Hi, I'm Ben Hazell. I used to blog here about the media, but now I work there I don't write here anymore.
I'm the Web Publishing Editor at - I find better ways to tell stories, developing tools, training and practice for journalists.

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The Blog

Rarely updated now, used during Journalism MA at the University of Sheffield.

The end of paper

Wednesday, 13 February 2008
Speaking yesterday at a guest lecture at the University of Sheffield, Anne Spackman, Editor in Chief of the Times Online, asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed newspapers would still be printed in 20 years. Most did.
I'm not convinced though.

In 20 years I expect printed paper will have been overtaken by other forms of newspaper distribution, and I absolutely believe that many major western newspapers will have ceased paper distribution. There is technology already on the market which looks like it could change the way we consume news yet again, turning it from something we read off a screen or in a printed paper, into a combination of the two; cheap printed displays we carry with us that display the latest news and contain whole libraries of texts.

The iPhone
As hilariously overpriced as the iPhone is (a minimum of £899 on O2 for with laughably few free minutes), it has changed the focus of mobile phone design. The touchscreen is innovative, but it's the focus of the phone as an online media device that's important. Given what mobile phones were like five years ago (just phones really), there doesn't seem any limit to what might be achieved in the next twenty years. The idea of personal devices that do everything is growing closer, and that's likely to include news delivery
Nokia are reportedly close to perfecting a system of tactile response for touchscreen displays, buttons that you can feel but that retain all the advantages of touchscreen input.

Everyone is pushing screens larger, and as screens, batteries and interfaces improve, the potential uses of phones multiply. Mobile phones are the fastest spreading technology in history. Everywhere on the planet networks have appeared and in the third world they are now vital to connect communities to the outside world. If any technology is widespread enough, cheap enough and essential enough to change the way we consume news worldwide, it's the mobile phone.

Amazon's Kindle
The Kindle is a digital book. It takes the form of a flat tablet, with a large button you thumb to change the page, and a few buttons to navigate the menu to your chosen text. Thousands of novels can be carried and read off normal memory cards, and it uses wi-fi technology to easily obtain new texts. It's expensive, restricted and better alternatives are available, but none are so well supported or so widely adopted yet.

The Kindle is based around electronic paper technology (e-paper) that mimics the properties of ordinary printed paper. Unlike a normal digital display, e-paper isn't backlit and reflects light like normal paper, allowing for a wide viewing angle. It can hold a black and white image indefinitely without using power, whilst allowing the image to be changed instantly, making it very battery efficient. Right now colour is still difficult for e-paper, but this is sure to be developed soon. All this makes e-paper perfect for displaying text, and it isn't hard to imagine how this technology could develop. Already manufacturers are looking at adding fold out e-paper displays to mobile phones, and as devices and technologies converge we could easily see tiny pocket gadgets that carry music, film and whole libraries.

The technology is getting cheaper and simple text files can be easily adapted for e-paper displays, as can scanned text from old books. Google are presently working to scan every book in existence into a giant database, and all the classics are already online at various locations; so the content is there already or easily available.
E-paper vastly improves screen reading to the point where it might just become a viable alternative to printed daily’s. You can already subscribe to the New York Times, Le Monde, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Boingboing, The Onion and many more using the Kindle (but no British papers as yet). As the content is delivered in a single package each morning it returns newspapers to a subscription based business model, rather than the uncertainty of online income.
Expect to hear a lot more about e-paper in the near future.

The XO-1
The One Laptop Per Child Program has designed the XO-1 for the needs of the developing world. It's been built because digital interaction is now seen as vital for the development of the third world. Moreover it's being made as cheaply and efficiently as possible and distributed out to those who need it. This spirit of obligation and enterprise is a good sign that digital technology will be pushed out worldwide very quickly.
Or another view; the rich developed nations can't afford to let these huge potential markets fall behind, and are prepared to give out computers if it means more people can access their online stores.
Either way, there is a determined drive to make the web global, to empower the whole population of the planet so that we can move forward with new technology as one. I expect to see the lag between new ideas and worldwide acceptance grow ever shorter, and this means that changes to media distribution will be rapidly accepted.

The Future
Put simply, I see paper being replaced. New technologies could be developed so rapidly that nobody can really predict where we're going, but the direction of travel is clear: paper distribution is a resource nightmare, deeply limited in it's capabilities, and it probably won't last long. Even the pages we have now have a tendency to rot quite quickly without specialist care. You might feel that printed paper's been around forever, but looking at history it's just another in a line of improving communications technologies, and we won’t stay attached to it for long.

So; within twenty years I don't think the Times will be printed: I think it'll be wirelessly delivered to the pocket displays of every child on the planet, and constantly updated.
And I don't think that's a stretch of the imagination.


H said...

I agree that newspapers will have reduced paper circulations, but I don't see them disappearing anytime soon. The poorest in society still wont be able to afford e-paper technology, and many who could wouldn't prioritise the cost of buying a special piece of equipment (mobile phone screens being too small for all reading).

Incredible benefits would have to be demonstrated to persuade a newspaper reader to make a sizeable outlay for soemthing that would need periodical replacement, and presumably, if it is to be carried around, insurance. All this as opposed to a small, potentially spontaneous and almost thoughtless handing over of a few coins at any corner shop/railway station/newstand etc.

If the £5 mark is still a hard enough barrier for wine sellers to coax the average consumer beyond, then £50+ for something that now costs 45p sporadically will be a tough barrier to breakthrough.

At least until the current generations of young adults has kicked the bucket, there will be a demand for newspapers no matter how popular e-paper becomes, simply because it cannot provide the same sensual experience as a real newspaper. Weekend newspapers are part of weekend mornings for so many people. For many, hiding behind the paper is a welcome retreat after a hard day.

As for books...people still buy CDs when there is no need. Similarly, people like books. I like books. You like books. Apart from the pleasure of owning something physical, visible, displayable, there is that sensual element. a CD and an MP3 may sound the same. Holding, smelling, reading and page turning a book is very different to wiggling a button and watching a small screen.

Ben said...

But I don't think the screens will be small... E-paper is very thin so the screens can fold out or roll out to sizes much larger than a mobile screen - and this takes away the problem of carrying a full sized paper around. We'll already see phones with fold-out screens next year.

I also think that everyone will have these devices; the poorest in society still have mobile phones - they're sold at a loss and money is made on use. We're not talking dedicated reading devices, but integrated e-paper screens in the same way many devices can now play music.

Lastly, while I agree that many value the tactile sensation of an object, we're talking about a disposable commodity. Given eco-drives, can anyone really justify the waste of printing and distributing newspapers?
And while people buy CDs, nobody carrys a discman anymore.

john said...

New media channels have changed the rules of the media game forever. Print has a new court to play-in to increase their ad revenue and circulation rate as well. New technologies have made the adoption of new media easy for print publishers. Online Portals, Blogs, Social Networks, RSS, Mobiles, Podcasts are booming now and readers have addicted to such channels.

Here’s few useful links on New Media Publishing / Delivery

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