News, media & communications


The Future of Books

Before considering the future of books, it might be worthwhile looking at the present of books. Books, like vinyl records, have a certain tactile, sensuous, and soulful quality and some people like to be surrounded by them. On the other hand, books have become popularised, cheaply made, and soon lose their value. Is it worth holding on to some old idea about books or embracing ebooks, for their portability, ease of use, and environmental advantages?

It depends who you’re talking to. Amazon just created the Kindle 2, a “purpose-driven reading device”, or a book designed by a nerd, or a computer designed by a book lover. It has the black, white and grey of a book, but its 60-sec internet synching and dictionary belong to a computer. Even so, it is much easier to read than a computer. iRex Technologies have created the iLiad, a handheld device for both reading and writing with an easy page turner.

From a green point of view, the average book releases more than 4kgs of carbon in its production (the same as flying about 30 kms) and incurs the costs of warehousing, transport, waste, and toxic chemicals. The e-book produces about 0.1g of carbon but, of course, still incurs costs in its production. The difference is that people could theoretically keep their reader for a long time and read hundreds of books on it (the Kindle 2 can store 1500). If it were not an annually replaced gadget, like mobiles, it is definitely the greenest choice.

Meanwhile, Google has been quietly digitising millions of books from the collections of major research libraries. It has been not so quiet for the authors and publishers alleging a case of breached copyright but this has now settled. If approved by the court, Google will control the digitising of all books covered by copyright in the US, giving it a monopoly in the new book world. Librarians may well celebrate the fact that their cherished works are available to a wider public. Greenies might think it is progress. But how many booklovers will bemoan the loss of that beautiful aroma from the newly printed page?

Ref: The Telegraph, 9 February 2009, The Kindle 2: the ebook could be the future of books. Tom Leonard.
Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 2009, A novel idea: curl up in bed with a virtual book. Naomi Alderman.
The New York Review, 12 January 2009, Google and the future of books. Robert Darnton.
Search words: Kindle, subscription, Stanza, books, mobiles, iTunes, newspapers, iLiad, energy cost, environment, libraries, Google, copyright, monopoly, reading
Trend tags: e-books, e-ink
Source integrity: *****


The choice between accuracy or access

Wikipedia is a child of the internet age – created for the people by the people. As one of the ten most-visited sites, it is a godsend for lazy students, instant gratification for sudden questions, and a reliable source of news, most of the time. Wikipedia, like other sites, is subject to vandalism. This has caused a number of temporary, fictitious reports on Bruce Springsteen, Maggie Thatcher, and Barack Obama’s inauguration. The site wants to concentrate on facts backed up by sources, not opinion. It also has to maintain its authority as other competitors, like Citizendium and Google, try to stake their claim. Google Knol (a unit of knowledge) has been operating for 8 months now and already has 100,000 articles.

One of the problems for Wikipedia is finding a balance between accuracy and access. If too many people are allowed to access, it loses accuracy. If passing through a hierarchy of editors and administrators, it sacrifices true access. Another challenge for Wikipedia is to stay clear of advertising, in the face of its continual demand for bandwidth. Avid users of Wikipedia may not be concerned about behind-the-scenes wrangling over access or advertising, as long as they get the information they need. Even so, these are examples of the challenges many sites face in the era of Web 2.0 and beyond.

Ref: Weekend Australian, February 21-22 2009, Never wrong for long. Stephen Foley.
Search words: Wikipedia, wisdom of crowds, Barack Obama, editing, vandalism, Citizendium, ad-free, accuracy, access.
Trend tags: Web 2.0, user created content
Source integrity: *****


Is newsprint dead?

The New York Times, bulwark of American journalism, is losing circulation, advertising revenue, and credit. How it fares in today’s economy is likely to set an example for other national daily newspapers across the world. Many people have claimed the days of buying the national paper, and ritually reading it on the train to work, are numbered; we will sooner or later have to accept digital versions of news. For so-called digital natives, this may be palatable; for older people, it is the disturbing end of something we thought was forever.

Fitch Ratings has predicted more newspapers “will be liquidated in 2009 and several [US] cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2020”. Already, 20 million people are reading NYT online (fifth ranked news site in reader numbers) and only a million buy the paper copy (1.4 million on Sundays). Unfortunately, the paper-copy readers are worth about five figures a page to advertisers, compared to unprofitable online users. Moving to digital format could put 80% of its journalists out of work, and the growing presence of bloggers suggests readers may have come to undervalue experienced journalism. They have also been trained, to some extent by quality papers themselves, to expect lifestyle topics as much as hard news.

One possible blueprint for the NYT is the successful, finance-raising Huffington Post, which uses aggregation, a wide range of contributors and continues to grow original reporting. The NYT would be able to add to its own mix contributors who can set agendas, do in-depth investigations, and break high-level news. With this new mix, the NYT may be able to return to what it does best, rather than trying to fit in with the prevailing lifestyle omnibuses currently filling up newsagents.

Ref: The Atlantic, January/February 2009, End Times. Michael Hirschorn.
Search words: newsprint, The New York Times, credit crisis, dailies, digital-only, lifestyle, blogging, Huffington Post, journalism.
Trend tags: e-papers, internet
Source integrity: *****


Print that blog!

Whenever there is a trend, in this case away from printing and towards blogging, there’s a bright spark who decides to buck it - and print blogs. A Chicago start-up, called The Printed Blog, wants to print blog posts on paper, fund it with hyper-local advertising, and distribute it free in big cities. It is true that many free papers have continued to survive where paid ones have failed. They tend to be local, keep local residents informed, and encourage local businesses to advertise.

The Printed Blog will look like a blog and appear with photographs and comments written by readers. Eventually, they will be able to log on to the site and decide which blogs they want in their neighbourhood paper – in a city like Chicago this could mean 50 separate editions! Its distributors will print them on commercial printers in their own homes and advertisers will be able to buy online but pay the premium for printed ads.

Does this sound like a recipe for future media? It is certainly a highly targeted form of media, but the work involved in such targeting could be overwhelming. The people involved might need exceptional dedication to produce so many niche products. Moreover, advertisers need to be convinced that the blogs are valued, and that their advertising efforts show a measurable return.

Ref: The New York Times, 22 January 2009, Publisher rethinks the Daily: It’s free and printed and has blogs all over. Claire Cain Miller.
Search words: The Printed Blog, Chicago, MediaNews, daily newspaper, hyper-local, niche.
Trend tags: Blogs, Web 2.0, user created content
Source integrity: *****


The “iPod moment” for newspapers

When Apple introduced the iPod and iTunes, it transformed the record industry and made it possible for people to listen to the tunes they wanted, rather than how the labels packaged them. Many in the book and newspaper industry are wondering whether they too are facing an “iPod moment” with e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle and iRex’s iLiad. With the ability to store 1,500 books, buy books one at a time, and no wireless subscription fees, companies are hoping that people will fall for the convenience, long-life battery, and the gadget’s gentleness on the eyes. But will this be good for newspapers?

Some say the e-reader will boost newspaper revenues because ink, printing and delivery now eat up more than 50% of costs. Since people are already accustomed to reading digital versions, and some appreciate the lack of advertising, they will pay a subscription fee just as they pay for books. Few will pay hundreds of dollars for an e-reader with access to only one newspaper, so newspapers will have to work out a split of revenues with the e-reader seller. But ultimately, people may read more newspapers and magazines simply because the platform is so convenient. It is like carrying a huge bundle of newsprint, in a small, thin box.

If subscriptions increase, then advertisers will want to get themselves on to e-readers. At the moment, they are black and white, but researchers are looking for ways to produce them in colour, without compromising quality, and offering video, without eating up battery life. When ads look as compelling on the e-reader as they do in print, this could provide a superior source of revenue compared with that available online.

Perhaps the ultimate question is whether we will want to read newspapers and magazines on an e-reader or, coming soon, a piece of light, flexible plastic. Technology continually races ahead of our ability to accept it, but eventually the early adopters will start to convince the rest of us. The day of e-readers on the train is probably further away than manufacturers hope, but eventually it will come and that mobile phone will look a bit pass.

Ref: Fortune (US), 16 March 2009, The end of paper? Michael V Copeland.
The Economist (UK), 14 February 2009, Well read. Anon.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: e-papers, e-ink, pay-per-view
Trend tags: Digitalisation