Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday 27 August 2006

Who killed the newspaper?

That's the somewhat provocative title of the lead story in this week's Economist magazine (UK print edition), highlighting a prediction by Philip Meyer in his book The Vanishing Newspaper that the printed newspaper will die out by early 2043. The premise of the article is that, as in so many things, it is necessary to 'follow the money' - the young aged 15 to 34 in the UK are said to spend 30 per cent less time reading national newspapers if the begin using the web. And who of that age does not use the web? Advertising revenue, specially for classified ads, is leaving the print media for the internet at an "unseemly" rate according to the article.

I am sure the article is correct, although I do have reservations on how complete the rout of the main stream media (or what is currently mainstream) will be. Perhaps this is a function of my age, but I think getting news from the internet is a very different experience than using a newspaper - it is at the same time hugely easier to get information from an enormous range of sources by using a news aggregation website (such as Google or Bloglines), but it is at the same time a much more random operation. For example, how likely is it that I would have seen in the future an article similar to the Economist article I link to at the top of this post if I was reliant on happening to chance upon it in an online version of the magazine. And would it matter? I'm not exactly sure, but I have noticed the loss of coming across sundry bits of information by browsing through print newspapers and magazines which seems to occur with the much more focussed searches which one has to input into website query boxes in order to try and get to the kind of information one wishes to access.

With encyclopaedias, for example, it is a very different experience to wade, or browse idly, through the 30 or so huge volumes of the old-style Encyclopaedia Britannica, with 32,086 pages of print, even if you could find a recent version to buy, or would want to spend the money to possess it, or have the space to store it. For the last 7 or 8 years I've had the Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD-ROM uploaded to my PC and whilst I find it great fun, occasionally, simply to browse through the list of articles and click at random, in practice some of the randomness is lost over the print version. Use of PC or online sources of information seems to require a completely different technique, it seems to me. For the user it is essential to focus in on the general area of interest in order not to be overwhelmed by too much information; for the publisher it means targetting those at whom one's message is best directed. Advertisers are beginning to take full advantage of all of this in a way they never could with printed sources of information. I suspect that, in the long run, there will always be a place for specialised print media, even if for most purposes we will come to rely on online sources. It will be a very different world.

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