Phil O'Brien

Zuckerberg is killing Gutenberg!

Observing the world at the moment is like watching a multi-car motorway pile up. It all seems to happen so slowly, but it's inevitable that when the brakes are applied by some and directions changed by others that a big crash will happen.

digital killed pressMy background is in print media and photography. I’ve written in the“project and tales” section of the site about some of my experiences at the cutting edge of digital photography in the early 90s. Less than 20 years on, I’ve just witnessed the inevitable crash of a big juggernaut as Kodak filed for bankruptcy.

Everyone could see it coming. No matter how brakes were applied, a new course steered or the attempts to accelerate away from danger – it crashed.

Much discussion has been had about the demise of newspapers. The focus has been on the outdated business models – and how only on-line paywalls can hope to sustain excellent journalism. The crashes have already started to occur in the US regional newspapers – and was well illustrated in the excellent docufilm – “Page One – Inside The New York Times”. In the UK, there has yet to be a major crash. Although many would connect the closure of the News of the World as much with economics as Murdoch’s empire trying to distance itself from phone hacking.

The bigger crash I can see is the inevitable demise of the whole print industry. It’s a supertanker powering towards a reef. If I’d have said this 5 years ago, you would have thought I was mad. But now, it seems to add up. Will the printing presses be running in 10 years time? I don’t think so – except as a “side show” like black and white photography darkrooms.

I used one of the first digital cameras in 1994 at the Lillehammer Olympics. I was part of a select few to use these prototype models at the games. At that Olympics, professional photographers alone shot 700,000 rolls of film. The images were carefully selected – and a number of them used in newspapers, magazines and books. In the 18 years since that first breakthrough, more pictures are used because of so many digital platforms being available. There will be 5-20 pictures shown on newspaper websites to back up the 1-2 pictures used in print. No mainstream photography is created using film – and printing is limited to when a picture needs framing at home. I’ve seen it happen in one great industry – and the printing presses invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century are next on the crash list.

I am typing this sitting on a train heading through Switzerland. Around me, I cannot see a newspaper – but plenty of people tapping and viewing content on iPhones and Androids. I’ve just been through the airport – and Kindles/iPads outnumbered book readers (and it’s early days for these reading devices). I still love reading a book in print. I’ll never stop loving it (much like the desire to process a film, put the negative in the enlarger and create a print through trays of chemicals). All that nostalgia will pass though, and I am sure the screen will win.

There is no doubt that Steve Jobs led the revolution on devices to consume content. However, when we look back in history – the real destroyer of Gutenberg’s legacy will be seen as Mark Zuckerberg. He brought hundreds of millions of people from around the world to their screens to engage with friends and consume content on Facebook. Make no mistake, many media companies engage on-line – but Zuckerberg’s Facebook has made screen consumption – at the desk or on the move – mainstream.

I had a brief email exchange with Jon Ferrara of Nimble the other day. He’s quite a visionary. I’d forwarded an article from Chris Brogan saying to get things done it helps to write out 3×5 index cards and put on your desk. Jon’s view was that this was “too old school”. I think he’s right – although I don’t know if I can ever give up scribbling my to-do list and musings in my Moleskin notebook (I have tried many, many to-do list software solutions). Jon’s company, Nimble, is redefining how individuals do business – and it’s on-screen.

Last week, I went to a board meeting at home in Bath. There were nearly 50 pages to print – so I took my iPad with PDFs loaded. It worked well, I “saved a tree” – and got nearer than I’ve ever been to the old ideal of the “paperless office”. I also read that at this year’s meeting of GE’s top executives, presentation materials will be available only via iPads.

I’m sure those of my age and older have heard these arguments before. It happened when television came on the scene. Newspapers were definitely going to die.

It’s different this time. This new wave will not just take out newspapers in their printed format – it will leave in its wake bookshops, magazine stands, printing presses, ink makers and paper suppliers. I am sure Gutenberg would be delighted. His solution was built for no other purpose than to spread “the word”. Gutenberg was the 20th Century’s greatest inventor – this millennium has started with Mark Zuckerberg in pole position. Like it or not (and there are some elements I certainly don’t like) Zuckerberg is spreading the word (and it’s not with ink on paper). There’s a new “Berg” on the block!


Posted by John, 31 January 2012

I would agree, a whole raft of previously unassailable mediums are on their way out, and in a rapid period of time. I'm not so sure I would call Guttenberg a 20th century inventor though? ;-)

Posted by Michael Ward , 31 January 2012

I think that there will be one major paper that will survive in each city. But soon printed media will go the way of CD's and VHS. You can still find specialty shops where you can buy them but they are are few and far between.

If anything Borders is a good indication of what is to come.

Posted by Sofia Galbraith, 31 January 2012

I disagree. I live in Europe at the moment Switzerland and here we travel on public transportation mostly. The most successful newspapers are the free ones that you find at the train stations, here in Switzerland called "20 Minuten". I always grabb one to see the weather, TV program or latest gossip on celebrities when going to work or back. I do not think this will change. Also reading a newspaper on a weekend has become something of a pleasure, demonstrating that you have time to just browse. Newspapers inspire us without us having to look for something particular, I believe this being an asset that most other media still can not accomplish on that pleasing level.

Posted by Phil O'Brien, 31 January 2012

Hi Sofia. I must say that my "straw poll" on Swiss trains was in the evening - when the free newspapers must have disappeared! I'm still convinced that information on celeb/gossip will be consumed increasingly on smartphones and tablets - and print will disappear. I do agree with the pleasure of a weekend read of a newspaper - the FT Weekend is the only one I still regularly spread out on the sofa and read. I bet that I won't be doing that 5 years from now - it will be another read on my iPad. Thanks for reading my blog post that John kindly forwarded. P

Posted by Joe Dalton, 1 February 2012

The lifecycle of newspapers:


Posted by Daniel Moloney , 6 February 2012

I like to read the Sunday Times on a Sunday morning but it is the only newspaper I read in any given week. I have also recently taken up subscriptons to both Time and The Economist paper versions; as I like their covearge and I get to scan and read them at leisure and to best personal effect. The argument I think should be directed at content delivery and the increasingly online format/s in which content will be provided. We have not yet seen the explosion of innovative formats which will be coming to us in the next few years and I am sure we shall be amazed and adopt/adapt to them. Newspapers are an old and now increasingly redundant format (although I love them to pieces), time has moved on and we will move with time not tradition.

Posted by Warren Drumm, 7 February 2012

I think there will still be an audience for print in 10 years but I don't think it will be enough for a viable business to keep printing except in very niche circles - so agree 90%

Posted by Saveeta Andrea Persaud , 22 February 2012

The ridiculous thing is how many people in the publishing industry still vehemently refuse to accept the change. The idea of print going out is literally offensive to them - well it's changing a culture. Change is difficult to accept, because it requires adaption, and new thinking. Not everyone can ease into something like that.

Posted by John Ruckstaetter , 22 February 2012

Today, there are still too many 40/50+ year olds subscribing to and reading the daily printed newspaper. They like to drink their coffee and read the paper every morning..habit. Al Bundy still exists. Sunday Supplement advertisers are still addicted to their crack (the inserts) despite negative ROI on that investment. When Sears, Best Buy, etc. finally close their doors, the gravy train will end and a few large market newspapers will survive. When iPad/Kindle penetration is very high, bye bye. I give it 20 years.

Posted by CHRISTINA HASKIN, 22 February 2012

I feel there is a rush to have a one dimensional experience of reading everything from a screen. Yes we all do now and it has it's place but I don't think one format has to kill off the other. There is a vital need on several counts: Reading online is not as relaxing to the eye as the print experience is. Most of us are spending the days viewing everything on some screen and our eyes need a rest from that type of interaction. The damage to eyesight of constant online reading has to be considered. I find that I have less patience in reading an in depth article on-line. When I read print I am more relaxed and take my time to absorb the article in full. The second reason is radiation exposure. Though it may be in small doses, we don't yet know the cumulative effect of what an inordinate amount of time engaged with electronic equipment will create. As we are seeing there are health consequences with cell phone use. I think our bodies need a rest from the constant stream of electronics. When television became popular radio did take a back seat but it has not be banished to extinction. I think and hope that the print version of newspapers will stay with us as radio has.We also need print as an emergency backup. Print can be read even when the power goes out, and print cannot be hacked the way online information can etc.

I embrace the web and interactive online media. There are fantastic opportunities and experiences to be had online but I hope that we don't have a society that is so mono it has to be one or the other. Yes we can have large exciting cities but we still need to get away to the natural quiet and beauty of the countryside.

I say, beware of what you wish.for. If and when print newspapers and books become extinct, it will a less rich and beautiful world in my book.

Posted by John Harrs , 22 February 2012

Interesting proposition. I still think there is a slightly romantic ideology of sitting somewhere reading the paper, especially on the weekend. People thought instant coffee would be the end of the grinder and espresso and if anything, they are stronger than ever. We had 2012 phone books delivered yesterday, now there is something that will surely be defunct in 10 years time it is the phone book!

Posted by Jon Waters , 23 February 2012

This debate is quite compelling.I have walked through the 7.58 Farnham to London train. I would say the vast majority are reading and or listening to something. Well over 75% are reading paper of some sort I would guess 40% are reading newspapers.Very few of the rest are using electronic media to read any form of paperless device...

Posted by Carolyn Watcke , 24 February 2012

I feel as though old media never dies. Social media and going digital with almost everything is growing by day but there will always be some people who prefer to turn the page of a book or newspaper instead of sliding their finger to turn a page. New media has always built upon old media and without the old media we wouldn't be where we are today.

Posted by António Mota, 28 February 2012

News Corp.’s first Sunday edition of the Sun sold 3 million copies on the weekend, topping the circulation of its News of the World predecessor (...).

News Corp. sold all the advertising space for the Sun on Sunday (...).

When the News of the World closed, it controlled 2.67 million readers out of a total Sunday circulation of 9.66 million.

Not bad for a dying industry...

Posted by John Lynch, 28 February 2012

Hi Antonio, i notice a lot of upbeat comments on the Sun on Sunday. Yes they sold 3.26 million copies... apparently. However as we say here in the UK, 'one swallow does not a summer make' :) The first real test of the Sun on Sunday's success will be after a full month on the newsstands, when the March figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations are published in mid-April.

As for the UK print industry in general, circulations makes for sorry reading. The Independent 'i' was the only UK national daily to increase sales year on year in last months figures. Thats primarily because its a loss makes owned by a somewhat dodgy Russian Oligarch who wants to use it as a stick to bash nice Mr Putin. ALL the other national daily papers lost sales year on year in January with the quality end of the market seeing the biggest drops (this goes to my money talks argument). Here is the latest list.

(Name of title: average sale/Day, percentage change year on year)

UK Dailies

Daily Mirror : 1,122,563 ; -5.99
Daily Record : 276,003 ; -10.06
Daily Star : 624,029 ; -15.0
The Sun : 2,751,219 ; -8.35
Daily Express : 586,707 ; -8.31
Daily Mail : 2,011,283 ; -5.86
The Daily Telegraph : 596,180 ; -8.45
Financial Times : 319,757 ; -16.53
The Herald : 46,479 ; -10.80
The Guardian : 229,753 ; -17.74
i : 243,321 ; +82.30
The Independent : 117,084 ; -36.72
The Scotsman : 39,331 ; -9.30
The Times : 405,113 ; -11.40
Racing Post : 47,741 ; -5.02

Among the Sundays the year-on-year figures show big increases for the Sunday Mirror, People and Star Sunday BUT this is only following the closure of the News of the World last July.

UK Sundays

Daily Mirror : 1,122,563 ; -5.99
Daily Record : 276,003 ; -10.06
Daily Star : 624,029 ; -15.0
The Sun : 2,751,219 ; -8.35
Daily Express : 586,707 ; -8.31
Daily Mail : 2,011,283 ; -5.86
The Daily Telegraph : 596,180 ; -8.45
Financial Times : 319,757 ; -16.53
The Herald : 46,479 ; -10.80
The Guardian : 229,753 ; -17.74
i : 243,321 ; +82.30 (quality loss making newspaper priced at 20p)
The Independent : 117,084 ; -36.72
The Scotsman : 39,331 ; -9.30
The Times : 405,113 ; -11.40
Racing Post : 47,741 ; -5.02

This is an industry in RAPID decline with the ground coming up fast.

Posted by Karma, 2 March 2012

Nice article, particularly love the headline. I've read about this extensively, as a publishing professional who works with journalists. I agree with your take on newspapers. I can tell you from firsthand experience the papers are already in trouble. They're cutting departments left, right and center, and the ones that are left over are short-staffed. Editors leave their positions and are not replaced, or they're asked to cover three departments instead of one. The only department that seems to be immune is the sports section.

The publishing industry will take much longer though. They still provide a valuable service, to separate the writing worth reading from the junk. Those outside publishing denigrate this (after all, they have no trouble finding things worth reading) but if you know any one who works as an acquisitions editor and you've had the benefit of just one day's exposure to the slush pile, you know that the majority of what's written is poorly edited and poorly executed. Professional publishers still serve as a wall, or better, a filter, sifting out the quality from the slush.

The publishers will become "side shows" (as you've put it) when crowd sourcing manuscripts becomes as popular as, and no sooner. I've elaborated more on this subject, but I don't want to hijack your blog. Here's my take:

Posted by John Lynch, 5 March 2012

Interesting article, - The Collapse of Print Advertising in 1 Graph
Talks about the decline of US print. "Last year's ad revenues of about $21 billion were less than half of the $46 billion spent just four years ago in 2007, and less than one-third of the $64 billion spent in 2000. However it also points out that Print STILL is a $20bil industry.

Posted by Howard Lewis , 12 March 2012

I don't think, reading between the lines, so to speak, that there is much doubt that the conventional newspaper business is in decline in the developed world. However, as various posts have pointed out, there is a burgeoning appetite in emerging nations for old school printed media. Man, and for that matter woman, is a social animal and reading a newspaper is a communal activity. However much one may tag news content online, according to preference, its absorption in this format is a rather solitary activity. I find much social media acutely antisocial, anonymous, depersonalised and cursory. Yes, of course, you can share an article or comment with 38 vaguely recognisable connections or anybody else who happens to be listening but it is not how I would wish to communicate.

I read the Mrs Moneypenny column in the FT magazine yesterday in which she lauded a guest who had sent her a two page thank you letter. She treated it as something close to an epiphany. I was rather puzzled. Am I the only other person who recognises the importance of beautiful paper and a personal touch? Does nobody else write a note in their own fair hand any more? The underlying point is that different modes of communication can coexist. Part of the issue is the unrelenting focus in the modern era on speed, immediacy and instant gratification, regardless of the quality of the experience. All well and good to a point but not for me. I recall an experiment initiated by De Volkstrat a few years ago whereby the content was only available online during the week but supplemented by a full, hard copy version on the weekend. Not sure if that is still the case. Equally, one of the Danish newspapers produced different covers which depended on whether it was sold via subscription online or the newsstands.

I read a very diverse range of publications in but I have noticed that, unlike its magazine peers, newspaper design has largely remained pedestrian and unimaginative. We live in such a visual age yet newspapers have overlooked this essential element. I certainly agree that the historic model of one size to fit all purposes is becoming obsolete. They will be targeted to specific demographics with a particular focus such as sport, business, arts etc and an overlay of general news that may be adapted from their online content. The top table, such as NYT, South China Post, FT etc, should remain broadly intact.

The other aspect that I am curious about is the nature of offline distribution. I remember the astonishment that greeted the revelation that you could obtain financial services at the supermarket or stock up your larder at a petrol station. Major brands with strong customer loyalty are able to graft entirely fresh products onto their existing business model. What are the numbers in the 15 - 30 age bracket visiting Zara or Primark or Nike or whatever? Create a conducive environment where large numbers congregate
and tweak the product accordingly. Fashion market? Football market? There are influencers everywhere. It's all about the proverbial bums on seats so newspapers need to be proactive not reactive.

Print media will go through various incarnations as technology develops elsewhere but I do not envisage it will disappear. The tactile quality of newspapers and their physicality are a huge attraction for many. The audience is there but the newspapers need to innovate their packaging and content in a much more granular way to compete with the rather charmless world of online media. There is a strangely satisfying feeling finishing a paper or periodical smudged with newsprint, not dissimilar to a well used napkin
after a delicious supper. You know you have thoroughly enjoyed the experience from beginning to end!

Posted by Dan Scott, 16 March 2012

Thanks for posting the interesting article. I too worked in print media for over a decade and, though I still enjoy spreading out on the sofa with a Daily Telegraph, it is a rare pleasure and most of my news intake these days comes from other sources. I do notice that my attention span is less than it was and I don't think I have the patience any more to read a broadsheet from cover to cover.

Posted by Anton Foteev , 31 March 2012

While tablets, smartphones, and eReaders open new distribution channels, publishers face challenges in maintaining and monetizing customer relationships that have been fragmented by countless platforms, devices, and services. Many people show willingness to pay for digital magazine and newspaper content, but most have not yet started doing so. Years of ad-supported free websites and discounted subscriptions have accustomed consumers to pay little or nothing for digital content. In a competitive media landscape, publishers need to innovate like never before to reach prospects and supplement advertising revenue with user payments. With few bona fide successes to look to for guidance, publishers must explore a variety of monetization strategies to find combinations that resonate with target audiences. Magazines and newspapers that gain a deep understanding of target audiences through qualitative and quantitative research will stand a better chance than most of crafting differentiated content, solutions, and services that consumers value with both their time and their money.

In a competitive media landscape, newspapers and magazines clearly are facing an uphill battle to maintain and monetize customer relationships. Years of ad-supported free websites and discounted subscriptions have accustomed consumers to pay little or nothing for digital content.

The phenomenal popularity of smartphones, iPads, and eReaders has led to a rapid rise in media applications and, subsequently, to an increase in reading across multiple devices. As with other types of digital content such as music and games, members of Gen Y (ages 18-34) exhibit an early-adopter profile when it comes to the number of advanced consumer electronics they use for reading publications. They are more than twice as likely as the general population to consume newspaper and magazine content on smartphones, tablets, and eReaders. To reach these early technology adopters (and their even more connected younger siblings) publishers must go beyond simply offering multi-platform access to fully exploit the capabilities of small screen devices and bring new experiences to readers.

For the last decade, publishers have intensely debated whether or not consumers will pay directly for newspaper and magazine content. While most consumers have yet to make a purchase, many show willingness to pay for access of some type—whether by the article, through all access plans, or for ancillary services. With few bona fide successes to look to for guidance, publishers must explore a variety of monetization strategies to find those that resonate best with target audiences and then refine them iteratively. Using monetization strategies in tandem can offer customers more choice. The most demanded monetization model is the “Free mium/tiered subscriptions”
With Apple and Google both announcing subscription payment services in February, there has been a renewed interest in monetizing digital content using a subscription model. Providing a layer of free access can eventually entice readers into subscribing to paid services. The key is to accommodate different audience segments with quality content they get any kind of advertisement free. This monetization model is the basis for the project. :^)

Posted by Sandra King, 17 July 2012

This argument is about the vehicle only. When people talk about newspapers / print dying, it is the paper paged product. But fundamentally the newspaper brands will not die. We're talking about some of the biggest brands in the world. Take Google, Facebook, Ebay out of the argument and you're left with some of the biggest websites in the world... newspaper branded online content! I'm bored with the newspapers are dead discussion. Come on... the make-up of a printed product is high quality journalism, integrity, investigative features and the list goes on. What newspapers do is gather all this information from iconic sources and then disseminate. THAT won'tt change whether the print vehicle has died or not. Newspaper brands are alive and well and very much kicking.

Posted by Rod Banner, 10 September 2012

I so agree with this piece. Curiously I just gave a talk at the WAN-IFRA conference in Kiev and came out with a very similar perspective. (
In fact we drew so many similar conclusions that when I ready your piece, I thought you had been in the audience. Then I realised you wrote this one months ago. The Newspaper industry has lost it's mojo and seems unable to grab the stellar opportunities that lie within its grasp. Kodak is the perfect parallel - sadly.

Posted by Phil O'Brien, 10 September 2012

Hi Rod. These ideas are always in the "ether". The article was written back in January. Really like your presentation - the visuals are great!! Phil


Phil O'Brien Climbing Fish Phil O'Brien
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