People often ask me to predict how long newspapers can survive in the Internet age. Ten years ago I believed newspapers would last another five years. Clearly I am not qualified to make this sort of prediction. But being unqualified has never dampened my enthusiasm for publicly embarrassing myself. I think it’s time to take another run at this prediction.
First, it must be noted that old technologies sometimes evolve to stay relevant. For example, radio evolved from something the family listens to in the living room to something that individuals (mostly) listen to in the car. There’s some chance that newspapers could evolve in a totally unexpected way and thrive for a hundred years. Let me paint a picture that seems most likely to me.
I predict that the end of printed newspapers will happen in the time it takes for most people to upgrade their cell phones two more times. The iPhone, and its inevitable copycats, (let’s call them iClones) are newspaper killers. When you have a web browser in your pocket, a printed newspaper is redundant. Eventually, all cell phones will have Internet browsing built in. You might not have a web browser on your next cell phone, but the one after that will have it as a standard feature.
Most people prefer to read a printed page versus a computer screen. A cell phone screen is the worst of all. But newspapers will collapse as a business long before 100% of iPhone and iClone owners give up their printed newspaper subscriptions. I don’t know if it will take 20% of iPhone/iClone owners to cancel their subscriptions, or if it will take 60%, but whatever the number, it seems likely we will reach it. Then the printed newspaper will disappear.
The iPhone and iClones have several advantages over regular newspapers. The news on the Internet is mostly free, and updated by the minute. Your cell phone can include video clips, and the news can be filtered for your personal preferences. Browsing web pages on a phone is slow at the moment, but the speed will improve.
I predict one more innovation in cell phones that is the real wild card for newspapers. I’m sure someone has already invented this in a lab or written about it in a science fiction book, but it’s a somewhat obvious idea. Let's call it a Venetian screen.
Imagine your cell phone equipped with a built-in scroll of “digital paper” that pulls out to the side, like a sideways Venetian blind, for reading web pages and documents. It would look like this. (click to enlarge)
That will solve the issue of phone screens being too tiny to read. Your phone would still have a regular screen for most purposes, but for pleasure reading, you pull out the Venetian screen with its larger and clearer text.
In this imagined future, the newspaper publishers make the move to all-digital newspapers. But that won’t be much of a business unless they change the concept of a newspaper at the same time. What I’d like to see is a newspaper that is a hybrid of social voting, such as you see on web sites like www.reddit.com and www.digg.com, but further filtered by human editors who weed out the redundant, the juvenile, and the stuff unsubstantiated by facts. And I’d like to see counterpoints to everything. This way you’d get the stories and opinions considered most worthy by the public, with some editorial quality control.
I also imagine the business model for bloggers changing. Now bloggers run ads and make money based on the traffic to their sites. In the future, I can imagine bloggers opting in for a system where they allow newspapers to grab their content any time the newspapers want, move it into the newspaper’s own content model on any given day, surround it with their own ads, and pay the blogger a percentage of ad revenue. In other words, every blogger (and cartoonist) would be self-syndicated, but newspapers wouldn’t print the same bloggers every day. They’d grab only the best writings of the day based on social voting and the newspaper’s own editorial opinions.
Online newspapers would offer subscribers several options. You could have an uncensored online newspaper for adults, a G-rated version for kids, a version with extra helpings of good news, or celebrity news, etc. And of course the reader could select his own local news, weather, and ads.
Comics would be much funnier if cartoonists didn’t have to conform to a G rating as is now the case. With online newspapers, and individual filters for each reader, a kid could subscribe to a newspaper with Dilbert in it, but any off-color strips would be automatically replaced by something more appropriate for that day. Everyone wins.
It’s easy to think that everything I described could be so automated you never need much in the way of a newspaper business organizing it all. I don’t think that will ever happen. You still need hordes of people keeping the technology current, editing for quality control, doing the art, doing market testing, selling the right kind of ads, etc.
So I see printed newspapers lasting until you upgrade your phone two more times. But the newspaper business can thrive online if it changes how it gathers and edits content. And clearly there will be massive amounts of consolidation. There won’t be 3,000 newspapers online. There might be a dozen. And local news will come from hometown bloggers who self-syndicate to all of the newspapers.
That’s how I see it.