Personally, I blame the iPad. Its imminent launch here seems to have stimulated a bout of weltschmerz among newspaper proprietors, who are now outdoing each other in the gloominess of their predictions about the end of the Gutenberg era (c1453-2015, RIP).
Latest to join the swelling chorus is Pearson, owner of the Financial Times. Pearson’s director of global content standards Madi Solomon has come up with the rather snappy phrase “the sunset of print”, which FT executives expect to happen in about 5 years’ time. If anything, the 5-year estimate is a tad on the optimistic side. It could have been sooner but the financial crisis, and people’s avid interest in it, has artificially prolonged the time horizon.
Put it this way, the FT won’t be investing in any more printing presses. And nor will the Guardian or Times Newspapers (as it is still quaintly called). Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has long claimed he felt “in his bones” that new printing presses installed at the time of the Berliner relaunch (2005) would be the last. But he originally scoped in 20 more years of production. Now he reckons that was vastly optimistic. John Witherow, editor of The Sunday Times, also predicts that his presses, installed in 2008, will be the newspaper’s last. For a fuller litany of pessimism, consult this page in PaidContent.
I hesitate to voice dissent, particularly when the consensus is so eminent, but isn’t all this pessimism a little overdone? An old adage about “cart” and “horse” comes to mind. The cart I have in mind is the so-called electronic reader, of which Kindle, the Sony Reader and iPad are the most successful examples to date.
First though, let’s go back to a fundamental issue: why do people read newspapers, as opposed to glean their information from the internet? Granted age and social conditioning may have something to do with it. But is not also true that newspapers, and for that matter most magazines, are a more enjoyable, tactile medium? The internet is excellent for any kind of search-based activity, but it can scarcely be described as a “great read”. Ah, you say, but that’s where this new, reader-friendly technology provided by iPad and its like comes in. It will make electronic browsing fun – once little glitches like flicker, eye-strain and inadequate battery life have been ironed out (as they inevitably will be in a few years’ time). No one, it seems, is subscribing more enthusiastically to this techno-salvation than newspaper proprietors themselves. In it they discern a form of commercial lifeline – a means of making internet joyriders pay for the colossal, but legitimately-engendered, costs of newsgathering – via licensed apps. A means, in short, of ditching the enormous financial burden of print and building a new and more viable commercial model.
I’d like to believe them right, but can’t bring myself to do so. There have been many annunciations over the past few years of the Coming One – the technical application that will enable us to transfer our loyalties effortlessly from paper to the electronic screen. Of those so far, the iPad holds the most promise. But, though ingenious and popular, it is likely to prove a false messiah – so far as the newspaper industry is concerned. For a start, the revenue stream from licensed products cannot possibly compete with those extracted from traditional newspapers (especially after Apple has taken its 30% cut), even if we allow for a reduced industry overhead. More importantly, what is the iPad for? Newspaper proprietors may read into it a form of salvation, but that matters little if punters don’t see it the same way. And the early indications from America are that they don’t.
Put another way, reading a newspaper via iPad is near the bottom of their user priorities. Printers, don’t despair: the press will be stuck with chopped-down trees for a good few years yet. Certainly more than five.
POSTSCRIPT. Such has been the momentum of Apple, which has just overtaken Microsoft as the world’s biggest technology company by market capitalisation, and such the success of its latest ‘tablet’ product, the iPad, that some experts are now writing the obituary of Google.
One such is Richard Holway who, in a recent presentation, claimed that a combination of Apple-sponsored apps and Facebook will “block out” Google’s sponsored search model by allowing consumers to go directly to brands and media owners.
Not so fast, says one reader of the article in which this vaulting claim appears. Sam Rothstein points out that a) nearly every phone will soon be a type of smartphone – most probably powered by a Google product, Android; b) Apple’s domination of its latest niche, the tablet, will face a similar challenge. A number of netbooks/tablets running Android are launching imminently.