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Printed journalism may be dying, but books still have a future

The cultural transformation brought about by digital convergence and networked communication has been dizzying, and, for many, disorienting. None of the old certainties – political, corporate, economic…

Our digital era has seen the emergence of many reading technologies but students still prefer the printed book. Flickr/Declan Flemming

The cultural transformation brought about by digital convergence and networked communication has been dizzying, and, for many, disorienting. None of the old certainties – political, corporate, economic – seems to hold, and the future – including the future of writing – is thrown into doubt.

In this strange new world, white is the new black, and up is the new down. Entire industries are imperiled, or at least obliged to build new business models in order to survive.

When digital information can be transmitted instantly across the internet and downloaded for free, the old structures, businesses and media forms are simply bypassed and left to wither. Unless new business models for online publication can be concocted, entire tranches of media forms are at risk of disappearing. This includes long-standing vehicles for writing as the newspaper, the magazine and the book, all endangered “old world” technologies.

Writing began on clay tablets in Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago. Other vessels for the written word have included wax, ivory, metal, glass, papyrus, parchment and, finally, paper. Today, large bodies of digital information are archived “in the cloud”, that is, in networked repositories of computer servers, waiting to be downloaded or accessed by reading devices. Is writing about to dissipate completely into the cloud, leaving behind its material base? Will old-fashioned writing formats such as the print newspaper and the book be vapourised, unloved and unGoogled, replaced by their immaterial successors?

Who still buys the newspaper?

Let’s look first at the Fourth Estate, or rather Estate 4.0, in its largely online incarnation. The first printed newspaper was published in Germany in 1609, the Gothic font of the New York Times and Sydney Morning Herald mastheads bear a trace of these early years of newspapers. Once a daily necessity, today, only 23% of the Herald’s readership is buying the paper version of the paper.

Every year I survey my undergraduate media studies students on their reading habits. Their responses are indicative of the “digital natives” who have grown up with the internet and social media. Only 5% regularly buy or subscribe to a print newspaper; in some years the figure is as low as 2% (those 2% are also the rare exceptions in their generation, conscientious objectors to Facebook).

It’s easy to see why there is distaste for printed news among the internet generation: the paper is by necessity yesterday’s news, and you have to pay for it. The online version of the same newspaper, by contrast, features current breaking news, video features, readers’ questions, input and blogs – and often it’s free.

The online version of the Herald, like other online news outlets, features “most read” stories and “most watched” videos. These are often celebrity items and sensational crime stories, while news items tend to be shorter and international news can sink down the contents page.

What is front page news in the hard copy may be hidden online. I’ve had conversations on current events with a friend, based on my reading of the Sydney Morning Herald paper, and her reading of smh.com.au – it became apparent that we had read quite different versions of the news.

The future of the book

What of the venerable printed book? a vehicle for writing far older than the newspaper dating to the first century. The CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, has said “the physical book and bookstores are dead”. Already given the rather disdainful descriptor of “p-book”, the old-fashioned printed book will inevitably be replaced, according to Bezos and other Captains of Post-industry, by the Kindle, iPad and other new vessels for digital text.

Here, though, the digital natives are not marching to the drum-beat of digital progress. Those same undergraduate students who have abandoned the newspaper profess a love for the printed book: only 4% use e-readers instead of “p-books”.

Their common complaints about e-readers include the strain of reading continuously from a screen, the difficulty of reading in certain light conditions, and the distractions from the text due to other information sources on tablets. There is also an enduring affection for the tactility of handling a printed book, and for the sheer materiality of the book – as an object that can be written on, bent, bookmarked, and added to your personal library.

Perhaps this will change as an even younger generation goes to school knowing only e-text books – but even small children seem to have a love for holding, folding, and tearing paper books. Journalism looks to have an increasingly online destiny, but the future of printed books is not yet all used up.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. el don

    logged in via Twitter

    agree with all your points - apart from comments on the lack of student interest in newspapers. of course, i was not a media student in my day and it always surprises us when those undergrads we also survey, those wanting to be journalists or media types, do not even regularly watch TV news - but i have to note that in my day (70s) we were not newspaper readers at college either.
    OK, i admit, i was an Art student. we used Media (with capitals) in those days, but were quite ignorant of the regular print news...

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  2. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    Sorry John, I can't agree.

    Both my wife and I are studying for post-graduate degrees, and do virtually all our research on line, and prefer to read on-line or tablet format journals and text-books than the paper versions. They are far more convenient, and we can hold hundreds of books in one tablet rather than lugging heavy books around. In addition to our studies, we both read books on tablets and find this much better than having shelves of books that gather dust - and they are much cheaper to buy!

    The only downside is the limited availability of some text books, and the resistance of some in the academic community to embrace the new technology (my wife has a lecturer who still uses overheads!!). But this will change, and the book will eventually go the way of the vinyl record - only to be used by collectors.

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I agree with you here, Mike, yet suggest that reading for study and research purposes while completing an academic assignment is not the same as reading for leisure and enjoyment.

      My own habit has been to access texts in digital form quite as much for my ability to carry out very fast word and keyword searches within them, and link to other such texts through active footnotes and references, giving me the ability while writing to have numbers of books open not on my already cluttered desk but on one or another screen before me.

      Running dual monitors becomes pure BLISS . . .

      Newsprint while making a great deal of noise, on the other hand, is really somewhat peripheral.

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  3. Toby Vue

    logged in via Twitter

    Perhaps journalism, if it wishes to survive in print form, should concentrate on being only long-form.

    I've had this discussion with friends and most of us seem to buy only weekend editions of newspapers because of the feature-length, creative non-fiction stories (We tend to skip the hard news because, like you mentioned, it's already yesterday's news).

    For them, they prefer to read book-type writing in print form.

    For me, it's simply because long-form journalism works best on paper (e-readers are still to slow when it comes to periodicals).

    I've recently migrated to an e-reader and have not looked back.

    There is no strain on my eyes since it's e-ink technology (I think you may be referring to tablets' screens instead?).

    Bookmarking, note-taking, highlighting, etc can still be done, while some of the latest models now include inbuilt lights.

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  4. Lynne Newington

    Researcher

    Which ever way journalism goes, let's hope they don't lose the calibre, [or maybe intuition is a better word] of today's journalist's.
    With the latter in mind, the unspoken word of Fairfax Political Editor Sean Nicholls in the SMH Monday 31st of Dec. with archived front page article February 25 1958, showing a 10 yr boy presenting the Queen Mother with a bunch of flowers.
    The innocence of the child with goodness knows what damage was already pervading his young mind, to end his day's dying alone, having inflicted terrible deeds upon children as young as he was then, having been abused himself.
    A powerful statement.
    It also brought out the fact, if he'd been a clergyman, with the power of the church behind him, he would never have been hounded where ever he went and a concelebrated Mass to see him off.

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  6. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    I've never heard the term "p-books", most e-reader fans refer to paper books as DTB or Dead Tree Books. And the objections to e-reading sound like the tired tropes from non-readers.

    The problem I see with the paper medium for news is that no-one wants to pay for a newspaper that is three quarters adverts and one eighth bad journalism. For example, I read the newspaper yesterday and saw an article about the new +R18 category for video games becoming active this week. The entire article was written…

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  7. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Following my 2nd Honours degree in Literature, not a 'mature-age' but and 'older-age anticipating retirement' degree after years of field anthropology, I deliberately set up a new e-publishing house to see where it would head.

    It became very, very interesting to me that the resulting publishing trajectory was not at all away from print copy merely around big print-runs and mass storage pending distribution and sales fairly directly to what we know now as print-on-demand.

    My business projections…

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      That is pretty similar to what the Kobo Australia chief said last year and what the independent bookstores are saying.

      Print is currently overcapitalised and needs to move toward the POD format so that shelving is no longer an issue for stores and returns are no longer killing margins for publishers.

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  8. Firozali A.Mulla

    PhD

    I agree fully NO ONE TAKE THE HARDLY CHASE FROM ME or THE HOTEL NO POWER NO BOOKS I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

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  9. Firozali A.Mulla

    PhD

    I just read more and remembered that the used papers are sold in the sub Sahara states and the people live on these I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA These may be used books boxes etc

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