Publishing: Future's in your hands

Developments in technology may signal the end of mass communication and the rise of more personalised media. Guy Kewney on the impact for both users and moguls
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The Independent Online

We know quite a lot about the newspaper of the future – from a technology standpoint. Research tells us that some will read it on paper, others on their computers. Still others will receive it on hand-held devices that are neither phones nor pocket computers, but a hybrid of both. It will have rivals not only on the television screen, but also on pocket web bulletins received by wireless. And you may print it out, in full colour, at home.

We know quite a lot about the newspaper of the future – from a technology standpoint. Research tells us that some will read it on paper, others on their computers. Still others will receive it on hand-held devices that are neither phones nor pocket computers, but a hybrid of both. It will have rivals not only on the television screen, but also on pocket web bulletins received by wireless. And you may print it out, in full colour, at home.

What we don't know, and what a lot of media giants want to know, is: "Who will publish it?" It's not an academic question. The advertising industry depends on finding mass media through which to promote mass merchandise – cars, shampoos, headache remedies and mass media itself (advertising TV on posters, radio on TV, newspapers on radio) to the mass market.

But the future includes a new mass medium, the internet, which will turn the current structure upside down, destroy media empires, and build a new infrastructure for marketing. No media will die – no media ever does. Radio didn't destroy newspapers; TV didn't destroy radio; the internet won't destroy TV. But the idea of powerful media owners with powerful channels may be an idea whose time is over.

The concept of "a publication" may be obsolete in the ubiquitous information age. The current model assumes you pick your favourite newspaper, buy a small selection of regular magazines, tune in to a favourite station. But technology is going to make it easier to assemble your newspaper from multiple sources, or plan a video viewing sequence that is unpredictable. The mass market may soon be impossible to locate.

You can get a snapshot of the future of all media by studying what has happened to the specialist media that serves the IT industry, because it picks up on technology trends earlier. In a recession, the media feel the downturn first, as advertising is cut back by big spenders. Now, all media, not just IT media, are feeling the pinch; but IT has been hit hardest because IT professionals don't feel they need to read print media in the obsessive way they did five or 10 years ago.

Some titles have transferred their output to the internet, but the problem isn't "free editorial" provided by dot.com news sites. It's the availability of direct source material from the horse's mouth. You no longer need to wait six weeks for information about a new product in a monthly magazine; with a tip-off from a trusted source, it only takes up to 10 minutes to find the product data, price and reseller sources with Google. Instead of relying on the opinion of a time-pressed reporter, you can discuss the issues with your peers in live online forums such as Internet Relay Chat rooms. Weekly and monthly publications continue to have a market, and a readership; it's just a different market, and a smaller readership.

The same applies to those publications that lived on recruitment advertising. Why would an IT specialist look for a job in a publication that is a week out of date when it hits the street? You can find job ads online which are put up immediately, and "pulled" as soon as there are sufficient applicants.

The internet hasn't hit the mass media market in this way – not yet. IT professionals generally have high-speed internet access, while domestic consumers are still primarily e-mail users with dial-up modems running at one-tenth the speed. Moore's Law shows us that the power of computers, and the speed of communications, and the growth of technology, will change this.

By 2010, your home computer won't be a geek's corner upstairs in an attic room; it will be an invisible part of the home, acting not just as a spreadsheet and e-mail machine, but as a full entertainment control centre. Instead of an occasional 56kb-per-second internet connection, it will be permanently online at 10 or even 100mb per second, able to transmit two high-definition video signals simultaneously, plus other compressed information channels. Instead of being stuck in front of a heavy, flickering CRT display, you'll be able to control it from anywhere in the world using whatever keyboard, mouse, pen or other input tool is closest to hand, and view its output on your phone, pocket computer, car windscreen, or any nearby display.

And it will know you. A combination of today's search engine technology and the predictive heuristics of the Tivo personal video recorder (which "learns" what TV programmes you like by what you record) will mean that it will be possible to feed you entertainment – and information – which you didn't even know you were interested in.

The IT community is, meanwhile, evolving bellwether opinion formers – not journalists (though some of them are) but information-finders. In each chat community, there are people who have a knack of picking up "cool" new ideas, and whose lead is followed first by their immediate circle, and soon afterwards by an expanding shock-wave of secondary acquaintances.

So far, nobody is storing the demographics of who these people are. But the effects are cataclysmic. Website operators talk of the dangers of being "Slashdotted" or "rogistered" – when some item on your small-time, specialist pages gets noticed by one of these bellwethers, and finally gets to the attention of Slashdot (www.slashdot.org) or The Register (www.theregister.co.uk), two popular news sources. Suddenly, your servers are swamped by hundreds of thousands of visitors viewing your web page, and your ISP is calling to say you owe big fees for all that extra bandwidth your site's just used when the visitors dropped by.

If only you could sell advertising for all these visiting people, you could be rich overnight. But by the time you've realised you've got a "smart mob" on your site, it's too late to tell an advertiser that you've got an 80 per cent internet audience share; the crowd will have moved on to the next thing.

Inside a decade, however, advertising moguls will know who the bellwether viewers are. What will happen is that search engines will log when bellwether viewers visit a site (say, showing some film or story) that later peaks in popularity, how long they stay there, and who they notify. It will become possible to predict a surge in viewers.

At this point, advertising sales staff will contact big advertisers, and their technical staff will start negotiating for the rights to provide high bandwidth to the site or media in question – in return for inserting ads into the content. Money will change hands before anything has happened.

Printed copies of the incident will be available, but not in individual titles. Rather, readers will stop by the newsagent to pick up instantly printed, bound copies of colour glossies that feature only those news items and hobbies of interest to them. And, of course, the concept that everybody has to be in front of the telly at 6.30pm to see the event will be long-forgotten; it will be stored on the huge terabyte TV recorder Moore's Law tells us every home will have.

Forget the idea that the "owner" of the programme or site or media can control the advertising as today's TV studios and magazine publishers and radio stations do. There will be too many sources, and no way of knowing too far ahead which will get "smart-mobbed" at any moment.

Power will pass from the publishers to the advertising franchise brokers. They will be incumbent telecoms companies such as BT or Vodafone, or established, licence-based media empires such as the BBC, who are moving into the advertising business through their internet subsidiaries.

It's not the news that AOL/Time-Warner or News International want to be told; but unless they move out of media into advertising franchise control, they're doomed. Perhaps a few subscription-only sources can make an artisan's income. But the idea of mass media meaning studio owners, or printing-press moguls, is a historical one.

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