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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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