The places that the tablets can’t reach

Rupert Murdoch’s reputation as a media visionary might have taken a battering in recent months.  His famed enthusiasm for iPads as a news deliver device, however, is beginning to look as if it might yet prove to be as shrewd as his gamble as the one that he made on subscription tv two decades ago.

Research by Forrester, the US based consultancy and research firm, shows how profoundly the acquisition of an iPad changes users behaviour.  Around a third of those answering the company’s questionnaire said that they read fewer books and used their personal computers less frequently after buying an iPad.  One in four say that the number of newspapers and magazines they read fell, and 20% found themselves using their MP3 players less.

Part of the reason for this appears to be that iPad users have different attitudes and expectations compared to other device users – one survey in the US found that among all computer users just 5% were willing to pay for news, rising to 12% among iPad users.  Murdoch’s The Daily, which is not available in the UK, might not have been a runaway success, but the 120,000 subscribers that they reported last October is a respectable and growing base. And surprisingly, most opt to subscribe for a year at a time, rather than on a rolling daily basis.

In 2011, 56 million people found themselves owners of a new tablet computer.  Forrester predicts that global sales will rise to 375 million by 2016.  Taking into account those that are discarded, broken or lost, this suggests 760 million tablets in use around the world by 2016, a third of them by business and 40% of them in emerging markets.

As Ken Doctor, author of Newsenomics has noted, “surveys show that people seem to like reading news on tablets, with many saying they prefer the tablet experience to that of the newspaper. As tablets become cheaper to buy, it’s merely a matter of time before newspapers flip the switch and stop printing altogether in favour of digital editions”.

At one level I suspect that he is right – not least as I am among those iPad newspaper subscribers.  However, I have been exercising my political-activist muscles this past few weeks by indulging in that bedrock of electioneering – delivering leaflets.  It is a miserable and thankless job.  Apart from the chance to examine unfamiliar neighbourhoods at walking speed, delivering to letterboxes is without relief.

With time on my hands for thinking, though, I could not help but wonder whether there was not a better way to get messages to householders?  Surely email, Facebook and Twitter could replace shoe leather when it comes to identifying potential voters?  Could my leaflets not be simply ‘pushed’ to the putative voter iPads.

I discussed the idea with my local party organiser – a talented electioneer of long experience, who travelled to the US to work on Obama’s first election campaign.  He did not give me much hope that my days of expressing my commitment in shoe leather were coming to a close.  “Social media has some uses among activists, it is good for getting messages out quickly and I have even managed to recruit on Twitter.  For communicating with the electorate itself, however, it is all but useless.  However high the take up, we are nowhere near the point where half the electorate can be reached by electronic means (apart from the telephone).  For so long as that is the case, electoral politics will always start with leaflets and printed election addresses”.

These twin truths appear to place us in a strange an paradoxical position.  On the one hand the rush to new media will quite properly be the main concern for most media companies.  In this respect, tablet formats that retain clear editions and create a clear revenue stream, will be the rightful preoccupation of many.

However, there will be a mass analogue market for many years to come.  Eric Gordon’s optimism about genuinely local papers – expressed here – might sound backward looking.  But I suspect that even now there are a few journalists entering the trade even now, who could see out their careers committing their words to ink –  albeit they are likely to be at the resolutely local end of the game.

 

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www.tim-dawson.com