Monday, December 8, 2008

Print Is Doomed, Electronic Media Set To Boom

Andrew Sullivan ponders the accelerating print media apocalypse:
Take the newspaper industry. It has been faltering badly under the pressure of new media for a few years. For much of the past decade, circulation for all papers has been declining at about 2% a year. The last year has been a test case of sorts. Newspapers had the story of a lifetime: an election campaign of historic interest, suspense, drama and personality. From Hillary to Barack, from John Edwards’s love child to Sarah Palin’s Down’s syndrome child, from John McCain’s wild lunges for relevance to the first black president, it was the kind of year in which circulation should have boomed. If you live for a story, this year was an embarrassment of riches.

And yet the decline didn’t just continue. It accelerated.

Between March and September the 500 biggest newspapers in America reported an average circulation decline of 4.6%. In six months. That’s close to a 10% decline per year. No newspapers showed any but fractional gains. It is therefore a near-certainty that many towns and cities in America will no longer have a newspaper after the down-turn. And that may apply not just to small names but to some big ones as well. The Los Angeles Times, for example, has gone from a circulation of 1.1m to 739,000 since the turn of the millennium. Its staff has been halved. Morale has never been lower.

Continue reading.

The solution? This:

(Via Engadget.)

Business Wire reports:
Flexible displays are paper-like computer displays made almost entirely of plastic. This technology enables displays to become easily portable and consumes less power than today’s computer displays. Popular applications for the technology could include electronic paper and signage.

The production feat is a milestone in the industry’s efforts to create a mass market for high-resolution flexible displays. Plus, from an environmental standpoint, the displays leapfrog conventional display processes by using up to 90 percent less materials by volume.

Mass production of such displays can enable production of notebook computers, smart phones and other electronic devices at much lower costs since the display is one of the more costly components.

I wrote a column detailing my predictions along these lines a few months back:
Technology enthusiasts have predicted the death of paper for some time now but have traditionally had trouble explaining what would take its place. Despite their usefulness for many tasks, the electronic displays on present-day laptops and other gadgets remain unable to match old-fashioned paper in terms of being lightweight, flexible, and, perhaps most importantly, easy on the eyes. Thus, although many people today, especially the young, get much of their news online, dead-tree publications still serve a unique and vital function.

But those age-old compact sheets of ground-up wood pulp are about to be supplanted by a new medium. If "plastics" was the economic buzzword of the late 1960s, "electronic paper" will likely achieve similar fame in the 2010s. The name may or may not stick, but the development of the technology is already proceeding at a rapid pace. Numerous electronics manufacturers are experimenting with flexible circuits that can be embedded in rubber, producing devices such as screens, keyboards, and touch pads that can be twisted, rolled, or folded without damaging them.

Continue reading.

The news today is particularly grim for daily newspapers, with the Chicago Tribune going bankrupt and the New York Times running out of money. Within the next several years it seems likely that most of the mainstream print media industry is going to suffer a fate similar to that of the famous Hindenberg airship:

The best way forward for primarily text-based media outlets is to move to business models focusing on making content available in as many electronic formats as possible. The flexible displays and electronic paper discussed above are going to proliferate with amazing rapidity over the next couple of years. News organizations that embrace this development and give up on wasting money squirting ink onto paper and shipping it all over the place will survive. The vast majority of those that don't will die. Sure it will be a painful process, but evolution always is.

Make no mistake, the media ecosystem that will grow up on the foundation of ubiquitous flexible electronic displays will be far better than the current print media environment. Barriers to entry will be substantially lower, opportunities for diversity will be greater, and stodgy centralized management will cease to be anything but a liability. So bring on the fiery doom as soon as possible. Only after there are ashes can a phoenix rise from them.

(Cross-posted at D-(eye) on Arts.)


I've written another blog post expanding on this one: Electronic Newspaper Business Models.


taco said...

This is simply not going to happen, Chris. Electronic paper is an impractical techno-punk novelty in the vein of the pneumatic subway. It would be a step backwards to try and perfect and market this technology to consumers when laptops and PDAs and Blackberries and 3G cell phones with infinitely more practical uses are already evolving and energizing in miraculous ways, that can will only be hampered if you insist that they must be shaped like a newspaper.

ePaper, after all, really boils down to being a very thin eBook does it not? And if you missed it the Washington Post had a story just last week about how how unloved eBooks are relative to the iPod Touch.

Christopher Patton said...

I never said electronic paper "must be shaped like a newspaper." It's just a name for a type of technology and doesn't imply any particular format. As usual, you're happily attacking a straw man of your own making.

There are several key factors to consider when contemplating an electronic replacement for paper-based newspapers. Such devices must be readable, portable, and cheap. Electronic paper technology will do all three of these things. Of course cell phones, mp3 players, etc. will likely continue to be most people's devices of choice. However, these devices will make use of flexible screen technology that will allow a device the size of a cell phone to either fold or roll out into a more reasonably sized screen. Such devices already exist as prototypes.

In any case, if current trends continue multiple American cities will be without daily papers in another year and a half or two. So, whatever happens, there are some major changes coming in the near future.

taco said...

"I never said electronic paper 'must be shaped like a newspaper.'"

How does that statement significantly differ from this exactly?

"However, these devices will make use of flexible screen technology that will allow a device the size of a cell phone to either fold or roll out into a more reasonably sized screen."

Go back to my post and actually read it, trying to follow what I'm saying instead of searching for Waldo.

Christopher Patton said...

No, you're just not following the relevant technology and business news that I do. If you don't know the differences between LCD, LED, OLED, and quantum dots, then you don't know enough to be able to debate where display technology is headed. Quantum dots and transparent transistors embedded in a flexible, clear substance will allow all sorts of interesting applications. And as we get better at assembling devices at the molecular level, we'll be able to do some pretty odd things. I share relevant articles in these fields through Google Reader all the time.

Christopher Patton said...

Also, are you really suggesting that most consumers don't prefer larger screens to smaller ones? Because readily available market data shows that people do.

I don't know about you, but I'd much rather read any long piece of text off of a surface the size of the average novel's page as opposed to even the entire side of an iPhone. The currently available interface for such activities isn't at all good. However, a phone that folded out into a screen four times the width and height of the device in its most compact state would solve this problem nicely. And that's still not the size or shape of a newspaper.

taco said...

And you accuse me of manufacturing straw men to make my arguments? Hypocrite.

"No, you're just not following the relevant technology and business news that I do."

Only about 50% true. Clearly I'm not following technology news with the level of wide-eyed optimism you are. See the afore-provided link on the pneumatic subway. While Business Wire may publish some tech news, there is no "business news" about electronic paper because there are no electronic paper on the open market.

"Also, are you really suggesting that most consumers don't prefer larger screens to smaller ones? Because readily available market data shows that people do."

Statistics are statistics. See again my comments on eReader devices. People may be buying bigger HDTVs than ever before, but they're also buying smaller laptops and cell phones than ever before. I shouldn't have to explain to you the benefits of portable tech, irrespective of the satisfaction of a large screen.

The examples of ePaper technology people blog about are not products ready for market, even with several years' development they're still mockups and protoypes, which puts them way behind the curve in hopes of becoming the next wave in consumer media tech.

In the far future when battery and flash memory technology are also radically evolved from what we know now, folding-screen newspaper-devices might be practical, but I don't expect to see it on the market before I had grandkids. It's just too experimental and alternative relative to other ideas on the drawing board.

Christopher Patton said...

Only time will tell. But I'm pretty confident I'm right. In any case, I'm glad to see that you've at least gone from claiming that such technology would never exist to admitting that it will likely exist eventually, just not as soon as I think. Given the exponential nature of the development of various key information technologies, your conservative linear view of development is, I think, quite dubious.

Finally, the nature of the electronic displays that will be used is really quite tangential to my argument about the future of the newspaper industry anyway. Even if we don't get flexible screens as soon as I think, print is still dying. The economic numbers on that are starkly clear.