News, media & communications

Slow media

People read 6% more slowly on an iPad versus a paper book and 10% more slowly on a Kindle, says a study by the Nielsen Norman group in the US. As Dr Jacob Nielsen points out, “the difference between the two devices was not statistically significant” but the question still remains why there is any difference at all. Perhaps it is more difficult to think when faced with a screen and therefore people take longer to read it. As the study also observes, reading a device is a lengthier process than imbibing words from a book. Interestingly, reading on a PC hardly suited anyone, largely because the device reminded people of work.

Patrick Kingsley, writing in the Guardian, comments on the research by observing that: “Many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.” This, of course, echoes the thinking of Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows. People are reading but most are not fully engaging with the content. We are forgetting how to concentrate and are increasingly feeding off small snippets on Twitter and Facebook without any genuine understanding or empathy. We are getting better at skimming oceans of information to find titbits that interest or amuse us, but we are getting worse at wading the rivers of longer text.

So what’s next? Given the problems emerging with screen-based reading (and given these things often operate in cycles) I’d wager we are on the cusp of a slow reading counter-trend. People will partly revert to paper and paper-based forms of communication, whenever understanding is critical or when true empathy is important.

Ref: The Guardian (UK) 15 July 2010, ‘The art of slow reading’, by P. Kingsley. Tech Watch, 27 July 2010, ‘Study says people read e-books slower than print.
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Search words: Facebook, iPad, Kindle, reading, empathy, slow reading

Why aren’t newspapers dead?

Every time someone predicts the extinction of something, it suddenly re-emerges, like the hand from the grave in the movie Carrie. Newspapers are supposed to be dead. They were on the way out years ago when classified advertising migrated online (to free-listing websites and search engines) and young people didn’t read newspapers anymore.

The GFC of 2007/9 and employee pension liabilities were expected to finish them off. Only they didn’t. In many ways the predictions of doom and gloom were correct. According to the American Society of News Editors, US newsrooms lost 13,500 jobs since 2007. They also report that print and online advertising revenue declined by 35% since 2008 and circulations dipped too. But that’s not the whole story.

The US is an extreme case and some people made the mistake of extrapolating the US experience into a global trend. US newspapers are especially reliant on ad revenue (87% of revenue came from ads in 2008 according to an OECD report). But in emerging markets, newspapers are doing well, because there is less competition from news aggregators and because of overall market growth. Even in Germany, Axel Springer (publishers of Die Welt and Bild) recently reported its best quarterly results in history (and profit margins of 27%). Some US papers are doing well too, particularly those that increased cover prices and instigated cost cutting. A fall of 40% in the cost of newsprint has helped too.

So what’s the future for newspapers in the US and elsewhere? For those that dominate a niche or produce content that is distinctive enough for people to pay for it, I’d say the prospects are good. The trick, as always, is to be customer focused and to create content that resonates with people. Dual revenue streams and clever innovations, such as local papers running syndicated national and international news, also help. As to whether large numbers of people can be persuaded to pay for online news or whether young people will pay for anything online, I’d say the jury is still out.

Ref: The Economist (UK) 12 June 2010, ‘The strange survival of ink’ and ‘Not dead yet’,
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Search words: newspapers, US, cost cutting, Germany, circulation, content

Facebook fatigue

If Facebook were a country it would be the world’s 3rd largest, with 500 million registered members. According to some reports, Facebook also attracts more visits in the US than Google. But while Facebook may have the size in terms of page views, Google still has the influence, especially in the US. Google is the gatekeeper, referring users to other sites, although Facebook is gaining ground even here. So is it simply a matter of time before Facebook eclipses everything else in cyberspace?

One trend working against Facebook is privacy. Some folks are getting mad and quitting Facebook because it makes too much information public and gives too much information away to others, including sites such as Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft. Most people don’t even know this is happening, but the free service comes at a personal cost.

While you can stop this from happening, it’s time consuming to do it. In the early days information such as your home city, your photo and the names of your friends was public by default, but you could make it private. Now the site has changed the rules so that, unless your interests and friends are made public, you cannot list them.

Some people don’t care about this. Privacy is dead online they say. Or as Facebook themselves put it, this is just social norms catching up with new technology. Personally I think you should be careful about who you share information with and be especially careful about publicly putting information in the hands of people you don’t wholly trust. Once it’s there you can’t ever get it back.

Ref: Newsweek (US) 7 June 2010, ‘The high price of Facebook’, by D. Lyons. See also, the FT (UK) 20-21 March 2010, ‘Facebook gains strength but Google is still the daddy’, by R. Waters. Also The Economist (UK) 30 January 2010, Special Report on Social Networking: ‘A world of connections.’
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Search words: Facebook, Google, privacy, trust, public

The future of public libraries

A while ago the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) released a modernisation review of the public library service in England. I read it and I didn't like it. Indeed, if this is an example of the quality of thinking inside the DCMS it's no wonder that overall numbers of active library users have fallen by 2.1% to 12 million in the UK or that young people rarely enter one of the 3,500 public libraries in England.

The DCMS report is essentially a collection of essays from interested parties followed by a handful of supposedly insightful questions. It is, in my view, a classic example of a government ‘reaching out’ to ‘stakeholders’ in the belief that once they have mentioned the word “innovation” a few times, there is little need to do anything else.

The report exposes a lack of deep thinking. Its mistake is to equate the future of the book with the future of libraries. They are connected, but they are not quite the same. It’s also fairly obvious that it isn’t just about the books. Yes, a local library is a community space and so is the local pub and the local post office. What marks local libraries out as special is they are local learning and information hubs with a literary tradition and foundation.

They are, as the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton points out, one of the few public places left where people are invited to do something that’s not work or shopping. He also comments: “Even if all the world’s books were instantly available on a computer wired to every home, there’d still be a purpose to libraries as places of communion”. If you are interested in the future of libraries, the Scottish and Welsh National Libraries have both published reports that are a much better read, largely because they are written by experts that know what they are talking about.

Ref: The Times (UK) 30 March 2010, ‘ Libraries stop doing it by the book’, by M. Pattenden. Also The Observer (UK) 6 December 2009, ‘Is the writing on the wall for public libraries?’ by R. Cooke,
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Search words: libraries, UK, deep thinking, books, information, innovation, stakeholders

The war of the words

According to Steve Jobs, 40% of Americans read one book or less last year. Jobs plans to change this by making reading cheaper and more convenient, through his iPad and related devices. According to Tom Stoppard (the playwright), children’s love of reading is being swept away by a digital torrent. Words are being replaced by pictures, especially by the moving image. So is Stoppard just out of date? Is the book made out of paper, board and ink dead?

A study by Duke University in the US found that children with access to computers at home performed significantly worse in exams than children without. The study looked at 150,000 children’s reading and maths scores in 2000 (before they had access to a computer) and again in 2005 (when they did). In other words, the study was carried out before Facebook and Twitter even came into play.The statistics make worrying reading and there is emerging evidence that devices, such as the iPad, are indeed not only changing our habits but changing our brains for the worse too.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK) 22 June 2010, ‘Twitter ye not’ by N. Tweedie, and ‘Love of reading at risk, says Stoppard by G. Paton (same issue date).
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Search words: reading, Duke University, Steve Jobs, Tom Stoppard, books, children