A publication of the World Editors Forum


Wed - 24.01.2018

A paperless world?

A paperless world?

On one hand, there's a 2007 report entitled "Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal," written by William Powers, media critic for the National Journal. For Powers, all this talk about readers' migration to digital formats isn't taking into account the millennial virtues of "the most successful communications innovation of the last 2000 years."

On the other hand, there's yesterday's editorial in The Guardian, a major news outlet that still heavily relies on the strengths - revenues - of print, that assesses that readers "are starting to migrate in earnest to electronic reading devices, and the interesting thing is that early adopters are surprised at what an agreeable experience it is."

Will we live to see a paperless world? Most unlikely. Are we slowly moving in the general direction of a less-paper world? Definitely - although the demand for paper and newsprint is constantly rising.

Some of the pros and cons for both formats are straightforward: paper is more tangible, more engrained in our habits, and it is still typically easier to manipulate and browse. e-paper is expensive but can be cheaper in the long run, friendlier to the environment, lighter, can network with other devices and carry animated graphics.

According to Powers though, "many of paper's affordances are rooted in its limitations - its physicality, the fact that it can only be in one place, etc." Citing a study by A. Sellen and R. Harper, Powers contends that paper has four 'affordances' that supposedly can't be matched by digital platforms: tangibility, spatial flexibility, tailorability and manipulability.

Traditional paper's overall ease-of-use is undeniable, as it remains and will remain the cheapest and most practical information medium in many regions in the world, for many years to come.

But a quick look at Sony's foray into e-paper (this was more than a year ago!) would tend to show that digital platforms already can - and will - yield some very impressive results, even in the four aforementioned 'affordances'. The developments brought by the i-Phone's touch screen also show how much the public is increasingly embracing the tactile attributes of digital readers.

A paperless world may still be inconceivable to us who've grown thinking through paper. As Powers notes, paper is not only a container for information, it is also essential in defining our relationship to that information, in the way we treat and interpret it (as are all media). The newspaper doesn't only store; it organizes.

But for future generations, for whom the digital screen could be just as common as its 'dead-tree' counterpart, who's to say they won't criticize the warmth of paper, its opaque texture, the fact that it's so easy to scribble upon, to tear apart - the very attributes we have appreciated for two millennia?

The point here is neither to vindicate e-paper, nor does it mean we're moving into a paperless world. Even less to presumptuously fix a date as to the 'death' of paper and the crowning of its digital successor.

A few newspapers have ventured into e-Paper, including business daily Les Echos in France, the Shanghai Daily using Amazon's Kindle, or the NRC Handelsblad in the Netherlands. In May, French telecom firm Orange launched an e-reader that offered access to a range of books and French papers. But these experiments remain just that at this stage - experiments.

Responding to the 2008 Newsroom Barometer, only 7% of editors believed that e-Paper would be the standard news platform in their countries within 10 years (although a combined 18.5% thought it would be either mobiles or e-Paper). Likewise, when we visited the Göteborgs Posten in Sweden a week ago, an arguably innovative and new media-oriented paper, its CEO and editor Peter Hjörne made it clear he had no plans to particularly invest or research e-Paper solutions in the near future - for the next 15 years. This doesn't mean that Hjörne won't be keeping his eyes open for developments, as should any conscientious editor or manager.

But even in the digitally ripe Scandinavian market, consumption and distribution of e-paper on a mass scale remains a distant thought for editors and publishers.

In fact, some of the biggest brakes to the advent of e-Paper may be e-Paper manufacturers and media players themselves, as they battle to try set an industry-wide standard for a reader.

"It would be nice to think that ebooks will avoid the format wars between the likes of Apple and Microsoft that have dogged the development of digital music players, but that seems unlikely," reported the Guardian.

It's impossible, and would certainly be foolish, to set a date for the 'disappearance' of print paper. It will take years before its digital alternative becomes cheap enough for the mass public and really booms. And even then this will be limited to a few select regions.

But most importantly: the emergence of a new technology like e-Paper won't suppress the need for real paper - not for a long time. It's not an either-or situation.

Said the Guardian's editorial: "In the future books will have to welcome a new member to the family with which they will share more similarities than differences."



Jean Yves Chainon


2008-06-18 05:43

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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