Newspapers for everyone

Things I want to read

As more and more people get their news online, it’s easy to think that the newspaper is about to disappear.

Just as radio disappeared. Or the horse completely died out. Or why DJs today have never heard of vinyl.

Except, of course, the invention of TV forced radio not to disappear, but to reinvent itself. It found a different niche in people’s lives, as a medium to drive to and to wake up to. As TV took the weight of the more visual live commentaries, radio producers honed the skill of using sound to tell stories.

Now that horses aren’t the only alternative to walking, riding a horse is different experience to what it was 200 years ago. We focus on how it isn’t a car or a motorcycle – it’s about the nature of the animal, the power, the rush of not being encased in a protective shell or fully in control of your movements. Horseriding is not as popular as it once was, but it remains something that people do, because of its inherent uniqueness.

Vinyl didn’t go away either – it became a more focused, niche medium for those who appreciate its particular qualities.

In summary, competition doesn’t automatically create obsolescence. It creates opportunity, and forces enhancement and focus. When you don’t have to do everything, you can concentrate on what you do really well. It is only when a medium’s inherent qualities are superceded in pretty much every way by its successors, that it is in danger (wax cylinders, VHS.)

Which is why newsprint will survive.

The newspaper format is a unique piece of haptic technology, with its own distinct aura among societies all over the world. As a format and an object, it has power, associations, relevance. It is uniquely both disposable and authoritative.

Content printed on newsprint suggests that what you are about to look at is immediate, informed, and designed to be useful, perhaps containing reportage or analysis that will help inform your day.

Things Our Friends Have Written on the Internet, 2008 edition

The same content in a book form suggests longevity, permanence, importance, as something to spend a while with and then to remain on your bookshelf as a part of the footnotes of your life. Discarding it will be a more difficult decision than to recycle a newspaper.

In other words, form tells our brain how to approach content, and the best publications are those that know how to manipulate the properties of both.

Enter a London-based group called The Newspaper Club. Fans of the form as well as its content, last year they published a simple, really lovely newsprint creation, called Things Our Friends Have Written on the Internet.

Concept proven, they moved forward and gained funding from the British public-service innovation fund 4iP among others, to create a forthcoming service that might just be part of how newspapers can and will reinvent themselves for a new generation of readers.

It is, quite simply, print on demand for newspapers. And even more brilliantly, their system (currently in testing phase) is designed to allow anyone to make a newspaper, no matter how limited their design skills are. The cherry on the cake – or the cake under the cherry, depending on your perspective – is that you can order any number of papers, from 5 to 5,000.

It’s about to launch (in beta) in a week or so. They just announced their prices – a little expensive for a handful of copies, but when you get to more than 1,000 copies of a full-color paper, the margins start to get a lot more interesting. At launch, the service will be UK-only, but they’re looking to expand elsewhere soon.

Data.gov.uk Newspaper
The data.gov.uk newspaper, which scraped government information about local services, environmental information and crime statistics, then presented it in a gorgeous graphic package for print.

If the service can fulfill its potential, then it promises nothing less than to liberate the medium, to democratize newsprint, and to give the tools to the people to create a sudden flurry of, say, creative fanzines, affordable catalogues, unusual teaching tools/reading lists, remarkable experiments in democracy and community, stunning one-offs in unexpected places, new ways of sharing event photography and a general rethink about what the medium can be used for. And that’s just what has emerged from their testing phase.

All of this creativity can only benefit newspapers themselves, as others bring new vibrancy to the medium. Unless, that is, you happen to be the owner of a poor quality local newspaper that doesn’t serve its community well, and has no competition to keep you keen. And if there happened to be a few disgruntled ex-staffers around that you recently made redundant, I’d start to get worried.

The turnaround time will presumably exclude the chance of making a daily newspaper, but a decent new weekly would surely find an audience – and advertisers – in many places. All you’ll have to do is to arrange the distribution (hint: try U-Haul.)

The best part is this: by getting in now, while the newspaper industry is still in reasonable shape around the world, The Newspaper Club is giving newsprint an opportunity to reinvent itself now, before we start to lose the skills and machinery that can make it truly succeed.

There has always been extra capacity available at newsprint plants; never has it been more needed to be filled. And what a way to fill it, while also bringing a bit of much-needed extra income to those newspaper companies who own their own presses.

Newsprint is about to be handed to the people. If you had the time and resources, what would you print?

Andrew Losowsky writes about design and editorial for various publications including The Wall Street Journal Europe. He runs Stack America, a unique independent magazine subscription club, and blogs about print issues at www.losowsky.com/magtastic

4 comments

I appreciate the ideas of this article, but I don’t really believe that newspapers (or scheduled TV newscasts) are perceived as timely or important anymore.

The era of RSS, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and even weather.com have replaced the above mediums almost completely as tools to collect information. Even the print on demand example you gave above is not a newspaper, but really a magazine printed on cheap paper. And the fact that you’ve published this idea online (and I’ve actually found it, not to mention read it), shows the power, usefulness and most importantly, democracy, of online media.

Another point; I can’t throw this article away–it lives forever. If it was in a print publication, it would either be deemed irrelevant after a day or so and even if not, it would be thrown away just because it takes up physical space, rather than the 1’s and 0’s it occupies now (think about the reaction you would have to a person with old newspapers scattered all over his house).

Really, newspapers (and newscasts) have always encouraged a throw-away culture of stories and ideas–never to be updated or referenced in the future. I’m infinitely pleased that journalists are now forced to write for posterity or otherwise face the consequences in their comments section;)

Language: English (change)

I agree with Jason in that newspapers and newscasts are no longer the most useful or appreciated medium in terms of immediate information gathering. I do have to say, however, that newspaper content HAS evolved to some extent in that the writing is no longer aimed at telling the reader simply WHAT happened, but rather why it happened and what it means that it’s happened. Facebook, RSS and of the minute online reporting are wonderful tools, but they do nothing to outline an event’s implications.

(Please note that I do not believe that newscasts have undergone this same transformation…hence why they are constantly wading in their own irrelevance.)

Thanks for your comments, Hannah and Jason.

The main argument I’m trying to suggest with my piece is that the format ‘newsprint’ is separating from being used almost exclusively for ‘news journalism’. I agree that newspapers are no longer the best way of covering a lot of stories – but that doesn’t make the medium itself less relevant, only that particular message delivered on it.

Jason, you say that “Even the print on demand example you gave above is not a newspaper, but really a magazine printed on cheap paper.”

I would say that, in most of the Newspaper Club examples, the content has in fact been specifically designed for the format. To say it’s just a magazine on cheap paper is like saying that a magazine is just a big book with a soft cover – in design, format and storytelling, the best magazines understand how to utilize the physical properties of the medium effectively, and so will this new breed of content on newsprint.

Until recently, newsprint simply wasn’t an option for most projects. Now that groups like the Newspaper Club are opening it up through an easy-to-use, affordable service, I think we’re going to see a great expansion of what the medium can be used for. Which may indeed include journalism, but will also bring a whole lot more.

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