S.O.S. Press in distress
When I was 8, during the summer holidays, my grandmother would send me buy the newspaper every morning. The daily paper used to be read first by my grandmother, then by my great grandfather to finally land in my hands. I then though roughly read its content without really getting a lot of it but rather to read the children section. Back then, in our holiday house, this newspaper would represent the main source of information along with the TV news. I actually still remember the particular smell of this old paper as I write this article, just like Proust travelled in time with his madeleine.
Today, I more or less read 100 articles a week but my information sources are mainly online channels so that I have not bought any magazine over nearly 2 years now. I wanted to write a quick article on the subject, however, as I am a bit of a geek and as I read the related media, you will surely understand that this kind of information could easily be found online and the topic would have lacked not only originality but probably also objectivity.
I then turned to the second big magazine consumer of the house: my wife. She also buys a certain quantity of a specialized press which made me wonder if I would be able to replace her magazines by an online feed generated from well-defined sources. My initiative actually had two objectives: first avoid having to throw away piles of magazines and secondly, measure if someone not addicted to new technologies could be satisfied with an online means of information (vs. offline magazines). I would like to underline that my wife has never suffered any injuries or trauma during my tests!
I have hence used the tools of my technology watch to spot the main web sites treating the subjects found in her magazines. I then briefly explained to her how RSS feeds work and initiated her Google Reader with RSS feeds.
Her first reaction was that the volume of information received was very high and difficult to manage, which I find logical as she moved from a local magazine to a more international online source. People also tend to read each and every piece of information they receive forgetting that the amount received corresponds to about 10 magazines a day whereas they read maybe one magazine a month before. This creates an information overload feeling but, as Jeff Jarvis puts it so well, information overload is only a matter of filtering in which case I will be able to help her tackle the issue if need be.
Nevertheless, she is quite happy to see her favourite topic treated on a more international level compared to her local magazines. The next step is to set up Feedly (a firefox add-on that I particularly recommend) in order to generate a pseudo online magazine.
Hence proving to my wife that one could easily get rid of magazines and replace them by more focused online sources, I was led to wonder if the European media were ready to quickly cope with the shift, which is bound to occur in a very near future.
I happen to know a few people active within the Belgian press and when interrogating them on the subject, I was very surprised to see that the issue was not taken very seriously if at all. Some media in the U.S. seem to have started their migration over the last few year whereas the Belgian press looks as if it had discovered the Kindle last November only when it came out in Europe and does not seem to be ready to offer their newspapers content on this kind of device (not even mention their conversion to the iPad through the future iBookstore but I admit this is quite new).
To give you an example among others, my father offered me last September a 4-week subscription to a newspaper well established and valued in Belgium. At the end of the trial period, I refused to keep the subscription because the amount of paper generated weekly in our home had simply tripled! Besides, I was not very happy to see that a postman having to drive 20 km every Saturday morning just to deliver my newspaper (besides my breakfast is more than over at 11 AM! But this article does not speak about the poor reconversion of the Belgian post office). I have asked over the phone if an online version existed, I was answered that it does but only associated to the paper version and it cannot be taken separately.
Other newspapers offer a digital version but appear to mention the Kindle or the iPad without considering using these new consumer devices. Besides, I would like to be explained why the digital format is offered at the same price as the paper format even though the former is less expensive to produce.
I cannot help but wonder if maybe there is a paper lobby putting pressure onto the media? Or if the head of the media groups is a bunch of nearly retired still thinking in terms of paper version subscriptions? How could we explain this listlessness to offer an online content more systematically? A recent study actually proved that the New York Times would spend twice less by offering every subscriber a Kindle instead of delivering them their daily paper copies.
As far as I am concerned, even though I am satisfied by the online content generated through my various feeds, I would be ready to subscribe to an online high quality press (but never a paper format). Indeed, I do not believe in a free press basically financed by publicity, especially if you consider the pseudo newspapers distributed in the tube or train stations of our country.
In January 2009, Walter Isaacson wrote this sentence in Time Magazine:
“We have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.”
It is however technically possible to have an iTunes inspired model which would allow me to buy individually articles or analyses I feel like reading. This micro payment model does not exist yet but as soon as it will show up, the media will have to be ready to jump into it.
How many Belgian newspapers will be ready by then?
The question might be how many of them will have survived the crisis?