The Future Of News: Wet Paper and Scissors
(This is a copy of my weekly column for newspapers and print media.)
By Jeremy Wagstaff
Waiting to board a train in London, knowing my smartphone battery was flat, and that the UK trains are too cramped to open a laptop on, I bought myself a magazine or two.
It was like a trip down memory lane. I’ve caught that train to the ‘burbs many a time in my life, but not for a decade or two, and I’d not bought a magazine to read on a train for probably the same length of time.
It was great. Of course, the choice of magazine mattered: in this case Wired and Private Eye.
Flicking through each for a first inspection, mentally noting the places I wanted to go back to, removing all the detritus that would otherwise drop and litter the platform, enjoying the contrasting feel of Wired’s gloss and the Eye’s rough-hewn paper.
Wired is now on the iPad and, I heard, pretty impressive. The Eye, meanwhile, looks identical to its earliest iterations in the 1960s. Same layout, same paper, same logo, same jokes.
The point is this: physical magazines—paper—are not going to die out. Any more than radio is going to die out (I learned from Wired that 80% of music is still listened to on the radio.) Any more than torrents will kill TV. Or laptops will kill desktops. Or netbooks will kill iPads. We think too binary, too winner-takes-all.
But some things have changed, and I am surprised that print media hasn’t caught up.
Whereas in the past I might, had I felt the urge, snipped out a story I found worth keeping in the magazine I was reading, I’d be a fool to do that now. My days of cuttings are over: Since all my libraries are digital, why on earth would I want to start building one of bits?
Of course, there are tools for this: Evernote, for example, lets me take a photo of something and will store it in a database having scanned it for words, so I can use those words to search for it in the future.
But it’s not a good solution. Nowadays we save, clip, annotate and share on the fly, and we expect to be able to do so. ( Although, as I outlined in a column a week or so ago, this isn’t as easy as it could be.)
The world of Facebook and twitter is a world of annotating and sharing, and we’re used to see articles online whore themselves out with little icons at the bottom encouraging us to do just that.
But what I’d like to see is traditional media, having already embarked on a bipolar world of digital and atoms with their online versions and their print editions, do a better job of matching the two.
For example: I have really enjoyed reading Wired in print. I’ve read stuff I would never have read online: partly because I’ve bought the magazine for $7 (shocking myself and the shop assistant who I felt was about to say “You know you can read most of the stuff in here online for free, right?”) and I want to get my money’s worth.
But it’s also partly because it’s so dang portable. And my that I mean not that I can read it on planes and on the sofa, a la ebooks and iPads, but also at all stations in the bathroom bar the shower, if you know what I mean.
And at breakfast, spilling coffee and muesli over it.
But the problem is the annotation.
Nowadays we expect to be able to share and store stuff. I found myself wanting to share some of the stuff I’d read and realizing I couldn’t. Well, I could have grabbed a passing waitress and told her about the interesting snippet I’d come across, but that would have been weird.
I wanted to be able to save some of the stuff online for later.
But I couldn’t. At least I couldn’t easily and seamlessly.
I could search online for the same article, but Wired are smart/dumb: they don’t put all the stuff in their magazines online.
This is where I think publishers need to be smarter. I would like to see them use QR tags—barcodes—to help those people dumb/smart enough to buy their premium print copies save what they have in post-print formats.
Each article, for example, would include a barcode which you could snap with your camera phone. That would automatically save a copy of the article to your online account, or email it to you, or however you want to save it. It wouldn’t be fiddly: it would be easy as highlighting it.
The article could be stored in a subscriber/print purchaser’s corner of the website. It would require users—even casual purchasers like me—to sign up, and then the publisher would get all sorts of interesting data about what stories are being stored (and, if you want to be clever, where, since the cellphone is a moveable beast.)
For me, I’d rest easier knowing that my reading is not ephemeral. For the publisher, they will collect data about their offline readers, and, at least in my case, start to rebuild a relationship with a reader they lost about a decade ago.
(Some publishers are doing something a little like this, but their efforts lack imagination. The Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh sports a barcode at the bottom of its print edition first page, and users can use that to jump on their mobile phone to the online edition.)
The equation has changed. Just as journalists must now think beyond the next headline in the way that they produce news, media publishers need to think beyond getting eyeballs to their new content. In the end, publishers should try to make it as easy as possible for consumers to not only access their content, but to store it, because that’s the way to build loyalty.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to find some scissors to cut out these articles I found interesting. Once the magazine’s dried off from being dropped in the bath.