Take a tablet for healthy readership

Meet Roger Fidler. A lovely man with a mind like a razor. His page on the venerable US Reynolds Journalism Institute website where he works, says he started work in 1962, which strikes me as impossible since I think of him as a contemporary. But then he has always been a man ahead of his time. Perhaps THE man.

He first envisioned the concept of the eReader (tablet) in 1981.

I confess that after the third time I heard Roger speak – around 1995 I think – a crowd of us went to the bar and someone remarked: “Why does such a smart guy always talk about the same thing!”

Please record that in my prognostications, forecasts, thoughts on new concepts, I’ve never got it more wrong, than I did about Roger.

When I first saw him present, he already a prototype tablet that he carried around among a room full of sceptics.

At the time he was profoundly influential, as director of new media at Knight Ridder, when they were the place to be in terms of newspaper innovation. Imagine the energy at KR, with Roger on Digital and Mike Smith, now the director of the Chicago based Media Management centre at North Western University. But as time passed and KR went the way of so many innovative news media companies, the brilliant anticipation was lost. Sadly too many newspapers have become followers rather than leaders.

Roger’s predictions couldn’t have been righter. Recently he wrote to me: “I’m confident that media tablets and e-readers will be commonplace worldwide by 2020. By then, they’ll undoubtedly be lighter, thinner and cheaper than those on the market today.”

That strikes me as the understatement of all time.

1981 Fidler Tablet

The tablet prototype illustration that Roger Fidler created to accompany the essay he wrote for a special report published back in 1981 by the Associated Press Managing Editors Association titled ‘Newspapers in the Year 2000’

According to the Pew Research Institute news consumers are showing a remarkable affinity with eReaders.

For example, in the United States:

  • 11 percent of adults already own a tablet computer of some sort
  • 53 percent of tablet users consume news on their tablet daily
  • Three in 10 tablet users say they now spend more time consuming news than they did before purchasing their tablet
  • Tablet news users say they prefer tablets over traditional computers, print publications or television
  • 14 percent of tablet news users have paid directly for content on their devices.
  • 59 percent of tablet news users say the tablet replaces what they used to get from a print newspaper or magazine
  • 30 percent of tablet news users now spend more time getting the news than they did before they had their tablet.

In 2012, a staggering 120 million tablets will be sold worldwide, Gartner estimates that 600 million people will be accessing the web via a tablet by 2016.

The latest research from leading global media research company, Ipsos found that, across Europe 42 percent of business executives now use a tablet, compared with 24 percent a year ago.

All product innovation follows four steps: invention; implementation; adoption; and, refinement. As a rule the step from invention to implementation takes longer than expected. In Roger’s case we’re talking over 25 years, while adoption is faster than expected. Nothing has been adopted faster than the tablet.

But the good news doesn’t lie in the up-take of the technology, but in how it is apparently rectifying many of the problems that news media have experienced in osmoting to the digital world. And we still haven’t truly considered the implications of refinement.

Consider the following:

  • Whereas the challenge for newspapers is that their websites deliver low levels of frequency of readership (around 6.1), low reading times and equally disappointing numbers of pages read (3.5), Le Monde have told me that reading times of tablet applications are as high as those of printed newspapers.
  • American publishers have found that subscription conversion and retention levels for tablets are higher than for print products.
  • A German study found that older people read faster on an iPad than in print, and that their ease of adoption is as high as for younger people

So it seems – and there is no verifiable industry data to demonstrate this – that the tablet – overcomes what has been our industry’s conundrum in the digital space.

In addition the attachment of the tablet to the mobile ecosystem exploits the fact that news consumers are willing to pay for content, through mobile pricing systems

I’ve written extensively before about our failures in translating the newspaper to the digital experience for readers and advertisers. In terms of tablets there continue to be challenges in the structure of navigation and the serving of advertising in targeting and creativity, but these I believe will evolve, in a way that hasn’t happened in the PC environment.

But we need to be realistic.

Today, tablets and mobile account for a tiny fraction (about three percent) of newspaper revenues that come from digital. We mustn’t throw everything at these new-fangled gadgets, at the expense of print which still accounts for 97 percent of revenue, and in most cases all of profits. But we do need to invest and innovate … and we need to move fast.

In addition, every publisher is secretly seeking their own solution, resulting in enormous duplication of technological and marketing investment, where as an industry we are competing collectively against major new entry opponents. We compete in terms of content, and creative presentation, but surely there must be ways of collaborating in terms of market development. Certainly hanging on to Apple’s app store does nothing for either our brands or price retention. I fail to understand why publishers are giving up their brand values and 30 percent of their revenues to this single channel to market.

I rarely say this but tablets are the future. Indeed – and I sense some of you are about to stretch out for your defibrillator – I could see a point where it is more cost/benefit effective to give a subscriber a free, customised tablet, loaded with their newspaper as a default, rather than spend money on paper and distribution. For me, is accused of being the luddite of the futurist business, this is a big call.

All the available evidence suggests that this reading concept provides the platform that bridges the gap from the print to the digital world. It’s a tablet worth swallowing.

You can find Roger’s early video on his 1994 tablet concept here.

Jim Chisholm is an independent media consultant based in France. He can be contacted at jim@jimchisholm.net

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