The death of the PDF has become something of a WonkComms mantra of late.
Any digital enthusiast trying to make the case to their more traditional colleagues to move away from the much-despised format will have circulated with glee the recent report from the World Bank showing that almost a third of their PDF papers never get read.
The criticisms are well-worn: PDFs are hard to navigate; they display badly on smartphones; they hark back to a bygone era of hard-copy publishing.
So the think tank world has been embracing HTML-based alternatives like digital longform publishing with gusto – and with beautiful and user-friendly results: from The Century Foundation’s Finding Home to Demos’s Quarterly, Policy Exchange’s hilariously named Smaller, Better Stronger Faster and the King’s Fund’s Quarterly Monitoring Report.
Indeed just last week the IPPR’s Condition of Britain report, described as the ‘Magna Carta’ for social democracy came in a web-friendly longform format, in a wonderfully apt tie-up between the birth of publishing and its current incarnation.
But the death of the PDF has been proclaimed before. And interestingly, while longform clearly has a place in the modern think tank’s menu of publishing choices, most of the examples listed above come alongside a downloadable PDF file. That includes the World Bank’s report on the pitiful performance of their PDFs – an irony not lost on those reporting and sharing the story.
So why is it we find it so hard to move away from a publishing format invented in the early 1990s which is, as Joe Miller claims, essentially a hack – and one spectacularly ill-suited to the plethora of ways in which people now access online content?
Now, I’m no publishing or digital expert and there are cleverer people who write on these pages and elsewhere about the way forward for digital publishing. But as someone who works daily to connect researchers with their audiences, here are three reasons why, like the print editions of the newspapers, or the 00.01 embargo, I think the PDF will be sticking around for some time to come.
And if I’m plain wrong, or you think I’m a relic, please do leave your comments below and tell me why!
1) People like a print-out
Hands up who prefers to read documents in print? Yes, thought so. And hands up who likes to scribble on documents with a pen or even a highlighter? Yup, me too.
When you spend your life straining your eyes in front of a screen, some time alone reading a wodge of paper, free from the distractions of Twitter, email or the news is a necessity. PDFs are hard to beat for easy printing. Boring but true.
2) People like a page number
Think tankery occupies a spectrum between academia and journalism. And both sides of that equation love a page number – academics for their footnotes, journalists for conversations like this: “the killer stat you’re looking for is in the graph on page 9”.
While the concept of numbered pages is an anachronism in a digital publication, the language of page numbers is a universally understood way to navigate dense documents. The PDF does the job nicely – and does so with a reassuring permanence that evades easily edited HTML copy.
3) People like an attachment
“I hear you’re publishing a new report next week. Can you send over an embargoed copy?” A common request for press and public affairs wonkcomms people.
I’ve noticed that the humble email is often overlooked when we talk about the future of think tank comms. But the ubiquity of email amongst what I’d wager is pretty well 100% of our target audience, makes the email attachment an essential tool, especially for distributing material under embargo. That alone makes PDF a tough competitor – especially as it takes little specialist skill to create one.
The PDF is undoubtedly flawed. And the explosion in alternative ways to communicate think tank research – from Buzzfeed to longform, infographics to animation is brilliant (and the essence of WonkComms).
But until think tanks and their audiences embrace a radically different notion of think tank research (perhaps by ditching the linear model of storytelling altogether), I suspect that the clunky old PDF will be with us for some time to come.
Leonora Merry is Media & External Affairs Manager at the Nuffield Trust, who will soon be experimenting with alternatives to (or at least additions to) the PDF…