Debate: For and against traditional media - are printed newspapers on the way out?

With Boris Johnson campaigning to ‘save the Guardian’, our experts turn their attention to debating whether we will realistically still be reading ‘paper’ newspapers in five years.

For: We may live in a digital age, but printed newspapers are part of our culture and are here to stay

By Guy Clapperton

My opening position is that I don’t necessarily see the future of newspapers as one or the other. We will carry on buying newspapers, that’s for sure, and if the paywall turns out to be the most viable way of making them financially sound then of course that will be a major part of the mix. But if over the next five years publishers can find another way to make newspapers pay for themselves as a vehicle to carry advertising, then we’ll probably be working with that way of doing things instead.What I find absurd is the extreme point of view that there will only be online newspapers rather than a variety of options. I have a hard copy of the Times in front of me, and I have searched it from front to back and I can’t find a USB port on it anywhere. And another frustrating thing is that if there is a development in one of the stories then it doesn’t update itself automatically.

These things would be nice. But on the other hand, I was reading my iPad earlier on the train and because I hadn’t charged it the battery ran out. And yet this copy of the Times: I’ve been staring at it for some time now and its battery hasn’t run out. And I’m convinced that I’ll still be able to read it in a fortnight should I choose to.

One of the things that drives technological changes such as the proposition that newspapers will go online is not so much our ability to enforce that change as technologists, but our desire as consumers to see it happen. As a journalist and author I’m neutral on whether my readers read my stuff on a digital machine such as a Kindle or an iPad, online or pre-downloaded, or whether they want to read it on paper. But there are people who want the choice and there is a generation that doesn’t want to adopt the digital newspaper. There are people for whom, because of the upfront cost of the tablet technology, the idea of the digital newspaper will never be right.

Boris Johnson isn’t the first person to bring this issue to the fore. As far back ago as 1990 I was writing for a publication called Microscope about how our media would be delivered at the turn of the century. Even then we were saying that by the year 2000 we’d all be reading our newspapers on screen. And so if you’re talking about a five-year timeline, I really can’t see the hard copy newspaper disappearing.

It’s not really a question of the so-called authority of paper over online journalism. I’d seriously question the skills of any journalist who felt there was a difference in the importance of the quality of material they file based on the medium in which it is published. But there are news blogs out there that repeat allegations about former Conservative peers which they haven’t bothered to substantiate, because they didn’t think it mattered as it had already appeared online. When it comes to quality assurance issues like this, I don’t think it matters what medium you are talking about.

Only technology writers like myself really care if the news will be online streaming, pre-downloaded, or any other mode of delivery. And just as I can’t see consumers on the Underground screaming that limitations of the subterranean Wi-Fi are ruining their news experience, neither can I see them abandoning their paper newspapers, especially as most of them are free. And when you consider that most people now leave their copy of the Metro or the Evening Standard for the next person, I see a new social tradition developing around the handing along of the news that can’t really happen if we’re getting it through apps.

So you can debate the state of the technology and the quality of the content while lamenting that the problem with the future is that it never arrives on time. But the real issue is what the consumer wants. In the past, despite the leading-edge technology available, the public rejected laser disc, minidisc and digital audio tape. Just didn’t want it, and I think that is what will happen with this question. We’ve had newspapers a long time and they aren’t going away in the near future.

Against: For newspapers to work in the digital age they need to go online in tablet-friendly form

By Andrea Kates

I believe in five years time physical newspapers printed on paper will be the dinosaur that we will be looking back on with fond nostalgia.

The days when news was fed to us on a controlled cycle, from a single viewpoint, overseen by a single editor and passively consumed are over. What we want today and tomorrow are multi-authorial news stories where we can join in, leave a comment, join a tribe. Stories get stale remarkably quickly these days and yesterday’s news becomes irrelevant almost instantly. We don’t want to wait 24 hours to read about something that just happened. And if the flood is coming to town I want to know about it now. With online news resources you get all this engagement and interactivity. It’s happening now and we can’t stop it even if we want to because you can’t put the genie back into the bottle.

By the end of the time frame under question the news that we now read in newspapers will be read from tablets and that knowledge will for mainstream newspapers be behind paywalls. This is a result of what I call the ‘waterbed effect’. In other words there’s a certain amount of stuff in the news that has value to people, and if you push it here then somewhere else something will rise to the top in terms of value. Formerly we were comfortable consuming news passively, but now we want to compose, engage and interact. A community of news and current events is no longer going to be satisfied with hearing one headline. If you look at the General Petraeus scandal, everyone wanted to be part of the story. And then there is the speed of events. By the time the news comes out in print it’s already history. The Petraeus story is out of date as we speak. By the time this is printed in E&T everyone will have forgotten about it.

There will be byproducts of this shift, of course. Before telecommunications, news couldn’t travel faster than a galloping horse, and until recently there’s been the assumption that it’s all been about how fast you can get the ink onto the paper. But that really is a 20th Century notion. As the electronic technology develops one of these byproducts will be that advertising dollars will follow into a more open and digital domain. Once we’ve figured out how to make that pay then we can expect newspapers to drop out of the market very rapidly. We’ve crossed the Rubicon and print can no longer satisfy the taste of the masses.

At the moment there are two watershed events occurring. First one is ubiquity: if you cast your mind back to the fax machine, at first everyone was wondering how to make sense of it. But then you hit a point where sufficient people had them for it to be not just a reasonable tool, but in the absence of anything better, a tool we couldn’t live without. This is where we are with tablets now. The second watershed point is that the cost of the systems is now bringing the technology within everyone’s reach. They have become a necessity rather than a luxury, and so this is the perfect time for newspapers to make their switch.

More than anything else this will be driven by content. Think of educational television: if all this is is a guy reading a book to you on your screen then this is no better than you reading the book. It’s just a different form of the same thing. If we do that with newspapers… those who simply reproduce the content of their paper product and expect the market to go for it simply because it is online or available through an app will be disappointed.

As with the guy reading a book on TV, there’s no added value. But we are now seeing content being adapted to the strengths of smartphones and tablets - interactivity, link following, comment leaving and so on - which means that it is gaining ground. Link that to the ubiquity and price watersheds and the case is closed. We’re in a position we can’t go back on. The paper newspaper will rapidly decline and as we switch to our mobile devices we’ll find that our news needs will be serviced better.

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