Will the touch tablet save professional journalism?

Someone should just put a deadbolt on my laptop lid. When I peruse my Twitter feed I see nothing but scary newspaper industry news, which flows like a river of red ink across my pixels. Reading too much of it makes me think a prescription for Prozac might be in my future. I’ve begun to notice even journalism pundits have started to turn on each other by criticizing the need for yet another conference on “Envisioning the Newspaper of Future.”

Truth be told, no one really knows when printing presses will grind to a halt and news delivery boys and girls will be forced to hang up their logoed paper bags for good.

I had to laugh,  last week in Portland, Oregon, my former newspaper editor Steve A. Smith was the keynote speaker at “We Make the Media“A conference held to develop real-world plans for new media organizations to fill the journalism gaps left by shrinking news staffs at legacy media organizations.” As Smith was speaking about the need to save “professional” journalism, back in the corner of the room were a bunch of self-proclaimed snarky bloggers and citizen journalists who took offense to the notion professional journalism should be saved. Of course they twittered their opinions of Smith’s speech in real time. This, I guess, is the new digital divide, where any journalist older than thirty is viewed with mistrust. Hmmm, where have I heard that before?

It does seem the pace of handwringing is accelerating. The print folk, locked in their silos, are defending their turf as they make their last stand. Online departments are taking the brunt of the next wave of job cuts. If newspapers can’t hold the line on circulation and revenue, it will soon be curtains for the rest of us still drawing a paycheck. Or so I’m told. I hope I can last a bit longer, only because I truly believe, if we can make this digital transition, the future will not be as dismal as I was once led to believe.

Here’s my vision of how I see it playing out in the near future:

  • A new breed of touch tablet readers hits the market in 2010-2011. Newspaper publishers at first shun the devices. Then one gutsy newspaper chain embraces them. They form a partnership with the tablet maker to subsidize the cost for the consumer. The more publications a consumer subscribes to, the less they have to pay for the reader. Others soon follow…
  • A newspaper’s survival will be based on how many current subscribers can be converted to the digital replica of the newspaper. Replica is the key here. A newspaper’s digital future starts with making the transition simple (familiar) for  print consumers to make. It’s the newspaper, only better…
  • What will sell the tablet service is all the new things subscribers will be able to do with their wireless digital newspapers. Pictures will come alive with video and audio, graphics become interactive with a tap of a finger, Text can be set to be read aloud. Subscribers should easily be able to customize the paper to fit their needs. Want the sports page as your front page? No problem. Want more stories about your favorite pro baseball team? You bet!
  • The value to the tablet subscriber has to be so huge that they be crazy not to plunk down their cash.  The same goes for advertisers, whose ads will now have added value. Tap on an ad for a big-screen TV at Best Buy and get more info about the product. Tap a grocery store coupon to print it out.
  • Advertisers should be allowed to update their ads in real-time. Think about it. Let’s say you’re a local shoe store looking to move 1000 pairs of shoes. You place the ad in the morning showing the shoes at 20% off. By 2 p.m. you have 500 left and you want to sell them faster, you log into your account and update the ad yourself, dropping the price to 30% off. Don’t you think a whole bunch of those types of ads would draw traffic to a digital newspaper?  How about subscriber-only deals? Advertising will be targeted to subscriber’s tastes and talents.
  • Everyone talks about how they can’t make any money in online. The simple truth is most newspaper Web sites are not easy to navigate. They can’t display ads as effectively as a print newspaper. If newspapers are going to make this digital transition successful, then making the viewing experience for former print subscribers and advertisers as elegant as possible is paramount.

Finally, a few words about content. Our journalism is what’s most important and will no doubt have to be upgraded. Words and multimedia will need to work better together. The strength in the touch tablet is in its multimedia capabilities. Visuals like photo galleries, graphics, and hi-def video, will add value. Like your current Web site, the front page of the digital newspaper will change as stories are updated throughout the day. The page design will slowly change to integrate new content features.

Once this happens,  the true digital media revolution will begin to take place. Yes, the presses will eventually stop, which will only strengthen digital media’s position. Freed of the cost of printing and distribution, more resources will go to content creators. This is when the fun really starts. True innovation will kick in with each new tablet version. New types of devices will drive even more innovation and hopefully a super-renaissance of journalism. My vision may be utopia to some, but the internal optimist in me really believes there is a future in professional journalism.

Digital journalism and the rise of the touch tablet


The old business model of newspapers is toast. We all know it. Its just some can’t quite fathom it yet. You see it daily at most newspapers–where classified, real estate and auto advertising has been sucked in to the black hole of the Internet. In response, massive cost cutting and layoffs have created print publications that are shells of their former selves.

For years, newspaper industry bloggers have been documenting this ongoing tragedy–one layoff announcement after another. They have debated incessantly who’s to blame, where the future of journalism is going and who will be left to pick up the pieces. The hand wringing has been intense. I admit my sweaty palms have been there with the best of them.

Stepping away from the scrum, I am starting to see the big picture of where the  future of digital journalism is heading.

I consider myself a keen people observer. I used to love sitting in a coffee shop and watch how somebody read the newspaper. How long did they look at my front-page photo? What? Only three seconds! Damn.

Lately, I’m not seeing many people reading newspapers in coffee shops or anywhere else for that matter. What I am seeing, is the screenager generation–now grown up—typing into their cell phones, texting incessantly to “friends.”  Look around you. Go to anyplace where there are a lot of people. How many have a phone to their ear, or are walking and texting?  Cell phones have become a necessity of life now. The handset makers are all too aware of this. Feature creep is accelerating. As cell phones grow smarter, users are fawning all over the new technology.

Smartphone sales have gone white hot. iPhones, Palm Pre’s and Android devices with the added value of applications and web browsers are changing how we use our cell phones.

I am a recent convert to the iPhone 3GS. Where on most days I wanted to throw my old Palm Treo against a brick wall, I now enjoy using my iPhone. It is not just a phone to me; it is a place where I get most of my news. I check my twitter feed application constantly. If there is breaking news in my community, I will know it. I have a dozen mobile news apps—AP, USA Today, BBC, New York Times, etc. My iPhone has become my connection with what’s going on in the world—and it’s all in my pocket.

How we get our news is changing. It’s subtle, but it is happening. News consumers are slowly turning away from print and TV and are now moving toward web enabled mobile devices. The smart phone is only the start. Amazon’s Kindle reader is the forerunner to future tablet web devices.  These touch enabled tablets could seal the deal by forcing print journalism to go mostly digital.

Some cool prototypes have been making the rounds. But the rumor of the mythical Apple tablet is what makes me wonder if this will be the disruptive technology that sends print newspapers down the black hole for good.

Stay with me here. I had some time to kill at a photo assignment yesterday. For an hour I browsed the Internet on my iPhone. My 47-year-old eyes struggled to read the text. If only my iPhone was 2 or 3 times the size. I would be able the browse with out squinting. A touch enabled tablet, with an unlimited data plan would allow me to view text, multimedia and video in ways the smart phone struggles with today. I think of the applications of a tablet for photojournalists. Being able to download photos from their cameras to a tablet, then quickly tone, caption and send them back to the newspaper would be great. Having to lug a laptop in the field is  true pain. This is a market segment that is only getting started.  It has the strong potential to disrupt not only newspapers, but magazines as well.

Consumers, if they embrace these new touch-tablets, will have their news pushed to them at lightening speed. They will be connected to everyone and everything. They will choose how to shape their digital lives by deciding what news feeds and publications to subscribe to.

So where does that leave present day print journalism? It will soon be vastly different than it is today. Where mainstream media outlets have shed their most talented people, those same workers are going to be the ones that will build the new journalism of the future. My guess is that it will be built around these new web tablets and handset devices. Monetizing the content will be foremost on the minds of these new digital publishers. Freed from the cost of presses, ink and newsprint, a new publishing model will develop.

News content is going to change too. Web tablets are not just text readers, but will be multimedia hubs. Music, video, photos, animation, and interactive graphics and yes , games,  are going to be what consumers will gravitate to. New high-speed 4G cell phone networks are now being rolled out. Soon the pipes for all this future multimedia content will open wide. It will change how journalists tell their stories. For many of today’s journalists, this new paradigm will be the deal breaker. For others, these new opportunities will present unique challenges that will drive the future of digital journalism to new and exciting heights.