The printed word will not be replaced or grow less important (but then the printed word has always been the refuge of a small minority — few Americans read as many as on complete book a year), but it will be supplemented.
For instance, a newspaper is still superior as a transmitter of news, by a nearly infinite margin, to the average television news broadcast (which is usually a reading of those headlines that lend themselves to image-illustration), but who says that a newspaper must be printed on a forest of woodpulp and delivered in pound-lots to individuals?
It can be transmitted by screen in a fashion so controlled that it can be skimmed, or halted for closer reading, with particularly interesting items — the financial page, for instance, the sports page, the comic page, a certain news story — printed off on demand.
Again, there is a democratization. you get exactly what you want, not everything that everybody wants.
Issac Asimov, writer, editor or co-editor of more than 500 books, was not only prolific, but he was a visionary. His description of the newspaper of the future absolutely nails the online concept of the newspaper — and it was written in 1972.*
Newspapers rushed into building online components fifteen or so years ago, when the Internet took off under the World Wide Web aegis, thus capturing the imagination of America. They did so under an enormous burden: they HAD to enter the Internet marketplace immediately, because, if they didn’t, they knew they’d get left behind by entrepreneurs and visionaries.
Here it is the 21st Century, and newspapers still don’t know how to make money on the Internet — or even if they can. Most online advertising does not work for the advertisers, and readers demand too much autonomy over what they read and access. And it exactly those entrepreneurs and visionaries papers had to beat who have now beaten them, with unique news websites that do more than simply import a static print experience to the interactive world of cyberspace.
It’s not just the democratization of news that is killing newspapers; it’s audience fragmentation combined with the unintended consequences of catastrophically inept management. A friend in the publishing business, upon hearing of the most recent mass firings at the Times-Dispatch, emailed me: “Short sighted, short-term optimization is brand destruction.”
And he’s right. Whether it’s a deliberate act of corporate suicide or not, it amounts to the same thing: the death of the metropolitan newspaper.
They should have been reading Asimov.
* Asimov’s essay, “Person to Person,” was published in the December 1972 issue of Lifestyle. It was retitled “The Ultimate in Communication” and reprinted in his 1983 collection of essays, The Roving Mind, published by Prometheus Books.