The future of newspapers

I started my publishing career on the internet in 2003. The technology was primitive by today’s standards, but amazing for the times.

Amazon Kindle DX with 9.7in screen

My first venture involved a static website called The Dial. I created business “How-To” eBooks — by far the easiest to sell — in a desk-top publishing program and converted them to PDF. It was laborious getting the pages to format properly, but the result was satisfying and professional in appearance.

The files were uploaded to a specialized part of the website, from where they could be downloaded by customers paying between $5 and $9 per book. Only the American market was sophisticated and enterprising enough for the products in those days.

I didn’t make a fortune, but it opened my eyes to the attractions of the internet and especially “e” formats. The astonishing thing was, you could actually make money by selling nothing … well, electronic files to be exact. It was cheap, labour intensive at first, but once it was up, the cost factor was negligible. The future had arrived.

Now, mainstream published books are being sold as e-books readable on devices even more convenient than the print versions. Amazon’s Kindle, the market leader, will hold up to 1500 complete titles, obtainable from a free 3G mobile network. While current bestsellers can cost more than discounted print copies, out-of-copyright classics may be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg in attractive rich-text versions.

I had hoped to buy a Kindle over Christmas, but the big 9.7in screen model was unavailable in Britain. A 6in “global” version was purchasable from the American website. We are now hearing that the Kindle DX will be on sale here in a matter of weeks.

Meanwhile, many other models are appearing, from Apple’s glitzy IPad to the Sony e-reader and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, which uses Google’s Android operating system. Everyone is piling into this market. It’s the “next big thing” in electronics, mainly because it offers a new platform for newspapers and magazines.

Right now, the market is full of potential but is not quite ready for the big time. A 6in screen is just too small for comfort, little different from the bigger mobile phones. An iPhone has a 3in screen, a BlackBerry Curve has a 2.5in, measured diagonally.

What a 6in screen looks like can be mocked up by folding an A4 sheet of paper in four, that is, folded twice. The A6 result has a 7in diagonal. Chop an inch off it and you’ll see what I mean. The new 10in e-readers (9.7 for the Kindle DX) can be compared in size to a large paperback book, perfect for carrying around — and reading. This technology is set to barnstorm next Christmas.

Imagine what can done with it. School books and lessons could be loaded into these devices via mobile networks and given to students. In the present weather conditions, children would be able to study at home, prompted by emails to their mobiles or even the device itself. Almost certainly, this is the future of education.

Any political party that says it can’t cut a chunk off the education budget, does not understand what this technology is set to do.

Newspapers and magazines also will be revolutionized by large-size e-readers. Currently, there’s hardly a print paper in the world that is not considering charging for content from their internet sites. There simply isn’t enough advertising revenue to go round online.

Rupert Murdoch has signalled that his fleet, which includes The Times (London) and the Wall Street Journal, will adopt a micropayment system (pay-per-article) later this year. The Times is already chopping up comment pieces into two or three pages, a move which increases the number of pageviews, allowing the site to charge more for its advertising space.

From the same stable, The Sun, has pulled its much-read Columnists link from the website, so if you want to read Trevor Kavanagh’s commentary pieces you must buy the paper, page-3 girls and all. Many people wouldn’t be seen dead with it under their arm.

The rival Spectator magazine has recently adopted a “six-ways-to-pay” system, with just a few taster articles given away free online. Everyone is doing it.

The answer, though, lies not in elaborate charging mechanisms, with stingy giveaways that enrage loyal readers, but in the new e-paper and e-ink technology. And imagine the scope for smaller publishers to produce high-quality e-ink magazines and journals, even taking on the big boys.

The more popular blogs could be produced as eMags on subscription, even some of the political commentary sites might benefit, perhaps with extra material not available online. It would be almost like real publishing again.

My prediction for 2010 is that e-readers will become the must-have item for the discerning consumer, and the 10in versions will be how, increasingly, we read newspapers and magazines. In the jargon, we will consume news and comment on electronic, book-sized, wafer-thin devices, paid for by subscription, with daily downloads via 3G mobile networks.

Already, some American papers and magazines are testing the waters. As with simple e-books back in 2003, they are way ahead of the game.

Newspapers will survive. But not as we know them now.

So, here’s a New Year toast to e-ink and e-paper.

Published by DCO. © Copyright 2009, 2010 DCO.