Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Open Letter to Ross Dawson -- On the Future of News Media

November 1, 2010

Dear Ross,

According to your analysis of the future of printed newspapers, they are slated to go the way of the dodo bird in the next ten years in some advanced industrial and gadget-addicted countries, followed by further extinctions of daily snailpapers -- printed on dead-tree newsprint -- later this century. Your keen analysis suggests that traditional media could be dead as early as 2017 in certain regions of the world, according to your gone-viral Newspaper Extinction Timeline, which reveals that the emergence of tablet devices and other ways of "screening" the news will see the extinction of traditional newspaper media by 2017 in the USA, followed by the UK and Iceland -- where the funeral is set for 2019 -- and then Canada and Norway in 2020.

Italy's snailpapers go extinct, you say, in 2027, while France goes in 2029 and Germany in 2030. They are followed by Japan, Taiwan and China in 2031.

"Every country is different," you tell me. "The pace of change in media structure is being led by the US and UK, with other countries not so far behind."

Roy Greenslade at the Guardian in the UK has posted his reaction to the dodo bird timeline, quoting Earl Wilkinson of the International Newsmedia Marketing Association, who blogged: “What would you do today if you knew when your print newspaper would die?”

Mr Greenslade, as you know, posted a thinkpost on what he called your "astonishingly bold - and arguably, foolish - prediction ... that newsprint will die in Britain in 2019, ahead of the death of newspapers in a further 51 countries by 2040."

Mr Greenslade noted that, naturally, your PR hype attracted, not surprisingly, a lot of skeptical comment. Piet Bakker's response, on the thread, was the most trenchant, Greenslade said, quoting Mr Bakker's two-line shout-out: "It's basically crap, no data are given, and what is 'insignificant'. Serious journalism should not fall for B.S. like this."

Mr Greenslade's take-home is that Bakker's rant summed up many people's feelings. But he confessed himself, saying, in parentheses: "Incidentally, though I didn't say it, I am convinced that there will be plenty of newspapers in Britain in 2019. I may agree that we're marching slowly towards the death of ["snailpapers"], but Dawson's time-scale is hopelessly wrong."

But to be fair and balanced, Mr Greenslade also quoted an industry expert, Earl Wilkinson, executive director and chief executive of the International Snailpaper Marketing Association, as saying: "What I like about Dawson's nudge is that it reminds us that the clock is ticking. We can't work fast enough at the corporate level or the industry level to develop digital platforms that connect with readers and advertisers.
We can't work fast enough to build multi-media companies where print, online, mobile, iPad and others each play to their strengths and interact.
Just as we were warned in the 1990s that classified advertising could disappear and we need to prepare for that, we need to be preparing today for an all-digital future — whether that comes in 2025, 2050, 2100, or some year beyond the reach of our great-grandchildren."

Greenslade then quoted Wilkinson's money quote, which is worth repeating here: "If a few dates assigned to something we're already focused on contribute 1 percent additional urgency to our industry's transformation from snailpaper to multi-media and the structure of our news ecology... then we can thank Ross Dawson for his contribution."

Now, Ross, there is one thing you have overlooked entirely, and this gaffe is huge and possibly world-shaking. Please listen to me carefully here, because nobody is saying what I am about to say, and the few people who have heard me say it already on countless blogs and comment sections, think my elevator does not go all the way to the top and that I'm paddling around the lake in circles in a rowboat with only one oar in the water. Be that as it may, Ross, please listen to me here and respond later. The very future of civilization is at stake.

It's this: Ross, WHAT IF, what if reading off screens -- what Marvin Minksy at MIT calls "screen-reading" and what I call "screening" -- is vastly inferior, in terms of brain chemistry and neuroscience, to reading text on paper surfaces? WHAT IF, what if reading on paper surfaces is real reading and reading off screens is faux-reading? WHAT IF, what if reading on paper surfaces -- a book, a newspaper, a magazine -- is vastly superior to "screening" off screens -- computers, iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys, nooks, Crannies, you name it! -- in terms of information processing, information retention, information analysis and, perhaps most importantly, Ross, critical thinking skills?

This is my hunch, and WHAT IF, what if I am right? I might be wrong, too. Maybe reading on paper and screening off screens is the same. But what if my hunch, backed up by personal anecdotal experiences and the experiences of several top experts in the field, from Anne Mangen in Norway to Maryanne Wolf at Tufts and Gary Small at UCLA, what if my hunch is later proven to be true by concerted neuroscience research using (f)MRI and PET brain scan studies that just might indicate that different regions of the brain light up when we read on paper compared to when we "screen" off screens, and that these differences show that reading on paper is superior to screen-reading for the four items noted above: processing, retention, analysis and critical thinking?

What then, Ross?

All I am saying is: give paper a chance! Test out my hunch before it is too late. Ask Drs Mangen and Wolf and Small. WHAT IF, again, what if it turns out that all these screen platforms that allow us to "view" news through plastic or glass screens are inferior -- again, in terms of neuroscience and brain chemisty -- to newsprint?

Because IF, if I am right, and future MRI and PET scan studies show that we have been barking up the wrong tree with this gadgethead fixation, then what? Cancel the digital revolution?

No way. As Gary Small has said: "The technology train has already left the station and there is no coming back."

But WHAT IF, what if my hunch turns out to have some air in it? What then?

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

What would you do today if you knew when your print newspaper would die?


Posted by Earl Wilkinson at 10:26 PM - 01 November 2010

If you knew the precise date that your print newspaper would cease to exist, what decisions would you make starting today to replace that profit center? How different would your choices be if you had seven years of life versus 30 years?

That is the tantalizing conversation starter presented by futurist Ross Dawson who today released the “Newspaper Extinction Timeline.” The timeline maps out — country by country — when newspapers “in their current form” will become “insignificant” based on global and national factors.

Dawson believes that 52 countries will drop the newspaper habit between 2017 and 2039 — including the United States in 2017, the United Kingdom and Iceland in 2019, and Canada in 2020. Most of Western and Central Europe will drop newspapers in the 2020s, along with Australia and New Zealand. East Asia and parts of Latin American urban markets will go in the 2030s. The rest of the world is safe until at least 2040, Dawson says.

The Dawson timeline reminds me of Philip Meyer's 2004 prediction in The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, using readership trend data from 1967 to 2002, that U.S. newspaper readership would reach zero in April 2043.

Judging from the tart reactions from the Twitterverse and all platforms digital, Dawson hit a nerve today. He even remarked that today marked the best visitor day ever for his web site. I'll bet.

Let me step up to the plate and respond to this latest doomsday prediction: he's mostly correct.

Maybe not the dates, which are too aggressive. Maybe there's a lot of qualitative wiggle room for more precise definitions of “newspapers in their current form” and even “insignificant.” But most of the factors and the country-by-country order of progression fit with what I see worldwide.

Breathe in. Hold it. Count back from 10. Breathe out.

Sometime in this planet's history, there will be a tipping point whereby the economics of mass-producing news on paper won't be worth it to the publisher. There won't be enough advertising or consumer revenue to cover the costs of printing and distribution. And there will be sufficient consumer, advertiser, and publisher platform alternatives to discontinue print as a primary vehicle.

Business decisions will be made. Platforms will shift. Journalists will still have a home. Publishers will still be rich. And the world will continue.

Unlike Phil Meyer's slow descent into Hell less than 33 years from today, publishers will choose to stop mass-printing long before the dreaded zero. It will come in a series of tipping points and awkward adjustments that are playing out on the world stage even as these words are typed.

Anonymous said...

We'll wring wretched efficiencies out of print. We'll cut editorial staff through a constant series of prioritisation exercises regarding content on newsprint. We'll outsource production. We'll outsource delivery. We'll slim down the number of pages printed. We'll cut print frequency from seven days to five days to three days to weekly. We'll bring in McKinsey or Bain or Boston Consulting to decide the precise angle of the print decline.

None of this really matters. No matter what we do internally, we cannot escape the external factors shaping how information is consumed. We cannot escape the pace of technological change. We cannot escape the nature of consumer behaviour. Dawson neatly breaks these factors into two parts: global and national.

Globally, we will see:

•Increased cost performance of tablets/e-readers.
•Changes in newsprint and print production costs.
•Increased cost performance of mobile phones.
•Trends in advertising spend and allocation.
•Development of open platforms.
•Uptake of digital news monetisation mechanisms.
•Development of high-performance digital paper.
Nationally — what makes the United States different from Germany which is different from India — we will see varying degrees of:

•Technology uptake.
•Economic development.
•Demographics.
•Consumer behaviour.
•Industry structure.
•Government regulation.

Anonymous said...

Newsmedia executives know all of this. We've seen these variables a thousand times. That's why we're going through transformation, re-imagination, and strategic evaluation projects at every news company in the world. That's why INMA is putting so much energy into the practicalities of transitioning to multi-media companies as an over-arching theme in the next year. That's why 90% of our industry's strategic energy is being invested in 10% of today's revenue model.

What I like about Dawson's nudge is that it reminds us that the clock is ticking. We can't work fast enough at the corporate level or the industry level to develop digital platforms that connect with readers and advertisers. We can't work fast enough to build multi-media companies where print, online, mobile, iPad and others each play to their strengths and interact. Just as we were warned in the 1990s that classified advertising could disappear and we need to prepare for that, we need to be preparing today for an all-digital future — whether that comes in 2025, 2050, 2100, or some year beyond the reach of our great-grandchildren.

Here's an interesting exercise for your management team: pick the date Dawson says your country's newspapers will be “insignificant” and work backward. What would you need to do between today and that date to transform your business model and generate enough revenue to preserve today's level of journalism at a sufficiently profitable level? We may all make similar choices, but my guess is the sense of urgency is more intense in the United States than India.

Print is evolving from an end-all-be-all distribution vehicle for what media companies do best to a situational revenue driver and a tangible brand vehicle. Short-term, print plays a dominant role so long as advertisers see value. Long-term, print becomes a brand package to remind people of digital options. It might become a loss leader. It might become our weekly marketing vehicle for our rainbow of content options on hundreds of platforms. I suspect that if this were our sole brand conveyance vehicle and not just a schlepper of news, we'd make better qualitative choices about paper weight, paper style, paper width, and more.

Earlier today, I was contacted by a journalist from a prominent European newspaper about Dawson's report. At first, I thought I was being interviewed for a story. Yet the back-and-forth exchange seemed to get more and more personal with each subsequent e-mail. At some point, he told me that Dawson's timeline made him think about jumping out of journalism altogether.

To which I say: relax. There's nothing new here except the assignment of a date — something that should be unsettling.

Yet if a few dates assigned to something we're already focused on contribute 1% additional urgency to our industry's transformation from print to multi-media and the structure of our news ecology — with print still playing a part, even if “insignificant” — then we can thank Ross Dawson for his contribution.

Anonymous said...

Sir, Bloomy,

I agree with your point of view but find it doesn't pay to debate the print-is-dead crowd, they see objections as validation of their point of view, and they can always claim that better contrast, higher refresh rates, or whatever, will solve the problem.

And they play the green card, ignoring all the environmental consequences of electronic waste, horrible reagents used in manufacturing readers, etc.

It's like arguing politics and religion, and for some people Print-Is-Dead is both.

The computer scientist turned sociologist Robert Kling was a pioneer in studying computerization as a movement, for which functional improvements are really secondary.

Third, part of the problem is that most print editors are stuck in formulaic genres, really aren't advancing the quality of reporting and analysis, which can be done with fewer resources than people think. (The Economist has a relatively small staff by US magazine standards.)

Of course designers point out ruefully that newspapers redesign for more attractive and readable copy actually lose circulation even faster than others.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DementedBonxie said...

What if our dependence on electronic gadgets means that no one writes anymore? What will we lose if we are never engaged in forming letters with our own hand, and our relation with letters and words is only by hitting keys or dictating thoughts? Is it not to the detriment of our enrichment psychologically, artistically, emotionally, and so on if we lose the physical relationship between words and thought?

DementedBonxie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DementedBonxie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dan said...

DB, very well said:

re

What if our dependence on electronic gadgets means that no one writes anymore? What will we lose if we are never engaged in forming letters with our own hand, and our relation with letters and words is only by hitting keys or dictating thoughts? Is it not to the detriment of our enrichment psychologically, artistically, emotionally, and so on if we lose the physical relationship between words and thought?

Can you please contact me via email offline so we can chat about this? email me at danbloom@gmail.com - don't worry my secret invisible screen ink will make this email address invisible to everyone here but YOU, so okay to write me 24/7 . db too

Anonymous said...

I like it. As an analyst at Nomura once said to me "It's a marginal world.
Things are rarely 100%". The trend is against newsprint (at the moment) but
that's different to predicting extinction. And, of course, you could be
right. Perhaps screens are just a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

That's a really good piece! You really nailed it there: We love to do things just because we can, but that doesn't mean it's the right (or a good) thing to do.


Digital work is airy, feels okay to steal, clip, or delete without a thought. Paper work feels more important, keep-able, and personal.


I'm just echoing: you said it all in your article. But then, you didn't really force a conclusion for the reader, you simply asked an open-ended question, which is, of course, the most powerful thing one can do.


Kudos!

Anonymous said...

Nice .....but a bit overblown, You made your point early and didnt need all the hoohah, nonetheless I essentially agree with you. Thanks for sharing, as they say.

Best etc,
Justin

Anonymous said...

Danny,

I totally agree with your WHAT IF arguments.

I grew up with a love of reading. I love it still. I find holding a
newspaper, or book, or magazine in my hands distinctly pleasurable. The
first thing I do in the morning is walk to the door of my apartment and
retrieve the NYT lying in front of it. Then I enjoy breakfast with the NYT
spread out next to me. My wife and I exchange sections of it. I go to bed at
night with a magazine or a book and read until I am ready to sleep.

I go to my computer only later in the morning. When I come upon a long
article or letter, such as this one, I approach it with distaste. For some
reason I just find reading a long screed on the computer screen unpleasant.

But maybe it's just old-fashioned me. To my 8-year old granddaughter a
computer mouse is like a natural extension of her hand. Her daily school
assignment of reading is at the same time distasteful to her and she has to
be forced to do it.

So, what lies in the future ?

Peter

Anonymous said...

Hard to say, Danny. Maybe in five years Sarah Palin will be prez but
most newspaper readers of both E and P varieties will be dead because
she could not tell China and Russia apart and we almost all died in a
nuclear exchange. More seriously, who the hell knows--especially since
it might be possible to customize even snail papers?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

A left-field objection to the death of newsprint
Share14 Comments (11) The irrepressible Dan Bloom has taken futurist Ross Dawson (you know, the guy who predicts the death of British newspapers by 2019) to task with a challenging open letter.

It's very long, so this is just a taster, but it made me smile because of Bloom's wonderfully entertaining style - and his left-field objection to print's death.

After running through the arguments, and taking in Earl Wilkinson's considered response to Dawson, above in this blog is Bloom's major point:

Anonymous said...

Are our brains ready for digital reading?

Following the paper trail

.
Bloom has written a piece which has provoked a great deal of comment and controversy.

Following reports that spell the end of print in favour of digital images shown on tablets and the like, Bloom asks a good question that as far as we’re aware hasn’t been answered by researchers.



he asks: "WHAT IF, what if reading off screens -- what Marvin Minksy at MIT calls "screen-reading" and what I call "screening" -- is vastly inferior, in terms of brain chemistry and neuroscience, to reading text on paper surfaces? WHAT IF, what if reading on paper surfaces is real reading and reading off screens is faux-reading? WHAT IF, what if reading on paper surfaces -- a book, a newspaper, a magazine -- is vastly superior to "screening" off screens -- computers, iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys, nooks, Crannies, you name it! -- in terms of information processing, information retention, information analysis and, perhaps most importantly, Ross, critical thinking skills?”

He suggests that in the future it’s possible that scientists will discover that reading digitally has an effect on the brain, and could show that “we have been barking up the wrong tree with this gadgethead fixation”.

You can read Bloom’s open letter here, and see what Roy Greenslade from the Grauniad has to say, here.
.

Read more: http://www.techeye.net/hardware/are-our-brains-ready-for-digital-reading#ixzz14OoW6eu6

Deborah said...

WHAT IF... those clever scientists can make digital screens that mimic the impact of paper?

Anonymous said...

Deborah, above, well said.
This is the question we need to answer. Someday

Ross Dawson just told me:

"....I think it's fair to say
paper reading and 'screening' are different. But as digital paper improves,
it will become the same experience as paper reading. Active and passive
screens are not the same thing. When we can emulate paper in a digital form,
why would it be any different from a neurological or other perspective?"

Anonymous said...

Dan:

I've seen no evidence to support the theory that reading on paper is superior to reading on a screen. The opinions of a few doctors aside, I'd have to see harder evidence to give the idea much attention. The quality of e-readers is approaching that of the printed page and will probably be all but indistinguishable in a couple of years. Interesting notion, but needs clinical research.

Best,
_______________ signed

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