Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

Why print-based media will survive beyond 2020

Posted by Graham Hayday on September 7, 2007

Jeff Jarvis has written an essay on the future of newspapers. Dave Morgan is writing one (thanks to the admirable Mr Jarvis for pointing me to the blog post which outlines his thoughts).

Morgan predicts that, come 2020, “we will have virtually no paper-based media products… We won’t have paper because it is a very expensive and wasteful way to deliver news and information”.

While I agree about the wastefulness point, I’m not convinced that paper-based media products will die such a swift death.

A brief anecdote: I was part of the launch team for the IT news and information service silicon.com (I’m afraid I am one of the hack-turned-flack brigade) way back in 1997. At a party to herald the site’s inception, our CEO Rob Lewis got up on stage and proclaimed that paper was dead, and that online was the future of publishing. He threw copies of Computer Weekly, Computing et al on the floor, which went down really well with the print journos there.

The truth is none of us (including Rob, I’d imagine) believed that paper was dead. His speech was a bit of a stunt (the party was in the Natural History Museum, so we were surrounded by dinosaurs at the time. Geddit? Dinosaurs? Soon-to-be-extinct magazines? Hmmm…) And while some print titles in the tech field have indeed become extinct in the past decade and traffic to online news and information sources continues to soar, the circulations of titles such as Computing and Computer Weekly have held up surprisingly well. Even some national newspapers are doing OK – the FT for example has seen its circulation rise in recent months. I think I’m right in saying that there are more consumer magazines around now than ever before.

Why? These old media dinosaurs deliver something that the web can’t. It is still easier to read long articles on paper than it is on screen. The experience of consuming news on your PDA isn’t as good as it is on paper, so travellers will, on the whole, prefer a paper-based product to an electronic version while they’re on the train, bus, tube or plane. Using a laptop in the bath (which is where I do most of my non-work related magazine reading) isn’t to be advised.

It is true that the quality of mobile technology is likely to improve dramatically in the next 13 years, as Morgan says. That means that some of the usability/readability issues that restrict PDA/mobile/laptop usage at the moment will disappear, as affordable ‘paper-like’ electronic products hit the market.

But Morgan’s quote looks at this from the industry’s perspective, not the consumer’s. I’m sure all the newspaper and magazine publishers would indeed love to go to an all-digital world (assuming they could migrate all their ad revenues online, which is a major moot point and may remain so for years to come). It would indeed save them money.

But does the punter care about all this waste and expense? Even in these increasingly eco-aware times, I’d say not. It doesn’t affect him or her. The Sun costs 20p in the South East at the moment. That’s hardly a major outlay. True, paid-for newspaper circulations are on the wane and are likely to dwindle further; some titles may well disappear before 2020. But nearly 1.5 million copies of the various freesheets are picked up every day in London. This is wasteful, certainly, but they satisfy a demand – and it’s a demand that’s unlikely to go away any day soon.

Will digital media really kill paper? One day, maybe. But not by 2020.

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