Working in the R&D Labs at The New York Times, I’m constantly asked, “How long will paper be around?” or more to the point, “When will paper really die?” It’s a valid concern, and a question no one can answer with a timetable. But there will be a point–and I believe in our lifetime–when we’ll see the demise of the traditional print newspaper. After all, paper is just a device. It provides a way to communicate information, just as a TV, radio, cell phone, and billboard do. This isn’t to say that newspapers will go away. The way they are delivered will just change, and in turn, the narrative as we know it will have to adapt–more on this in a later post. But paper can easily be replaced–and the factor that will drive this is simple economics.
Let’s put books and magazines aside for a moment, and focus on newsprint. The cost of printing a national newspaper like the Wall Street Journal is close to $150k a day. That’s just for the newsprint. When you factor in printing plant rental or ownership fees, machine maintenance, shipping, and wages for plant employees, drivers, and packers, the final cost is hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Now if you have an average of 1,000,000 subscribers to the newspaper on a daily basis (this is a rounded-down average of a few top papers) and you stopped printing the paper, but instead gave your readers an eReader at $200 apiece, it would take fewer than six months for you to recoup your costs. If you factor back in books and magazines, people who read more than one newspaper a day, and throw in the odd journal or two, you’ve got a multi-billion dollar industry that could collectively save billions of dollars a year by moving away from ink on paper.
But there are problems associated with this model. There’s the environmental effect–devices may not be as benign as they seem, after the impact of manufacturing, materials, and shipping is considered. There’s a human cost–people who print and deliver the paper would lose their jobs. There are the immense difficulties of advertising on small, different-sized devices–do advertisers create one ad at one size, or many different ones, do they animate, etc. And then there’s the issue that you have to treat the device with care, something you don’t need to do with paper.
But for every argument against digital paper, eInk or whatever you want to call it, there is a rebuttal, or at least there will be over time. The simple fact that an eInk device today can carry a thousand books and that it only needs recharging once a month speaks paramount. The ability to download content over the air instantly–something that the “digital native” generation fully expects–is compelling. And as far as cost goes, this will be a non-issue in the coming years. Look at the cost of a 15 Megabyte hard drive 20-plus years ago, it was $2495! Today, you couldn’t buy or find that size hard drive anywhere, and if you could it would cost mere pennies to create. I’m willing to bet that the cost of an eInk device will be negligible in 20 years.
A common response to the prospect of an eReader is, “But I love the feel of paper, I love a good book in my hands.” I can empathize with that sentiment, but I don’t think the digital generation can. If it’s not a touch screen, or hyperlinked, or instantly available at the press of a button, then it’s not worth their time. And as soon as a reasonable iPod-like replacement comes along, paper won’t be worth the publishing industry’s time either.
Update: The title was updated.