(A podcast version of this post is available here.)
Steve Rubel, powerblogger (does anyone blog more than Steve? No one in my feed list does) complains about how newspapers offer only partial RSS feeds: for those of you not following this, an RSS feed is a bit like a newswire, a stream of stories as they are published, arriving in the subscribers inbox (or reader software, or customised homepage, or dynamic bookmark folder. A partial RSS feed is a bit like a newswire that only gives you the first few paragraphs of a story, requiring you to go to the newspaper’s homepage (in my newswire analogy, run into the next room to find the rest of the story on the the whole, scrolling ticker tape machine).
I agree with Steve, it’s dumb. Not a smart way to go. Where I don’t agree is when he reckons that newspapers as physical folds of paper will be dead in a decade:
Flash forward 10 years from today. We will look back and laugh how quaint it was that we received our news on dead trees. Yes, I am saying the word “newspaper” will be a misnomer. News will be delivered automatically each day, not by the paper boy, but via wirelessly enabled e-paper devices that are easy to read. All of it will be powered by RSS.
Steve is being a tad provocative here, although not as provocative as he would have been had he said it a few years ago. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers as a delivery mechanism is dead. To which I’d like to be equally provocative: let’s meet again in 10 years and see whether this is true. Yes, we know the younger generation aren’t reading newspapers. Yes, we know newspapers are in financial trouble. Yes, we know that newspapers are not an elegant delivery mechanism. Yes, we know that there are better ways of getting information to us. And we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of how better to represent news information. But we also know this:
people love great writing, and it’s rare to find it on blogs, where by definition writing is fast and, usually and unlike this post, brief;
people love great reading — as in, laying back with a coffee, sitting on a train, by the pool/sea/prison wall, reading something they enjoy. No technology has replaced paper for this, nor is it likely to. Yes, there are cool tools for e-paper, and these will have their uses, but they won’t replace paper.
people love good editors. Editors are not there just to put all the stories together. They’re there to decide what may make interesting reading, from commissioning articles to laying them out on the page and deciding a headline. When we buy a newspaper we’re paying in part for the editor’s choice of stories on the page. We’re effectively saying to the editor: You have a better idea of what is out there, and I trust you. Tell me. Inform me. Entertain me. (Today’s front page of one of my regular newspapers today had three great stories I would never have found had I just confined myself to my regular newsfeed: on reclassification of U.S. documents, on a failing Hong Kong plan for a cultural centre; on East Timor trying to avoid the pitfalls of an oil bonanza.)
people love to get their newspaper wet/dirty/crumpled/folded/annotated/left behind/eaten by the dog. A newspaper is a very flexible device, and it’s cheap enough so I don’t mind that I drop it in the bath. I’m not sure the Sony ePaper device is going to be as easy to dry off.
You can also hit people with it
Newspapers are in crisis. And they should be smarter about RSS, and understand their value is not in hot news, but in a perspective, a gathering of features, commentary and semi-hard news stories. We can laugh at their slowness — especially in covering things online, which for them is a bit like an adult trying to figure out what the hell is going on in the minds of their teenage offspring. But we should be really careful about writing off them, or their tried and trusted delivery mechanism, any time soon. See you in 10 years Steve, and let’s see who’s right.