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Scott Adams: The cell phone will kill of newspapers

I don’t know if Scott Adams frequents The Daily Cartoonist and saw our discussion last week on newspaper trends, but he’s waded into the discussion by posting his prediction on the future of newspapers. In short it will happen within your next 2 mobile phone upgrades.

I predict that the end of printed newspapers will happen in the time it takes for most people to upgrade their cell phones two more times. The iPhone, and its inevitable copycats, (let’s call them iClones) are newspaper killers. When you have a web browser in your pocket, a printed newspaper is redundant. Eventually, all cell phones will have Internet browsing built in. You might not have a web browser on your next cell phone, but the one after that will have it as a standard feature.

Most people prefer to read a printed page versus a computer screen. A cell phone screen is the worst of all. But newspapers will collapse as a business long before 100% of iPhone and iClone owners give up their printed newspaper subscriptions. I don’t know if it will take 20% of iPhone/iClone owners to cancel their subscriptions, or if it will take 60%, but whatever the number, it seems likely we will reach it. Then the printed newspaper will disappear.

So I see printed newspapers lasting until you upgrade your phone two more times. But the newspaper business can thrive online if it changes how it gathers and edits content. And clearly there will be massive amounts of consolidation. There won’t be 3,000 newspapers online. There might be a dozen. And local news will come from hometown bloggers who self-syndicate to all of the newspapers.

Here’s what I agree with: I think mobile phones will have an impact on the newspaper business. It is estimated by 2010, 4 BILLION people will have web enabled mobile phones (keep in mind that the world population is estimated to grow to 6.8 billion in that time). I see the mobile phone becoming the next evolution of the internet – more personal, smaller screen specific offerings. His last point makes sense to me as well. I think you’re going to see greater consolidation of media entities. In the Salt Lake City market, when it comes to news, I can get the same news (who, what, where, why, when and how) from web sites of the 2 metro papers, several radio stations, the 4 television stations and a handful of bloggers. A lot of the content is the same with little to differentiate between them. Like the print consolidations of the past century that gave us hyphenated names for papers (Journal-Constitution, Times-Picayune, etc.), we’ll see large media companies partnering or merging their products (probably at first their web offerings) in order to reduce redundant costs and increase their audience.

Here’s where I disagree: Because of the screen size limitations, I think it’s a bit aggressive to kill off newspapers in 4 years (two 2-year mobile phone contract periods). Especially when you look at the aging population that still subscribes to the newspaper, they’re not the population that is likely to get all geeked out over a mobile phone and as they get older and have to deal with vision challenges, the last thing they’re going to do is read a paper on the mobile phone.

Community Comments

#1 Wes Rand
October/2/2007
@ 9:09 am

Great post. Predicting the future of this kind of change is really impossible I think. Knowing what kind of technology millions of people will find useful and latch on to and how they will use it involves so many variables that will inevitably lead to some surprising developments. I think you’re right about using a cell phone screen for your primary Web device would be tough to deal with … unless a company comes up with a clever design to allow for a larger screen. Say if Apple could figure out a way to double to size of the iPhone display and increase its resolution then I could see that being a great portable computer/Web device.

Oh, and is the title supposed to be “… will kill off newspapers” or “… will be the death of newspapers”?

#2 Dawn Douglass
October/2/2007
@ 10:31 am

Print newspapers will never die. Eventually publishers will get smart and do what I’ve been saying they should do for years now, to allow readers to order their own customized version.

You pick up your morning paper with your Starbucks. The technology is already available.

Then you can choose your own comics. And stories with the tags you’ve set will print off, along with any burning news that everybody should know.

This isn’t rocket science. The problem is that newspapers are intransigent beasts and they will have to suffer a lot more pain before they change course.

#3 josh shalek
October/2/2007
@ 12:10 pm

I have yet to see a screen on any device that is as easy to read as paper. Even a giant TV screen is harder on the eyes than typical print you’d find in a newspaper. Free wireless internet is a long ways off in many parts of the country, and even where it does currently exist, it can be spotty.

There are a few major hurdles we need to get over before Scott’s prediction can come to fruition. I feel like he’s making this statement not so much because he truly believes it will happen, but because it’s a great way to get people talking about methods of change. It’s a good cartoonist trick.

I’m at a computer for most of the day, but when it’s my choice, I read on paper. Maybe I just hate trees.

#4 Alex Hallatt
October/2/2007
@ 2:01 pm

Wasn’t radio supposed to be the death of newspapers? And then TV?

Mobile devices won’t kill the newspapers, but they do create new evolutionary pressures. I spend a couple of hours on the internet every day, but I would gladly subscribe to a newspaper with WELL-EDITED CONTENT (and that includes comics pages decided on by editors with an appreciation of the cartooning art and not by a poll of their readers). And you can’t beat the tactility of printed page over screen.

#5 Neal Obermeyer
October/2/2007
@ 2:11 pm

Those newsreels they show down at the nickelodeon will be the death of newspapers!

#6 Chris H.
October/2/2007
@ 5:57 pm

No way will the newspaper be phased out by the end of this decade. That’s way too fast. There are numerous alarming news stories about newspaper circulation declining, but keep in mind that millions and millions of people in America and in Europe still read the newspaper every day. 4 Billion seems like an awfully big number of people to have web browsers on their cell phones three years from now, but I suppose that the price will drop from where it is now.

I’m sure many people will surf the ‘net on the go, but it must be really annoying to read long articles on those tiny screens. I don’t have a problem reading small lettering on those screens for a brief text message or something, but that’s why people use abbreviations in their text messages — to save space so the message can be read quickly. A long, newspaper-length article must be exceedingly irritating to have to scroll through. Incidentally, there was a “Zits” cartoon a few years ago where Jeremy is dreading reading Moby Dick for school and decides to download the electronic version to one of his portable devices. He then begins to read: “Call me Ish–” (at which point he has to scroll over) “–mael.” That, obviously is exaggerated, but still, it must be a similar problem for reading the news on your cell phone.

And comics on cell phones? Those are ridiculous — not the strips, but the way you have to read them. I’d rather have the “Comics” part of “GoComics” than the “Go.”

Wes, an increase in the size of, say, an iPhone, would make it easier to browse and read the news online, but, as you probably know, the technology companies are always all about smaller, smaller, smaller.

Dawn, are customized personal newspapers really possible today? And would they be profitable for the companies that would make them?

Josh, I, too, would rather read the newspaper than on my cell phone. And I’m a teenager.

Alex, I don’t think that the newspaper will die out, at least not for a long time, largely because you can’t beat having all the news, features, and local topics of the last day in front of you in a big, broadsheet newspaper. Online, you’d have to search around for that stuff, not that it’s a big deal, but it just isn’t as good. Also, you can get the facts of the latest events online, but if you want the whole story written with journalistic quality, you have to go to the newspaper.

Neil, you never know!

So, if you ask me, the newspaper isn’t going anywhere. Many people will opt to read the news and comics on their cell phones, but that won’t stop the circulation of newspapers altogether, because while circulation may be declining, keep in mind that most households in the US still get (and presumably read) at least one paper every day!

#7 JeffM
October/2/2007
@ 8:00 pm

I too don’t think newspapers will ever come to an end anytime soon. I also spend a lot of time online and read a lot of news online, but I still enjoy leafing through the newspaper.

Come to think of it, I still subscribe to certain trade magazines, even though I can get most of the same information online also.

I personally can’t imagine reading the news entirely off of a tiny little screen.

#8 Eric Burke
October/2/2007
@ 8:27 pm

As long as peeps still read on the crapper, newspapers will stay in business…

…that and coupon clippers. I deal with cheapskates and penny pinchers all day at my store, and not everyone has or wants a computer, much less an iClone.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Dilbert come to an end in the afformentioned time frame, though. I can’t stand that strip…

#9 Charles Brubaker
October/2/2007
@ 9:19 pm

Agree about what people are saying about the papers.

While the business isn’t as great as, say, 20 years ago, they’re still marketable. And comics will stick around, although they (the editors and the cartoonists) might want to prepare for some drastic changes.

I’m probably the youngest commentor in this site (just entering college) and even I read newspapers.

#10 Garey Mckee
October/2/2007
@ 9:25 pm

I believe those that spell doom and gloom for newspapers have, at some level, their own disatisfaction with the newspaper medium which results in them projecting their own negative feelings towards papers in posts such as Scott Adams’.

I must admit, as far as comics are concerned (as I have stated in other posts), I read most of them online. But every Sunday I do like to sit down with the paper. What Scott fails to touch on is the fact that reading the newspaper is for many people steeped in ritual.

#11 Dawn Douglass
October/3/2007
@ 6:42 am

“Dawn, are customized personal newspapers really possible today? And would they be profitable for the companies that would make them?”

Yes and yes. It would be entirely possible to modernize the old newspaper vending machines we still have on many street corners. You sign up for a subscription and tell the program the cartoons and story tags you want. Then when you pass one of these machines, you put in your code, it electronically mashes up a paper for you and then prints it off from a long roll of paper, cutting and collating the pages. Then all you have to do is fold it and away you go.

It would be profitable because the ads that would print along with it would be a lot more targeted.

The technology is available. It’s the infrastructure and will that doesn’t yet exist.

In a few more years, we can even by-pass the need for the paper machines. “Electronic paper” already offers the visual look of paper in terms of contrast, clarity and brightness. Philips, Epson and other companies are working on future versions that will integrate plastics to allow something that not only has the look of paper, but is also much closer to its form – thin, light, flexible, rollable.

So you can carry a newspaper rolled up in your briefcase and it will be constantly updated in real time.

#12 Chris H.
October/3/2007
@ 4:52 pm

Charles, I think I’ve got you beat there…pretty sure I’m our youngest commenter (I’m still in high school)!
And I, like you, still enjoy reading newspapers more than reading the news online. Like I wrote above, the internet is good for getting the facts, but the newspaper is best for reading all about them. And they certainly are still very martketable.

Garey, I read a lot of comics online, too, mainly because a lot of my favorites are not in my paper. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to sit down and read the entire comics page each day (on Sundays especially).

Dawn, what you describe is incredible! That is amazing that such a development might come so soon. Thanks for the information.

#13 Charles Brubaker
October/3/2007
@ 9:53 pm

Garey,

Good point about some people having disatisfaction with newspapers in general. I know there are certain people who are downright GLAD that the circulation is falling.

Chris,

Whoa, so apparently I’m not the only one. Hope there are more people like us.

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