The future of newspapers

The future of newspapers is an old debate, but the terrible events in Japan throw a spotlight on how the role of newspapers is changing – or perhaps needs to change.
Buying my copy of the Sunday Times yesterday, I was shown pictures and news that I had already seen or heard – on TV, on the radio and of course online.
But as well as the slightly redundant news, there was the analysis and explanation that can be done so much better in newspapers than it can on TV or on the radio.  TV is powerful, but the type of analysis it can deliver is inevitably different and in many ways lighter than the analysis press, with its ability to deliver extensive articles as well as diagrams that can be pored over, can deliver.
Online of course combines the benefits of TV (video) with the benefits of press (long form text) – and adds a few others all of its own (e.g. the ability to manipulate data such as making calculations, buying products or playing games).
The disadvantages of online come down largely to convenience (who wants to lug a laptop around with them instead of a newspaper on the morning commute?) but also to functionality (paper makes a pretty good interface which you can for instance scrawl on or tear off).
Tablet PCs change all that. For example, newspaper iPad apps (and we will inevitably soon be seeing their equivalent for Android devices) can mimic paper’s advantages because they potentially allow the user to annotate pages and to “cut out” pieces of text such as ads or articles. OK, they can’t be folded in quite the same way as a newspaper but the 10 inch screen is still pretty light and convenient.
And that’s the opportunity for newspapers. Tablet PC apps from newspapers that allow updated news (like TV and online), long form text and convenient functionality (like paper), and additional interactive functionality (like the web), combined with trusted brands (i.e. credible analysis from well-known reporters) will be a pretty hard combination to beat.
And not only that, it does increasingly appear that people are much more willing to pay for content on a tablet PC app than they are for content from a website.
So don’t write the press off just yet. Paper may well be (slowly) dying as an interface for news, but the tablet PC revolution may well be the market change that secures the future of newspaper brands.
PS. My tips for must-have mobile app functionality
1. Ability to interact with content
• Write notes on content
• Take clippings, save images etc into a scrapbook
• Zoom in on images, pan across images, swivel images
• Enlarge font
2. Ability to share content and opinions
• Share with other websites e.g. twitter, facebook
• Share via email, chat and IM
• Share opinions on the app via comments pages or polls
3. Appropriate content
• Customisable content
• Constantly updated content
• Extra content compared to web and paper
• Different horizontal and vertical experiences – e.g. horizontal might mimic paper product while vertical has different layout and extra content
4. Good usability
• Navigation: e.g. clickable table of content, thumbnail images, click for previous article/next article
• Text only and images only versions
• Video and audio with appropriate play controls
• Full screen slide show/article view
• Gestures in interface (which should be intuitive) e.g. rapid page turn using gesture
• Search functionality
• Content viewable offline; ability to browse content before a full download; ability to download some but not all content
• Ability to click through to ads or shopping (but while staying within environment of the app)