A printed word is worth a thousand pictures: Sandip Tarkas

By Sandip Tarkas , Future Group, New Delhi | In Media | May 18, 2010
The assured solidity of the printed word is something that no other media has been able to replicate so far

Did that not sound odd? We've always heard and believed that a picture is worth a thousand words --and not without reason. A picture brings into play the theatre of the mind; wherein the person not only sees what she sees, but is able to add to or subtract from it on the basis of her past experiences. Thereby, much more is actually communicated than could be done through any number of words.

Simply, a picture tells one a lot more than words, but it also says different things to different people. The final message is heavily dependent on past experiences and exposure that the viewer brings to the party. An abstract Salvador Dali work can elicit high appreciation or complete derision, depending on who is viewing it. Such finer nuances are often elevating experiences and make the human existence worthwhile.

However, every now and then, people yearn for something that is certain; something that one does not have to interpret beyond what it seems, and can be taken at face value. Over the past many centuries, the written word has come to occupy that space. (That the written word needs even more interpretation, and thousands of people in black coats make a living from it, is another matter.)

Most people would look at news in media other than print with fascination, delight, sadness, and also a touch of cynicism. Stuff on media such as television, radio, even the internet, often contributes to a certain emotional response, positive or negative, but the written word has one thing -- the 'mere pass maa hai' equivalent for print media is assured solidity.

Most people trust the printed word. Period. They may choose to look at a thousand pictures and get romanced by the pictures, titillated by them, feel sad, elevated, entertained, bored, or fulfilled by them; but at the end of the day, they would believe in the printed word. And the reason is not difficult to find.

Today, we have TV programmes discussing the old legend of "ichhadhari nagin" with a seriousness that makes some of the Pakistani news channel hosts discussing Kasab's Indian origins more palatable. Or, imagine peeping into the past lives of people, who are able to accurately see, and thus, resolve their problems of their current birth, all on live television. I'm fine with these as entertainment; but for God's sake, don't keep your faces straight while talking about them.

Not that our print media is far behind in creating equally ludicrous stories; but all these years of conditioning makes people believe the written word more than anything else.

Many categories in the recent past have made the migration to TV as the primary medium of communication. After all, it is far more cost effective; it is able to convey feelings much better; it is intrusive, and so on. But some, such as retail, have continued relying on print as the primary vehicle -- thanks largely to factors such as geographical flexibility, fast reach and immediacy, its shopping environment, and for being able to convey prices of a whole range of things that the reader can browse at her own pace. The ingrained value of the written word is the key factor at play here.

That brings us to the question of the future of print. For years, the doomsayers have been actively assigning various dates to the impending death of print media. All such forecasts are met with equally vicious and vehement denials from the print media itself. Some of these denials take the form of hard-hitting ads, backed by a lot of statistics. Some others simply laugh it off as another fool trying to gain attention at the cost of attacking the mighty. And yet others level the field, by attacking the credibility of the source from where such forecasts emerge.

While it is reasonable to assume that eventually the print media will morph into something different from today and a "new" print may emerge; to my mind, there is no question of the print media ever disappearing for good.

There is a bold, interesting "idea" on saving paper, thereby saving trees and the world, which is doing the rounds. I'd like to believe that unless the other media do something that adds that one missing dimension of assured solidity of the printed word; print has at least one thing that is uniquely its own.

Whether the consumers of tomorrow would view the electronically printed word with the same degree of assurance as they view the words printed on paper, is something we would all know over a period of time. On the current evidence though, a lot of work needs to be done before we can reach that stage.

So, while in art and in all things subtle and beautiful, a picture would continue to be much more than a thousand words; as far as media is concerned, the solidity and assurance that the printed word commands will perhaps be more than a thousand pictures.

(The author is president, customer strategy, Future Group.)

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