Sunday, January 20, 2013

The beginning of a new digital era

December 31, 2012 will enter history as a day that changed the world. No, not because the world ‘survived’ a predicted Mayan apocalypse and lived to see a December 31, but because a fundamental shift in the way we learn about our world took place on that day.

Newspapers and magazines are part and parcel of our daily life. We take them for granted. We eagerly flip through the pages of the morning newspapers to read the news, laugh at a cartoon, soak in a feature article and get the scores of last night’s game. It is a tradition that goes back 300 years or more. From the ‘ugly’ black and white designs of the early days to the colourful pages of today, newspapers have evolved to keep pace with the times.

Magazines are an extension of the newspaper, in that they cover a vast gamut of subjects that no newspaper can cover. News magazines publish in-depth articles by top writers and journalists that newspapers might not be able to carry for want of space and/or resources. Today, there are thousands of magazines at news-stands worldwide, specialising in everything from angling to zoos. Magazines are generally more attractive than newspapers and easier to read.

However, print in whatever form is a passive experience. To those who are increasingly used to the interactive world of the Internet and smartphone apps, print can be boring and unrewarding. Print publications were the first to realise this and move on to the Internet with digital editions. In fact, this newspaper was among the first in Asia to have a web presence way back in 1995.

Web editions

It was not long before web editions of newspapers and magazines began incorporating videos, audio snippets, animation, translation tools, online polls and other multimedia components to give the reader a far more enriching experience. Read an interview? Just click to listen to it. Want to know more about the latest cricket match in Australia? Play a video to see the highlights. Want to rant about something you saw in the newspaper, but do not have the time to write a letter to the editor and post it? Just type your thoughts in the comments section, instantly.

Still better, if you want to share your thoughts with an even wider community, you can do so via Twitter and Facebook, which are embedded in many websites.

This is nothing short of a revolution. Perhaps only the invention of the printing press more than 500 years ago could be termed more revolutionary. Although such interactive websites have been available for a decade or more, it is the advent of tablet computers, primarily the Apple iPad, that had tilted the scales in favour of digital.

Today’s touchscreen devices including iPad, Kindle Fire HD, Samsung Tab and Blackberry Playbook are perfect for reading newspapers and magazines. You can flip through the pages and actually interact with the digital magazine or newspaper – no print newspaper or magazine can ever have video, audio or animation after all.

Rising costs

Another factor is that paper and printing costs are going up and the advertising ratio of print is decreasing in the face of tough competition from electronic media. We must also not forget the environmental factor – a large number of trees is felled each year to produce newsprint and other types of paper. Imagine the benefits to the environment if most of the world’s magazines and newspapers take the digital only route.

When Newsweek, one of the two most widely respected global news magazines (the other being Time) published its last print issue on December 31, after 80 years of a print run, many observers were quick to point out that print was dying. (Only time will tell when the other one is going to throw in the towel).

The publishing industry is entering a new era when print is literally out of print and digital is in. While Newsweek was one of the most well-known publications to go entirely digital, over the past two years, a number of leading newspapers and magazines have either gone entirely digital (based on digital edition subscription/paywall models) or downsized their print runs. Newsweek’s last print issue thus signifies the end of an era and the beginning of another.

Newsweek has already given a glimpse of the potential of the all-digital future with its very first digital-only issue. It featured a stunning animated “cover page” (sorry, these print terms are never going to fade away) on marine exploration. The animated cover is the work of Hawaii photographer Hugh Gentry, who shot high-resolution footage 120 feet below sea level near the coast of Oahu. His video of the deep diving submersible Pisces IV was split into stills, which were then assembled for Newsweek’s latest cover.

The animation may last only four seconds, but the effects of this shift are going to last much longer. If you have an iPad or similar device, it will be a totally immersive experience. Digital also has the 24/7 advantage, whereas for a weekly print magazine, one has to wait a week to see any updates.

World without print

Even though magazines and newspapers are increasingly going paperless, can we ever imagine a world without print, which has been around for centuries? We have been talking about a paperless office for at least two decades, but nothing of the sort seems to be happening, given the high demand for office printers. However, the advent of email, Skype, Instant Messaging and Chat has actually reduced the demand for paper - if you have an office meeting, sending an email or text is far better than sending paper notes around.

There is a perceptible shift towards digital platforms. Amazon, the world’s biggest bookseller, now sells more e-books than print books through its Kindle platform. Although there is only a minimal difference in prices of print and digital versions in most cases, the digital version is delivered instantly and there are no shipping or packaging costs involved. That in itself is a major saving in terms of the environment, in addition to saving trees. Besides, consumers need instant gratification - who wants to wait for several days for a book to be delivered?

However, this does not mean that books, magazines and newspapers are going to die - they are evolving with the times. They will survive, perhaps not as we know them. Flexible displays are already here - it is only a matter of time before they become commercially available. A future newspaper could be a full-colour flexible display with moving pictures, animations, audio clips updated ‘on the run’ as seen in the movie Minority Report.

E-ink, the most paper-like display at present, is close to perfecting a colour display. Advertising too will benefit from these changes. All these developments make one thing clear - the delivery platform may be different, but quality journalism and writing will always thrive.

By Pramod De Silva -