The Digital Drumbeat
The revolution is coming. I can sense it. Will it arrive in time to save the newspapers as we know them? There are several factors at work in the information marketplace, but it just might be the answer. Maybe. The digital revolution already makes a huge difference in how we get our news, it may become the next big thing for newspapers in the not-too-distant future. Or, it may not.
Luddites may miss making the walk on a cold, wet morning to pick the soggy newspaper off of the driveway. When the revolution comes they will be won over by the sparkling technology of the next generation of e-readers.
First of all, I should admit that even though I have MP3s in my computer, even though my own music is on iTunes, MyTexasMusic, and dozens of other download sites, even though the focus of my graduate studies has been on the effects of digital media—I still do not own an iPod. I do have an MP3 player that I don’t use. I still subscribe to the printed newspaper. All of this notwithstanding, I know that change is coming.
The products predicting this change may be the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. Analysts say one of the main obstacles is the product prices topping $200, but look at the prices paid for iPods and good MP3 players? They are in the same league. The iPods and MP3 players left stacks of unsold CDs on stores shelves. Stores eliminated the inventory, and others that relied on CD sales alone, went out of business. All of this happened over a span of years you can count on one hand. When the revolution comes, something similar may happen to newspapers.
The digital revelation also has all but done away with the fun-filled film camera. I still maintain that the art of photography with film is unmatched. For every-day use, however, digital cameras and cellphone cameras plus your computer have taken their place. Arguably, it took a little longer for digital cameras to become standard than it did the MP3, but not much longer.
The Washington Post reports that the revolution may begin sooner than later. “This holiday season will be a crucial test of whether e-books can cross over from geeky novelty to mass-market must-have. Major retailers are pushing the format -- and, of course, the gadgets they've developed to display it.” Sara Rotman Epps, senior analyst for Forrester Research tells the Post it may take a decade for e-books to catch on. E-books must evolve to start the revolution where newspapers are concerned.
The printed page is still valued because you can read it anywhere. You can clip it. You can save it. You can wrap fish in it. USA Today was a game-changer in its day with color and lots of photos. Is there much content in USA Today? No, but USA Today isn’t about deep content. The USA Today look forced local newspapers to change their layout and look along with their ways of gathering news. Now, newspapers like the Austin American-Statesman may send only a photographer to a story. The pictures with a cut line will tell it all, like a well-crafted TV story. You barely need a reporter’s words.
Right now, when somebody says talks about their Kindle, you think books. Yes, that’s the main market. You’re talking about books with words and no pictures. Scores of newspapers, including the Austin American-Statesman offer e-reader versions of the daily paper for your computer or Kindle. However, for newspapers it’s the pictures that are the problem. The e-readers now on the market don’t handle pictures well.
“You will find many limitations with the Kindle experience, however if a reader only wants news text it works,” says Michael Vivio, publisher, Austin American-Statesman. “Later versions of e-readers from other vendors promise a much better user experience.”
When the revolution comes, no longer must newspapers order up one-ton rolls of paper that is bound for the recycling bin after one use. Vivio says Amazon keeps 70-percent of the subscription revenue, but it is bound to result in production printing costs savings reflected in subscription rates. “The E-edition price for a month is $4.99, for Monday-Friday and $5.99 for Monday-Sunday. Kindle is $5.99 a month with a 14 day free trial,” says Harry Davis, vice president for circulation at the American-Statesman. “The print copy which contains all pre-prints is set up on a weekly basis, but calculated out and paying in advance, the price is $22.96 per month.”
When the revolution comes, no, it won’t be the same. Will it be better?
© Jim McNabb, 2009