens, while for online media, the impacts occur at the back end of the process and involve the production (and, I would add, the powering) of the device on which the content is read. But these impacts can be mitigated:
The publisher can influence the environmental impacts of a printed newspaper by making appropriate purchasing decisions and by improving the energy and materials efficiency of buildings and production operations. The publisher can mitigate the environmental impacts of online services through cooperation with supply chain partners and by communicating with customers on the subject of the ecological consumption of online services. The environmental impacts of content production can be kept in check through the effective management of work-related travel and the methods of transportation used.
Let us also not forget that print and online media often complement rather than compete with each other, and print vs. electronic is not always an either/or proposition. For example, I still subscribe to a fair number of print magazines, and when I find an article of interest and want to blog/tweet/Facebook/etc. about it, I’ll find the online version to link to. And, depending where I happen to be, it will either be from my proper computer, my iPad, or my iPhone. How does all that affect the environmental impact of media? Norman, coordinate!
Anyway, the money quote:
“The results of the study reflect the way different types of media complement each other. Comparing print and online media side by side is not necessarily what we should focus on. Instead, we should examine them as complementary media channels, which is how consumers use them. Knowing the environmental impacts of these operations is the first step in developing effective measures to mitigate them. We should also keep in mind that the media and media technology industries represent approximately 2–4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while media plays a crucial role in building a sustainable society through the content it publishes”, explains Minna Nors, VTT’s Research Scientist in charge of the project.
I heartily concur. As I have repeatedly said in this space, the transition from print to digital media has been happening for a wide variety of reasons—mostly having to do with cost, convenience, timeliness, and relevance—and few of those are strictly environmental in nature (all those “go paperless and save a tree!” exhortations notwithstanding). Print will always play some part in the media mix, but we should be looking at the environmental impacts of all media and work to make better decisions to “green” all the myriad ways people choose to communicate.