The iPod moment for newspapers won’t be good news for some parts of the papers

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

11 Comments

  1. The iPod – another great example of the triumph of marketing over matter.

  2. Sir Josmould Herringpole

    Wednesday 5 September 2007 at 7:48 am

    Unlike the Zune then.

  3. You may be right, Flotsam, if by “marketing” you mean that the iPod had a significantly better interface than its rivals at the time, an adherence to open standards and audio quality (AAC) where others preferred proprietary technology (WMV and ATRAC), and simplicity of synchronisation with host computers. (The DRM thing came later, with the advent of the iTunes store.)

    Almost all old-tech will face challenges from the new. I have a hypothesis that the older the technology, the longer it will take for the new to take over. Recorded music was relatively young, and had already been through a number of upsets (think of the transition from wax cylinder to shellac 79 to vinyl 45 and LP to CD…) before the MP3 and the original Napster beat it up. Even after the success of the iPod and other MP3 players, the traditional industry is still putting up a strong fight. In another arena — photography — a long-standing and stable tradition of film has effectively vanished in the consumer market. This has probably been helped by the fact that the same companies have supported both digital and film products. It is easy for Kodak to retreat from the consumer market because they have a digital product to replace it with. I think the music industry made a mistake in ignoring electronics companies’ work in the digital arena (Sony would have been well-placed to take advantage of close cooperation between its publishing/production and electronics businesses, apart from the fact that they seemed to be suicidally determined to keep each other at arms’ length).

    What does that mean for the print media? If I am right, as the oldest media technology, print should have longest to wait for a serious battle with new technology. However, we all know that “internet time” is compressed, so the threat might actually be just around the corner. On the other hand, there is a useful cautionary tale in the way that the music industry has faced innovation. The old media must remember not to emulate the RIAA and BPI.

  4. I think it’s quite clear that Alan Rusbridger (insert Charles’s disclaimer) understands the internet pretty well, and has done an extraordinary job of moving the paper onto it. But. But. I am much less sure that “the article” will perform in future the funcitons of “the track”. This may be becasue i am listening to a lot of classical music at the moment, where the idea of a “track” makes a great deal less sense. But also because the value of articles does reside to a surprising extent in the other articles around them.

    Phil Space may go, but I am not certain of this. Remember that what will drive this is in future the desire of advertisers to find people to lie to. So Phil’s copy — cheap to produce, easy to read without paying attention — will stay popular with advertisers. It is the muzak in which subliminal ads can be injected.

    The loss of long stuff is much more of a shame. I would like to believe it is not inevitable. But perhaps it is. If this is true, then the problem is at least as much one of politics (in the wider sense) as of technology.

  5. @Flotsam

    ‘The iPod – another great example of the triumph of marketing over matter.’
    Huh..?
    That’s like declaring polar bears are useless or green flowers are cr*p. How about some incisive reasoning… how about telling us which other great examples you can think of that sell upwards of 100 million and have become the generic symbol no matter the maker and are just marketing fluff. Lets see – Hoover, Biro etc….yeh, all triumphs of marketing over matter.

  6. I’m not sure I want to carry an A4 device around – it’s too big. I fold newspapers a lot when I carry them. And I am still not convinced about reading off screens, no matter how high a resolution. Paper is just such great stuff and people really like it. I can’t light my stove with an A4 screen or line the cat litter tray or feed my compost worms etc. etc. : I suspect people (well terribly middle class bourgeios people anyway) will miss newspapers rather more than they might expect – glossies are terrible for all those useful jobs. (AOL CDs made great coasters and bird scarers but I don’t suppose people miss them)

    I do agree however about optimisation of content – I ditch half the Saturday paper without even unfolding it, I don’t look at the supplements on Tuesdays or Wednesdays and, sort of as you do, I skim the sport looking for scandal, cycling and stuff about Newcastle United because that’s important locally (I am not interested in football even remotely). This a) a huge waste of resources, and b) extra cost (except that I usually get the paper in the Union at the student rate, but the principle is the there…..)

    Will there be a “Singin’ in the Rain” moment for journalists? Those who write well but who have silly voices : will they employ surrogate voices or just get named actors to read them (as for audio books). Of course the choice of voice is vastly important – Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent is one of my favourite reads, but I heard the first 10 seconds of the audio book and stopped straight away (equally the audio book of Finnegan’s Wake helps make the text more understandable because some of it only works when done in an Irish accent)

  7. I’m not so sure that it will have a big impact at first, as I’d much rather read the FT for a dollar a day than set up a micropayment service for a list of reports by different freelancers or reporters (except maybe for Robert Fisk). However, if you remember seeing the movie Minority Report, where people on the subway were reading something that looked like a standard newspaper, yet the headlines changed to reflect the latest news in realtime, I think we could see something like that in the next 20 years. The bigger question is how advertisers will make use of such a medium. Unless you have a multimillion dollar budget, advertisers do not appear to grasp the intricacies of web advertising (running the same banner ad for a year for example). This newspaper ipod might actually hasen the decline of general advertising and increase viral/direct marketing programs instead (which typically do not fund content providers).

  8. Reports of the death of anything are always exaggerated. The iPod hasn’t killed the CD business – crap CDs at rip-off prices have hurt the music business, but technology hasn’t done that.

    People by papers for all sorts of reasons, mainly habit – but part of the value proposition of a quality newspaper is a quick digest of what’s interesting and important that morning, in a handy, easy-to-carry format. I think there’ll still be a big market for that in twenty years’ time – but not one I’d necessarily want to put my own money into.

  9. > I am much less sure that “the article” will perform in future the funcitons of “the track”… the value of articles does reside to a surprising extent in the other articles around them.

    Lots of people are already reading just the articles they want in their RSS readers. It makes reading the stuff you want quicker. Related articles? The original article can link to them.

  10. The essential part of a newspaper which everyone seems to forget is the stuff that you didn’t know you wanted to see – filtered feeds are fine but they don’t expand your horizons or knowledge.

  11. An A4-sized gadget that could download stories and lo-res photos, even Flash video using an RSS reader when connected via my home (or BT Openzone?) WiFi from a Guardian/Times/BBC/Podshow feed would be fantastic. One-off set-up with occasional tweaks to add new feeds (how about podcasts?) or remove unwanted ones and I would have my perfect travelling companion. Most back-packs/laptop bags have a gap for headphones, adding Bluetooth audio support would expand options. Don’t like A4? – foldable screens are on the horizon, touch control along the lines of the iPhone concept would be superb.

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