Will Mobile Devices Finally Replace Newspapers?

Mobile data is set to soar and soon smartphones will dominate the media landscape.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “2013: A year when the future of the media may lie in the palm of your hand” was written by Dan Sabbagh, for The Guardian on Sunday 16th December 2012 18.52 UTC

Come Christmas, millions of us will be holding the future in our hands; whether through phones approaching the size of tablets, or tablets approaching the size of phones. In one respect this is not a brand new idea, because nearly two thirds of Britons already own a smartphone, but only 19% own tablets. The lucky ones may have 4G connections too, although for the moment there is one grandly named network supplying it. And in one sense the consequences of this particular convergence of device and delivery will be easy to predict.

Mobile data usage will soar – and that, in English, means TV. In less than five years, people will be able to stream video to their HD tablets on the move; in that world, who will need a newspaper? Anybody who has watched a 10-year-old with an iPad watching YouTube videos over breakfast in preference to reading books, would be forgiven for thinking that reading itself may be on the way out.

Yet, there are no shortage of problems with the future too. 2012 was not a banner year for the new. Facebook floated, and bombed, and everybody began to doubt whether social media could be as valuable as hoped. Part of Facebook’s problem, of course, was the greed of those who floated the company at such a high valuation; but the question that exercises everybody is whether it can generate advertising on mobile – although that is only a subset of a more profound question: who wants to read adverts on screens that can fit in one hand? It’s a problem nobody, so far, has cracked.

It is not just a mobile-only issue either. The cold truth for the moment is that there is not yet an advertiser-funded model to support any digital media enterprise of significance; digital revenues at newspapers do generate double digits of millions, but are way off the triple digits that would be required for anybody to start paying for their newsrooms and developers. Nor, really are paywalls – unless you recategorise Sky and other pay-TV as in the paywall game, or ask banks to pay for your product, as happens with the Financial Times. The one exception, in the consumer media space, is Spotify. The virtual jukebox looks like the exception that proves the rule. Spotify may be heading for $1bn in revenues in 2013, as my colleague Jemima Kiss forecasts, with subscriber numbers doubling in a year to five million. But Spotify is the gatekeeper to the world’s music catalogue; not one company’s text or vision. And Pandora and Deezer notwithstanding, it is on the way to becoming a global monopoly, not merely one of several self-sustaining entities in the same space.

In another respect the future is overrated, or more precisely overvalued. Give away a newspaper and it makes money, partly because few other people are so foolish as to try. Put a major sporting event on TV, and they watch it like it was an Only Fools and Horses Christmas special, but then there are only so many to go around. Those who seek to write off traditional brands year after year find they are surprisingly resilient; those who seek to dive into digital media find the environment cannibalistic, as anybody who is trying to make money from an app knows. It is so hard just to be noticed, let alone bought.

Fortunately, 2012 was a great year for denial. With Leveson, and Savile, it turned out to be a year of ethics, even morals, and regulation: when to publish, when not, and who, as the judge said, marks the homework. It was easy, then, to sideline the equally hard question about how to skate successfully through the digital transformation. Unfortunately in 2013, without a public inquiry or a child sex abuse scandal to distract us, denial is not so likely to be an option.

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