Future of Digital Delivery and Readers
— E-Readers: Whole World in Your Hands
— The Revolution Has Just Begun
“He’s got the whole world, in his hands …
“He’s got the whole wide world, in his hands …”
And now, for the first time in history, this old gospel song has come true.
You can have the whole wide world right in your hand of anything you want to read, watch or listen to with the advent of the iPad.
The iPad and similar electronic reading devices “are more significant than any invention related to the display of information since the Gutenberg press,” says Kenneth R. Pybus, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Abilene Christian University. “I know that’s a strong statement, but these types of devices combine the best technology of the past 100 years for the dissemination of information.”
This has to be the ultimate in communications for leisure, serious intent and everything in between. Not only can you read newspapers, magazines, books or anything else with printed words, it will also bring you movies, TV shows, videos, games, music, the Internet and e-mail.
What else would you want?
That’s at the reception end. At the production end, the impact is substantial as well.
All told, the future of reading will be much more powerful, varied and individualized.
Digital Delivery Benefits
For the publisher, this means a current product can be delivered, with considerable cost savings.
“Up-to-date information is probably the biggest benefit,” says Andy Petroski, director and assistant professor of learning technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. “At the rate information changes and the pace of life/business in general, anything that needs to ‘go to print’ has a high probability of being out of date by the time of ‘consumption.’ ”
In the near future, he believes, “print newspapers and magazines will be ‘lead-ins’ to stories that can be found online. This will enable the newspaper and magazines to print editions with less physical volume, but just as much (or more) content.”
Broadcast journalist Rich DeMuro, an editor for Techmeme, finds “it’s the instantaneous aspect of the delivery that I enjoy most. Information can be updated in real time. By the time a newspaper is delivered to your doorstep, some of the information in it is already out of date. This doesn’t have to happen anymore with digital delivery.”
Mary M. Glick, associate director of the American Press Institute, says “the fact is that if you want to follow the audience, you must deliver your content digitally. Here at API, we’ve been talking with forward-thinking publishers who recognize that the real divide isn’t between print and digital, it’s between the first wave of digital content (web pages, e-mail, search, and all the things we’ve been doing online for the past 20 years) and the social, real-time web, where content is immediately shared and continuously updated.”
Jim Gaines has been a leader in both sides of the media world. He’s founder and editor-in-chief of online StoryRiver Media, but before that, he held the title of managing editor of Time, Life and People in their print heyday.
He told us, “Benefits include saving the cost of paper, ink and distribution, instant revisability, multimedia capability, collaborative functionality … make a story into a conversation … ubiquity (no carrying it around; it’s as close as your device), etc. The real question for me is why a lot of printed material is still being printed when most communications are more powerful, less expensive and more functional in digital rather than printed form.”
Would these savings be enough to save failing newspapers and magazines if they totally switched to digital?
Greg Smith, chief information officer for George Fox University, thinks so: “The greatest benefit will be saving the newspaper industry. Newspapers not only need the lower cost distribution model but they also need a way to compete for the ‘timely access to news’ market. Newspapers have a tremendous opportunity to re-invent themselves to fit the Internet world of information at your fingertips. A media rich digital version of the newspaper incorporating the latest in their region’s social networking is all that is needed.”
But to Prof. Pybus, “Newspapers and magazines are dealing with problems beyond just the printing and delivery costs, so a simple change in delivery method will not save them. They are trying to produce a product with an outdated business model, and they are going to have to radically restructure their employee base and information-gathering models to survive. In some ways, newspapers especially are facing the problem of disconnect from their audience, and they can’t regain that just by delivering via mobile device.”
Mary Glick agrees: “This delivery method alone will not save failing newspapers and magazines, and that’s because the very nature of our relationship with audiences has changed. If publishers recognize this and are committed to learning as much as they possibly can about engaging people in new ways, collaborating wisely with appropriate partners, and serving the needs of the businesses that support them … in addition to reaching audiences across multiple platforms and channels … now, you’re talking digital future!”
Vince Kern is right on the firing line for these questions … he’s senior director of technology/innovation for the Detroit Media Partnership, which is the financial arm for the struggling Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.
He’s more optimistic about print media not fading away just yet during the electronic transition.
“I really don’t see this happening for some time, he told us. “People still love the printed product and will pay for it. You’d be surprised how many folks between 30 and 50 still want to read the newspaper. Perhaps not as often, but they do not want it to go away.
“Does that mean I think newspapers and magazines will continue in the same format? No. I think the next phase in the print world is something that is happening in Europe right now: Print time on presses between runs is being brokered to small independent publishers and these ”micro” newspapers are being snapped up in quantities up to 50,000 or so. But these newspapers and magazines are more niche oriented and small independent and separate businesses, not major conglomerates trying to cover a broad base. I think it will be at least 10 years before the tablet, e-reader and still-to-come platforms become commonplace.”
Digital Delivery Drawbacks
There are several. The main one is m-o-n-e-y.
“We haven’t found a way to make enough digital dollars,” Glick says. “The paradox is that the printed publication, which still pays the rent, can act like a ball and chain when it comes to digital innovation. Unless publications are organized for continuous innovation and training or hiring tech savvy workers, keeping up with all the changes will exhaust resources fast.”
To Vince Kern, “the biggest drawback is the ticking clock. It remains to be seen which business models will emerge as successful for content providers in this new universe of providers, procurers and platforms. … And until some of the companies like Skiff, Olive, LibreDigital and others who want to serve as a one-stop shop for publishers come online with their pricing and services, we won’t know how this plays out. Meantime, consumers may well get increasingly used to newspapers, magazines and book publishers being on the fringe.”
Pybus notes that the main drawback for publishers “is the same problem the music industry faces. For decades, people have been paying for music and getting it in tangible format. So psychologically they were paying for the vinyl or the plastic or the cassettes or CDs, and the music just happened to be included. Today it’s hard for people to pay money for the zeros and ones that are electronically delivered to their computers or iPods. Newspapers and magazines will face the same hurdle. People always thought they were paying for the newsprint or the slick paper and will have to be convinced that they need to support all the reporters, photographers, freelancers who do the work readers don’t want to do to get the information and news they want.”
For Petroski, another major drawback for publishers is that their product is “no longer ‘in front’ of the reader. A print piece can sit on the coffee table, the night stand, etc. … waiting to be read. Digital information delivery requires fighting through the clutter of other digital information that’s delivered to the e-mail inbox, RSS reader or content aggregator … or requires the reader to go out and get it.”
He also points out that “digital delivery requires a different content and business model. And, that model is still evolving with new generations of technology, software and devices. Those who want success with new delivery mediums really need to think of them as tools for changing the content and the way that readers interact with that content (and the publisher) vs. just an alternative delivery mechanism for the same old thing.”
Greg Smith: “The type of digital delivery is the most important question. This probably breaks down into a version for subscription and one for purchase models. Subscription publications will strive to make distribution as flexible as possible due to their dependence on circulation driving advertising revenue. The challenge for the publisher of market specific magazines will come from the need to justify advertising revenue based on actual reader clickthrough rather than just the circulation list … although magazines and newspapers that are able to command a subscription price will still be able to leverage advertising revenue based on circulation. The key to this all: without distribution barriers, the competitive playing field will be leveled favoring the digital presentation as much as the actual content.”
E-Reader Benefits to Consumers
It’s pretty basic to Mary Glick … “You might as well ask, what are the benefits of breathing?”
Then she rattles off these advantages: “Instant knowledge is definitely a benefit. So is the ability to connect … immediately and (almost) anywhere … with a wide circle of friends and fans who share their lives with us and point us to breaking news, fascinating facts, provocative opinion and, did I mention, funny cat videos.”
Jim Gaines also offers a long list: “The primary benefits of digital delivery for the consumer are that the product is weightless, ubiquitous, always up to date (if the creator wishes it so), cheaper to produce (therefore, presumably, to buy) and enriched with dynamic media.”
And this from Prof. Petroski: “Just-in-time access, bookmarking, sharing with others, only paying for what you want/need, subscribing for content relevant to your interests/needs and multimedia content are some of the benefits of digital delivery for readers.”
Portability is a key for Prof. Pybus. He says it’s “crucial to magazine and newspaper consumption … people need to read on the bus, on the plane, waiting for a meeting to start, at the breakfast table. Even a laptop doesn’t allow them to effectively do that. Readers can (digitally) take all 20 of their magazines and newspapers with them wherever they go. They can read at 7:30 a.m. at the breakfast table like my dad always did, they can read breaking news throughout the day like I do, or they can do something completely different. Even though we initially will lose some of the transferability and interactivity capabilities of print, we pick up other interactivity opportunities … instant messaging with friends regarding a news story. The news becomes a much greater participant in the daily conversation as opposed to a static subject of the conversation.”
The sheer volume of available material means a lot to Greg Smith. He says readers “should enjoy having the convenience of their personal library at their fingertips. And of course those who must carry their publications should benefit from reduced back pain. With progressive Digital Rights Management, DRM, sharing publications and content could be a tremendous positive. Our hopes, though, hinge on digital technology advances that provide a richer, more engaging reader experience.”
For Vince Kern, “What large screen e-readers bring to the table are design and interface factors consumers are discovering since iPads have been released. The same touch screen navigation can be designed for Skiff, Que and other large screen e-readers and readers can simply tap on section buttons to navigate from section to story to ad, etc. … it is very much like a print experience with the benefit of a digital and intuitive UI (user interface). So, while many of these e-readers are not yet to market, they will provide options for consumers who want to read on e-ink rather than LED screens.”
Rich DeMuro notes that consumers can customize their approach. “There are a few different modes of digital delivery, and many depend on the device you have. Some magazines and newspapers take the curated, app approach, in which they build a specialized version of their publication for these reading devices, like the Wall Street Journal iPad app. Alternatively, you can just access websites from a tablet-like device and get what amounts to the full web, and browse any blog or publication you can normally access.”
DeMuro also sees a great benefit for books from e-readers. “It used to be you had to trek to a bookstore, browse for the title you wanted and hope it’s carried and in stock. With e-readers, someone can recommend you a good book and you can start reading it in minutes. The idea of sampling books on e-readers is quite appealing as well … if I’m just reading the free sample offered by most online sellers, I can choose whether to continue or not.”
E-Reader Drawbacks for Consumers
The biggest drawback for DeMuro is “the start-up cost. The devices are still expensive and in many cases, first or second generation. Digital delivery represents a paradigm shift for most readers, and some might not be willing to take the plunge. Also, managing all of this new information can be a burden. You can’t just pick up a newspaper (electronically) and flip through it. There are buttons to be pressed and a slight learning curve.”
Kern believes “we will see e-readers (smaller ones and perhaps some of the Sony products) continue to fall in price and there is a good likelihood that by fall there will be quality readers for under $100.” But he thinks there’s a problem with “the time lag between early adopters and a mass demand for this type of device. The Plastic Logic Que ProReader is a fabulous device, for instance. But (when it is finally released) can it attract enough of its stated market (business users) to pay upwards of $600 for a device that renders only in black and white and does not have nearly the multi-function purpose as an iPad?”
While the volume of information coming in to e-readers can be a blessing, it can also be a hindrance, as Petroski sees it: “You can become overwhelmed with managing all of the digital resources for which you’re subscribed.”
A possible social loss concerns Pybus: “The main problem with digital distribution is the sharing capabilities. It’s a whole lot harder to hand your $500 pad to a friend to read an article than to give them the $3.50 magazine. Usually you’d give the magazine to someone who was interested in a story. Also, you lose some of the family interaction … ‘Dad, where’s the sports page?’ for example. Lots of journalists bemoan the end of the ink era out of nostalgia, but it’s that connectivity that is lost and has to be replaced by something just as good.”
Copyright restrictions and rights fees seem to be another problem that needs attending to.
Smith believes “the most significant drawback could come from a restrictive definition for DRM (Digital Rights Management). Will readers have as much freedom to manage their titles as they had with paper? Will they be able to share their publications and what if rights expire? However this works out, the control of personal libraries will change and difficulties with archiving and passing along that library may be the greatest drawback. I believe readers must be allowed to own their digital publications, which ideally would mean that they could control their archives, but I fear this may be a freedom lost.”
Gaines also mentions “the DRM issue … that Amazon, for example, has its own proprietary software, without which their products can’t be read. I think this will soon go away as an issue because consumers won’t put up with it when there is a common alternative.”
iPad vs. Kindle
Our experts think the pioneering Kindle device might be best for books, but the new iPad is best for everything else. The two products also can mesh … the iPad can use a Kindle “app” and its link to the Amazon store.
DeMuro: “iPad is great for a rich multimedia reading experience and accessing the widest variety of web content. I see the Kindle as the most likely book replacement, though, since the screen is similar to that of the printed page and doesn’t strain the eyes and is easy to see in sunlight. The last thing I want to do is stare at a backlit screen when I’m relaxing and trying to read a book. Also, the iPad and LED screens in general don’t perform too well in the sun, so you’re out of luck if you ever plan on reading outside.”
Petroski: “Of the two, the iPad seems the more attractive option for me. I like the screen size, color display and the ability to use a variety of e-book formats (as long as they’re not flash based or Kindle). The iPad can also be a multi-function device (e-reader, mobile computer, game device, etc.) The Kindle is just to read Kindle books … and some documents that you can e-mail to your Kindle (I tried that once and it showed up on the device about two weeks after I e-mailed it.)”
Glick: “Research from API associates ITZBelden shows that the iPad is a real game changer. People think it would be cool to have one, and they say they intend to buy one. It’s the first portable device that even comes close to delivering the kind of visual, interactive, intuitive experience that audiences will soon demand.
“I know people who love their Kindles, and I think they do a great job of replicating the book-reading experience on a screen that gives you access to whole libraries of content in text form. But these first-generation e-readers don’t pass the ‘cool kid test.’ If you try to envision what the cool kids are carrying, do you see a Kindle? I don’t. To be fair, I can’t get the iPad into that picture, either. The iPhone? Yes, that fits, because it’s cool and fits into a pocket. But because the iPad lets you create documents, presentations and spreadsheets as well as download your favorite music and share photos with friends, I can absolutely envision cool young professionals using it.”
Pybus: He praises “the combination of high-quality graphic display, portability, Web access and battery life” of the iPad.
However, Kern, while he thinks it’s possible that a particular device like the iPad might become the standard, “I don’t see it happening for two reasons: The first is consumer preferences are now so varied among people even within a particular age group that marketers have many opportunities to provide products across feature sets. The days of one-function devices (like radio or television) are gone and we humans are not all asking for the same experience. So while I think it can be done, I don’t think it will happen. And I also believe that there are future platforms that are yet to be developed that will further diversify this behavioral trend.”
How Far Along Are We?
DeMuro: “We are just at the beginning of a revolution. In fact, we’re still in the dark ages of e-readers and digital delivery on them. Just considering the improvements between the first and second generation Kindles gives me a lot of hope about where this is all heading, but we still have a long way to go. The good news is it is going to happen a lot faster. Things are going to progress much faster in the next 2-3 years than they did in the last few years. Also, iPad 1.0 is a good start, but the next generation of that device will be even better as well. Everyone who is reading on a digital device right now is a guinea pig and founding father of the revolution.”
Petroski: “We’re definitely at the starting point. I would say we’re crawling. We haven’t even tried to stand up on two legs yet. Actually, I think the biggest obstacles are a ubiquitous format and distribution rights. Until it can be easy for the publishers and the consumers to manage all of the options and for someone to make money from the publication, I think growth will be slow. Technology advances are also needed … better lit devices for reading for long periods of time, easier ways to bookmark, easier ways to annotate and share, easier ways of mass distributing, compatibility with all kinds of publishing mediums and devices that are more natural are needed.”
Gaines: “It is the future, but right now, I think we’re overly focused on the devices rather than the crafts and arts of deploying them usefully. I look forward to the day when we will no longer be talking about the delivery mechanism and will be, instead, having a vivid and thoughtful discussion about what’s being delivered on those devices in qualitative terms. If we’re going to be a good society, digital delivery will bring us beautifully composed content about important things. Right now, the business model for doing that work is uncertain at best, but I’m confident that will emerge in time. We’re still in the early phase of a revolution.”
Kern: “I see devices changing rapidly and drastically over the next decade. Soon, all cars will have the ability to provide audio e-mails, news, content and other transactions that are now being outlawed while driving. One needs to ask, ‘What will happen from there?’ The technology gap between generations is being reduced yearly. What a 10-year-old today grew up with in terms of technology is vastly different than a 5-year-old.”
And what’s one thing to look forward to? How about electronic papers and magazines that flip open and shut like their print counterparts, and like a cellphone?
“Flexible displays could have a huge impact on the industry,” Petroski says. “There are displays in research/testing that could eventually enable you to fold them like a newspaper or magazine. Technology that mimics the ‘feel’ of a newspaper or magazine but can display digital content has the potential to truly convert the masses.”