Peter Cochrane's Blog: Newspapers have 10 years left

We are watching a technology that changed the world slowly die out

Written in my Ottawa hotel and dispatched to from Chicago O'Hare Airport a couple of days later via free wi-fi.

In May 1845 Samuel Morse connected Washington to Baltimore by telegraph. The first message sent down the wire was: "What hath God wrought?" And the second message: "Have you any news?"

How prophetic!

In the same month the editor of the New York Herald - one Gordon Bennett - proclaimed that this new technology would put newspapers out of business. But he didn't say when.

As we now know newspapers have been extremely resilient against, and resistant to, all technology change - until now, that is.

The internet looks to be the nemesis of this 500-year-old, paper-based medium, with provincial newspapers being the first victims, and their national counterparts following fast.

Typically, the worst off are seeing sales decline at 50 per cent per annum, while the best are enjoying a slower death at around two per cent. While brave attempts to change business and waste recycling models are well under way, the decline in sales just seems to keep accelerating.

Interestingly, the death mechanism is not by technology alone but also includes a combination of a dying readership (quite literally) and social change. The internet, fixed and mobile devices, web pages and blogs, RSS feeds and 'The Daily Me' are obvious - but our dynamic individual requirements and abilities to network and become 'on the spot' reporters represent new and more pervasive drivers.

What's the big deal here? How come radio and TV didn't destroy newspapers a long time ago?

I reckon it is involvement, interaction, immediacy and participation that differentiate the internet from earlier publishing mediums. Our species harbours an innate desire to communicate and contribute, to be up-to-date and on-the-spot. Newspapers do none of this, and come to think of it radio and TV fall someway behind too.

If the old media have anything left to contribute, it is in the arena of unbiased and dispassionate analysis, condensation, precision and presentation. But in recent decades these skills have suffered damage as newspapers have increased their sensationalist coverage in an attempt to boost sales.

So when is the big bang, or damp phut, for newspapers? Soon for sure!

In the grand scheme of things I reckon the old newspaper readers have about 10 years left before they fall below 'critical mass' and have to get online or get ignored. The really interesting question is: what will replace the old media and the old formats?