The great digital newsprint struggle

The book industry has handled the transition to digital with greater intelligence, foresight and strategy than the newspaper business.

In the space of two years (given the Kindle arrived in this market in late 2009 and the iPad and Kobo in May 2010), all major book publishers and many smaller operators have begun to publish ebooks simultaneously with printed titles. Larger book retailers were either already selling ebooks, or moved as quickly as they could to partner with businesses that would allow them to do so. Customers who adopted ereader technology understood from day one that they would need to part with cash to buy ebooks, just as they had physical books.

Newspaper publishers have posted their content online since the mid-90s (making it available to their readers for no charge in most cases), but many are still trying to find a digital model that will make their business sustainable.

Perhaps it’s because newspaper editors are so flat out getting the next day’s edition together, they don’t have time to research, plan, and ponder their likely future, whereas book publishers are used to thinking long term.

Perhaps, like many who are opposed to taking action on climate change, the newspaper bosses see the so-called digital threat as a problem for their successors, and thus one they can ignore or pay lip service to without taking genuine steps towards a sustainable model.

Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times examines some of these issues, and is a must-see for anyone who is interested in the changing face of the mainstream media. It’s showing in arthouse cinemas in Australia now.

A poster for Page One.
Rossi spent a year in The New York Times newsroom, focusing particularly on the media desk as it covered the dramatic changes affecting the reporters’ own industry.

During that year, the paper’s editors debated how they would cover WikiLeaks’ Afghan war logs, the release of the iPad, the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company (some serious scandals in that one, I’m definitely keen to read more about the workplace culture that filtered through to the LA Times and Chicago Tribune among other papers), NBC Universal’s merger with Comcast, media staff cuts impacting on coverage of the White House and the end of US combat in Iraq.

The film also looks at the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller incidents, the rise of Gawker, Pro Publica and new models for investigative reporting and charging for news online (the Times introduced a metered model of charging regular users of its website during filming).

The lively characters who fill the newsroom and those who commentate on the future of the Times for the cameras provide intriguing side-stories within the larger narrative. Media and culture columnist David Carr, a former crack addict whose 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, was a New York Times bestseller, is a star of the show.

But it is the newspaper itself that plays the leading role, surviving by adapting to make best use of new tools like Twitter and blogs and (as has been the case in newspapers here) cutting staff.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of newspapers. Do you still read them? How often? In print or online? Or via apps for smartphones or tablets?

Do you prefer to read native apps (purpose-built for tablets) or replica versions of the print editions, like those found in the PressReader app?

Or do you find you now read only the occasional newspaper story you’ve found via Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms?

Would you be prepared to pay by the article, ebook-style, to access quality, well-researched long-form journalism?

Finally, do you think newspapers will even exist in five or ten years?

I’ll write a follow-up post with some of my own thoughts on these questions (as a former online editor of three newspapers, including one that introduced a paywall a decade ago) soon.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.

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Charlotte Harper

Charlotte Harper is a Canberra journalist, blogger, editor and publisher who has worked in newspapers, magazines, books and online. She runs digital-first non-fiction publisher Editia and covered book industry developments at ebookish.com.au before joining Booku.com. A former literary editor of The South China Morning Post, Charlotte has also written about books and technology for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. She once edited a mobile phone and gadget magazine, and is a published author, of a book about digital publishing – Weird Wild Web (Penguin Australia 1999).