What isn’t in dispute is that circulations are in decline. The problem with print media is that it is just so wasteful and very much out of touch with the current pace of technology. As the New York Times put it in 2006:
Newspaper circulation has been in a long, slow decline for decades. But the pace of loss seems accelerated now, as the industry tries to adjust to the steady migration of readers and advertisers to the Internet.
I can’t imagine things have improved much for print media since then. There has certainly been a fair amount of discussion about how to survive this shift to digital media and a number of industry pundits have boldly declared that one or another technology will become the dominant platform for the content presently printed and which all those people out there clearly still want. After all, there will always be a place for quality journalism and writing. I agree although I think it is important that mainstream media realise that they are content creators almost on a par with bloggers, podcasters and other not-so-mainstream content creators. I am starting to wonder if the distinction between the content I could get from, say, The Times or Mail & Guardian and the content I can get from the likes of Ivo Vegter, Robert Scoble and Read/Write Web is fading fast to the point where I place as much (and often more) value in what I read on a blog than what I read in a mainstream publication.
Another issue is that actual print media is so wasteful and cumbersome. All that paper being printed and distributed across long distances over periods of time that could render the news obsolete before the publication arrives. Why not save the cost of all that production and the trees that were sacrificed for the idle pleasure of rustling pages and explore digital alternatives which can be so much better for the rainforest?
Although the hot platform at the moment is your mobile phone (lots of mobile phone users translate into more advertising bucks if only mainstream media could figure out how to monetise all those little eyeballs), I see the future of media (mainstream, not so mainstream and downright on the bleeding edge) being on a variety of devices feed by RSS and its successors. Ok, this isn’t exactly breaking news but it does help if the big media people take a look at this issue from the perspective of an end user. Have they actually tried to read feeds on a mobile phone that doesn’t cost R7 000 and have a large screen? It isn’t a pleasant experience.
Instead media should be available on whichever connected device you prefer. My personal preference is a tablet device of some kind (the one I dream about and which no-one has manufactured yet) or some iteration of what the iPhone could be. I want a large enough screen to comfortably read the feeds I have subscribed to and remain mobile where I want to be and also continue my reading on my large LCD monitor when I return to home base. Still not exactly news to most people but the point is that the focus should rather be on making the content available in a relative platform agnostic manner using a standard technology that can distribute that content (again, RSS works well here).
This isn’t to say that big media has to give up its subscriptions and squeeze more out of their advertisers. I noticed that the local publications whose feeds I subscribe to publish truncated feeds which force me to visit their websites to read the full article. This drives me nuts. I use a feed reader to read my feeds, not to link to web pages. I would pay a subscription fee to have receive the full articles in my feeds and I would even tolerate a relative innocuous ad if it means I don’t have to open yet another tab in Firefox or NetNewsWire to read the article. This option would mean the ability to add a password protected feed (presumably) and given the demand for this those feed readers that don’t support this functionality soon will if they are worth their salt, so to speak. I subscribe to Fortune magazine and it would be fantastic to be able to subscribe to a digital edition and receive full articles in my feed reader. Of course the second part to this fantasy experience would be a device that makes my content portable enough that I can meaningfully consume that content just as easily when I am at a coffee shop as I can at my desk with my MacBook (it would also be great if my preferred feed reader – NetNewsWire at the moment – would allow customisable media download options for offline reading).
That content could be formatted in a variety of ways and a nice example of this is a new feed reader which has recently been released and which is called “Times“. This newsreader aims to change the way we read our news in a digital format:
Instead of treating news like email (as most RSS readers do), Times presents you with headlines and photos from a variety of sources all in one place, letting you more easily discover the news you want to read. Like your own personal newspaper, you can put feeds into separate areas, create pages for different subjects, and more.
Although I think Acrylic Apps is missing the point a little with Times, it is still a fantastic example of how news and feed fed content in general can be presented to users. It doesn’t all have to look like this:
Feed fed content could include news feeds, blog feeds, ebooks, podcasts, music … whatever. The range of devices could be just as diverse and could include existing devices such as the iPod Touch/iPhone, mobile phones, Internet tablets, laptops, large LCD screens and future derivatives of those devices. In fact, I think a worthwhile exercise for a major publication is to investigate distributing a decent RSS enabled panel device to its subscribers (perhaps subsidised by a 2 year subscription like the mobile phone networks) and updating those devices over the Internet with the latest issue or latest articles rather than delivering print editions.
Print media may not be dead just yet but it isn’t getting any younger. Digital platforms far surpass print media in terms of immediacy and freshness of content and the growing trend towards digital consumption means that it is becoming more and more expensive to produce print editions of these publications. Why would I buy a newspaper except to paper my floors in case my puppies need to pee? I certainly don’t need to read a newspaper to find out what is going on in the world. I can do that online and in many instances, I can get better information on the Web. What about you? When was the last time you read a newspaper to find out what is going on in your world?