Alan Rusbridger, who gets to fire me if he so chooses, has a theory that newspapers are headed for an “iPod moment” just as the music industry was back in the beginning of 2001. I agree with him. Thinking about it though, there are going to be some downsides; I haven’t seen his analysis of what’s going to happen, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t include some of what follows. Because if I can think of it, a successful editor who spotted the importance of the web a while back certainly can.
Back at the start of 2001, there were portable devices which could hold some songs: they either held very few songs and were small, or held loads of songs and were big and clunky. (Examples: the Diamond Rio players vs the Creative Labs ones.) The iPod trumped them because it was small and could hold loads of songs – plus, of course, it had a terrific user interface. (Phil Schiller’s team still doesn’t get enough credit for inventing the scroll wheel.)
The “iPod moment” – which happened, let’s guess, was underway around the beginning of 2004, when the Guardian’s G2 section had a piece about “the iPodders”, noting how people had these things – meant that suddenly people began to realise that they could carry huge tracts of music with them, rather than being tied down to playing small amounts on a portable CD or MiniDisc, or having the full lot at home on their hi-fi.
(And in passing, the iPhone is not the “iPod moment” for phones. It’s too big; it doesn’t redefine what we do with phones. It’s a smartphone with a cute interface.)
Logically, there’s a device coming our way which will be able to hold and “play back” (visually of course) huge amounts of text while being portable and convenient. That already exists in the form of paper, but it’s hard to search through paper or create “playlists” of favourite writers from across multiple papers. I have to carry a laptop and read my news feeds; if I wanted to download all the papers for every day, I’d need to set up a lot of fancy scripts to pull in the text of the stories. Feasible, but boring.
Imagine though a light A4-sized product that runs (for ages) off batteries, and has a very readable screen (100+dpi at least; 150 is better for really good-quality small print). And which can store a few gigabytes of data. The latter’s easy – some Flash memory, thank you, sorted. The screen’s much harder, though various people are closing in on it.
OK, given that, you have a product that you can fill with content. (USB port should do it. Wi-Fi too, though you’d need to be able to turn it off; too power-hungry otherwise.) You can get that content from newspapers – perhaps PDFs (nice and simple, and papers generate those in their production process, generally). Newspapers and magazines will want it to be one direction only, into the gizmo, rather as with the iPod. Don’t know how easy that’s going to be to arrange, though, unless this thing has some special data format it reads..
Papers will be sort of happy: they can have adverts and maybe there’ll be ways for people to click on them and give feedback about what they’ve read. (So you’ll need some sort of output. Maybe even a web browser. Except with a 150dpi screen, any web pages you see now will look teeny-weeny.)
But it’s inevitable that some parts of the paper will lose out badly in a “we know what you read” world. That already happens online: the Telegraph follows, for the edification of its reporters, which stories people are clicking on. Woe unto those who aren’t popular online. Even when you get to screens which can give you tabloid (at best; A4 more likely) pages to read, you’re going to find that some things just won’t get read often.
What things? Well, I think some of the opinion columnists whose work amounts to no more than random blogging are going to struggle. There’s a lot of Phil Space stuff going on. Long news items will strain peoples’ reading patience (as happens already, but they fill the paper nicely). When the Independent and Times moved from broadsheet to tabloid, the longer pieces were the first to suffer. When you move to A4, that’ll happen again. Short and snappy and grabby will be in. Long and trivial and doesn’t speak to a lot of people will be out.
The effects on papers’ economics are hard to guess at. But I do think that they’ll be adverse – that rather as the music industry has seen the destruction of the album, partly through the (lack of) efforts by artists who haven’t come up with more than two tracks worth listening to, and those each 3 minutes long (excluding remixes). Now, people just go for tracks. I think that in the same way, newspapers will find themselves driven down towards “the article” – as happens already online, and was happening already. The difference is that consumers were heading towards the “track” thinking before the iPod came along: remember compilation tapes and CDs? Burning compilation CDs? That’s track-based thinking. The iPod just magnified it. The effect on journalists will be radical.
In the same way, the iPod moment for newspapers will last a while – and mean that lots of things that presently make up the “album” of the newspaper fall by the wayside, perhaps quite quickly.
For me, it’ll be the racing results, share prices and other little bits. And pretty much all of the football, except the scandals. Though actually once I can tune football out, I’ll ignore it completely.
A quote, actually, from that 2004 Guardian piece: “The iPod, the place where storage becomes magic, now helps us say for sure: it’s all over,” says Paul Morley, whose book Words and Music appeared last summer, just as the Pod pioneers were setting out on their journey. “The physical presence of the popular song is gone. It’s time for the next thing. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising. Nothing to put away in shoeboxes or spare cupboards, and be embarrassed about. A chip inside us and inside the chip a route to all the music that there ever was.”
And soon, the same for the words and podcasts and videos that journalists write. And from any of them. It’s going to be really interesting. And full of turmoil