There’s lots of buzz out there about how Microsoft supremo Steve Ballmer figures the newspaper will be dead in 10 years — oh yes, and magazines too (Erick Schonfeld has just added his two cents over at TechCrunch). Here’s what Ballmer said to the Washington Post:

“Here are the premises I have. Number one, there will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form.”

The former basketball coach and Peter Boyle (as Young Frankenstein) lookalike immediately qualified his comments, of course, saying that “If it’s 14 or if it’s 8, it’s immaterial to my fundamental point.” So there you have it. The end of the newspaper, as foretold by the guy whose company completely missed the importance of the Internet, not to mention the importance of Web-search, and about a dozen other things I don’t have time to go into. No doubt Microsoft will help out with Newspaper 2.0, a piece of shrink-wrapped software that only costs $350 and takes a Pentium Quad Core and 3GB of memory to run.

Seriously though, this is the kind of thing people say to get attention — and I’m not just saying that because I happen to be employed by a newspaper. If anything, I am even more convinced of the digital revolution that Steve is. But will newspapers as we know them disappear in 10 years? No. And not in 14 years either — or 20 for that matter. Will a lot fewer people be reading a printed paper than read one daily now? Undoubtedly. I got asked about the future of papers as part of a panel discussion on recommendation engines at mesh 2008 a few weeks ago, and I said what I always say: I think lots of people will continue reading papers — just not as many as are reading now.

People still listen to the radio, don’t they? Many of them listen to talk shows, and “radio plays” that consist of actors in a studio somewhere reading their lines. Lots of people still go to live theatre, and to the opera for that matter — heck, people still read books, and that technology is hundreds of years old. But not as many people do those things as used to do them when those forms of entertainment were at their peak. I think it will be exactly the same with newspapers — I fully expect to see people reading them for the remainder of my lifetime; they will just be fewer in number, and younger folk will see them as quaint.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

22 Responses to “Ballmer on papers: Wrong, as usual”
  1. The first time in a long time I think your post is not as well thought out as it could be. Ad hominem arguments are usually reserved for those that can provide no other (and by lesser individuals than you).

    I am not sure I agree either with Ballmer's time frame but the essence is true. Newspapers as we know them are definitely going to disappear in the not too distance future(and I suspect certainly within my lifetime). Magazines — not so sure. I don't have much other than a feeling though (which seems to be what you and perhaps Ballmer as well are basing your opinions on)

  2. Mathew, doth protest too much. I don't agree with Mr. Ballmer either in terms of timing, but the decline will accelerate with the next gen and the generation after that. In fact, I was the one who posed the question to you and the panel at mesh08. The reality is: when an existing reader dies, the subscription is not being replaced. Google News et al has (so far) snookered the publishing industry in a way that the music and film industry were almost (maybe still will) be usurped by file sharing. The business model works against smaller dailies: they pay journalists, then Google snaps up the online search money when the story pops up. How did the industry let that happen? And I'm afraid it will get worse before it gets better.

  3. […] everyday. You can’t find them online? No comment. Mathew Ingram says he is certain that newspapers will be around for his entire lifetime. I don’t disagree with him, and ask, when will the line of duality be erased? Print is […]

  4. Sorry Mathew, gotta go with Ballmer on this one. The major papers are toast within 10 years (14 for sure.) I thought about how your are right, most new media don't necessarily kill off the old stuff… but I think that's more a case of the newer media not quite replicating the experience of the old media either (i.e. my DVD of Phantom of the opera is not going to stop me from wanting to see the live show.) but I do believe the online experience of reading (and interacting) with the Globe and Mail will not only replace the newspaper version, but it will be better. I don't think the argument is whether a core group of people would still opt to read the newspaper versions in 10 years (of course there will be) I think the argument becomes whether that core group of people would be enough to keep the powers that be allowing the expensive paper operations to continue. I personally can't see how. While I have no doubt the Globe and Mail brand and Toronto Star brand (for example) will exist and thrive in 10 years… will it still exist in a published daily paper form? I'd probably bet no.

  5. I agree with you completely. Newspaper (print) will never be a growth industry. But it can serve a core readership (baby boomers alone) for years to come. I think USA Today is a good example of print holding it's own. Grows by a small percentage each year. And the reason – it doesn't try to compete with the internet in terms of timeliness on major news stories. Instead, it serves up interesting & unique articles that are relevant to the day/week … but are presented magazine style, for those who prefer to NOT fire up the laptop and worry about an electronic connection or WiFi every time you want to read something.

    The newspaper industry has a long way to go to improve its web side. I think the main problem there is that most people instinctively seek news online at made-for internet sites (Google News, Techmeme, Drudge, Techcrunch, etc). I rarely think to go to USAToday.com, for example. But I pick up the paper several times a week. Newspapers, like radio, have been reluctant to promote and beef up their online versions – until recently, now they're in a panic – for fear of killing the once golden goose. Well, Craigslist has done that almost by itself.

    There are some simple, brick and mortar things that can help translate to more sales. I can't count the number of times I've come across an empty machine when I wanted to pick up a paper to read at lunch somewhere, or at a coffee shop These are key, impulse purchase points. An internet story is always available. But a machine might be empty. Why can't they use simple electronic monitoring to tell the exact times machines are empty each day, and stock them accordingly (or have bigger machines/multple machines at high traffic points … or a restock van, alerted by the central monitoring office). An improvement of just ten percent in stocking machines properly would mean 200,000 extra sales per day for USA Today (at full price) and higher ad rates to boot.

    As for magazines … Fast Company has seen explosive growth the past two years. Sure, Biz 2.0 fizzled. But that was as much bad management as anything. 650,000 subscribers and couldn't break even? For an 'all things web' effort, their website sucked, for one thing.

    I love the web AND I love print. I hope the best of print survives for decades to come.

  6. […] | Techcrunch Más información | mathewingram.com/work Más información | The Day After Tomorrow trackback ¿Recomendarías este post? Más […]

  7. hey mathew
    i think i fall on his side with this. 14 years is a lifetime these days with tech and information. it took less that that to go from vinyl to cd. less than that to go from cd to digital (we are still in the middle of it). with the right reader (the ireader) married to the environmental concerns and i think its possible. some people with still want paper just like some still want that vinyl:)

  8. hey mathew
    i think i fall on his side with this. 14 years is a lifetime these days with tech and information. it took less that that to go from vinyl to cd. less than that to go from cd to digital (we are still in the middle of it). with the right reader (the ireader) married to the environmental concerns and i think its possible. some people with still want paper just like some still want that vinyl:)

  9. I totally agree, David — and as I said, I'm not arguing about the
    trend itself. But I think it's just hyperbole to say that newspapers
    will completely disappear in 10 years, or even 14. As you said, there
    are still people who like vinyl, and still people who listen to the
    radio, and there will still be people who like to hold paper in their
    hands — just not as many as there were before.

  10. i know what you mean, but what i think he's saying is that they will have disappeared enough to be a real niche and not part of the true metrics of the business. vinyl is a niche that is still around but its such a small part of the metrics of the music business overall i think its fair to say its not really significant. or its all but disappeared:)

  11. […] of course riled up a few people still working for the Newspapers. With Mathew Ingram pointing out that there will be papers for the foreseeable future. I fundamentally agree with Mat. But I have to ask the question of what kind of papers will they […]

  12. […] Mathew Ingram, who is closer that any of us in this discussion as he works in the trenches, doesn’t see newspapers dying any time soon. People still listen to the radio, don’t they? Many of them listen to talk shows, and “radio […]

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