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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The digital version did not kill off the traditional watch. Lessons for the newspaper industry facing the e-book reader. The Guardian price increase.

The digital watch did not kill off the analogue timepiece, its traditional face and the circulating hand. A decade ago it was the done thing to have a digital face and a display which looked as if it should be in the airline cockpit. Machismo over-statement of technology worn on the wrist then. The analogue technology was history.

Not quite. We forgot that the analogue display is not only a timepiece but a jewellery item – a fashion statement. The traditional face allowed spatial judgements over how much time had elapsed and how much was to come. We forgot the ergonomics of watches and how we use them.

There are lessons from the timekeeping world which may resonate as newspapers adjust to the emerging competition from e-readers. Quality newspapers are losing readership at 10% a year and advertising revenue falling. Foreign coverage is expensive as are the campaigns to hold other parts of life to account ie expenses and hacking. A lose-lose for the 4th Estate. Not quiet.

We read papers in anarchic ways. We dip in and out as we choose. We want to see the daily fare before we select which articles to read and when. We want to scan our papers whilst multi-tasking over other things such as a conversation or coffee. We want reliability. We hate a screen going down or a glitch showing up. We don’t want to think plugs, batteries and security.

The candour from The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rushbridger, over the paper’s recent price rise may go down well with its readership. It can see the logic of the hike knowing you get what you pay for. Newspaper readership is tribal and by adding extra leaflets, posters and supplements the reader gets a total experience. These add-ons do not lend themselves to the e-reader. This readership values the diversity of input from columnists, whose output alongside editorials and incisive cartoons, creates a thought-provoking read. You don’t get that feel from a tablet.

Daily tabloid, evening and regional papers may be the ones most likely to be at risk from the new media. Shorter articles and a greater use of graphics and other visuals tend to lend themselves to the small screen.

We are likely to see quality newspaper circulation characterised by a narrow and loyal readership willing to pay an increasing premium for the product. A product which may morph into weekly magazines such as The Economist. “Guardian Reader” has been a short-hand swipe in the past to describe a liberal progressive politics. In the future, the term might be extended to describe how they take in their news in the first place

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