Print is dead. Long live print.
Roger Fidler is a forefather of digital journalism. In the early 1980s, he wrote and illustrated an essay on the future of news. When Fidler presented his ideas around Knight Ridder, his co-workers sometimes laughed. “It was not quite like Roger had descended from another planet,” a colleague of his once told me, “but he was saying some things that were simply very hard to believe at the time.”
The idea he spoke of most was one Steve Jobs would have many years later—a tablet on which to read electronic newspapers. Fidler’s design and execution of a prototype were so similar to the eventual iPad that when Apple sued Samsung over design infringements, Samsung used Fidler’s early device to argue the idea was in the public domain.
In Fidler’s vision of the future, news and information were headed to the nascent internet, where stories would be instantly published from one computer to millions more, eliminating the need to operate an expensive press run by expensive workers. A tablet, he thought, was the perfect device to replace paper. Readers could click on boxes that revealed data or more information about a particular subject. Advertisers could produce immersive, interactive ads. And the tablet could be slipped into a briefcase or bag. Fidler was right, of course. Apple has sold several hundred million iPads, and more than a billion phones that serve much the same purpose.
Now, Fidler wonders if he was wrong. “I have come to realize that replicating print in a digital device is much more difficult than what anybody, including me, imagined,” he told me this summer, and he wasn’t just referring to tablets. Fidler is equally concerned about the reading experience and economics of all forms of digital news. Now retired from teaching journalism at the University of Missouri, he has watched newspapers struggle to move their content and business online. The idea of interactive advertising has clearly not panned out, he says. Readers are annoyed and distracted by it, so many block it with browser extensions. He and others have observed that print offers a limited amount of ad space, which is infinite online, driving down ad prices and sending publishers racing around a hamster wheel. To make money, they need more content to advertise against. Some of this content is—how to put this?—lousy, giving readers another reason not to pay for news.
“They have killed print, their core product, with all of their focus online.”
Even though his iPad is never far away, Fidler still subscribes to the print editions of The New York Times, the Columbia Daily Tribune and the Columbia Missourian. “I have been wondering,” Fidler says, “whether we have completely underestimated the viability and usefulness of the print product.”
I am not a dinosaur; I’m a tech dork who waits in line outside the Apple Store for new iPhones. If my wife ever divorces me, she will testify that I spent too much time on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve been an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of digital news at my workplace, The Washington Post, so much so that my colleagues and bosses might be surprised I’m even posing the following question: What if everything we’ve been led to believe about the future of journalism is wrong?
Two decades have passed since newspapers launched websites, and yet here we are. Big city papers have gone under, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs, and the idea that digital news will eventually become a decent business feels like a rumor. The reality is this: No app, no streamlined website, no “vertical integration,” no social network, no algorithm, no Apple, no Apple Newsstand, no paywall, no soft paywall, no targeted ad, no mobile-first strategy has come close to matching the success of print in revenue or readership. And the most crucial assumption publishers have made about readers, particularly millennials—that they prefer the immediacy of digital—now seems questionable, too.