Ballmer on papers: Wrong, as usual

by Mathew on June 6, 2008 · 22 comments

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.

  • BrianSullivan

    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)

  • http://dmorelli.wordpress.com/2008/05/01/last-rights-or-rebirth-of-newspapers/ David

    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.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Brian, I've thought about this for a lot longer than just today –
    it's something I've been thinking about since I was first aware that
    the Internet existed. As for the ad hominem attacks, those are just
    for fun :-)

    But seriously, how can you say that my comments are based on a
    feeling? Media have been displacing other media for decades now, and
    the original media rarely goes away, and even then only after a long
    time — generations, in fact. People still listen to records, don't
    they? Newspapers (and I emphasize the “paper” part of that word) are
    certainly declining in importance, but people will continue to want
    them — just smaller numbers of them.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    David, we're not arguing about the decline, or even the general trend — we're talking about the rate. Ballmer said 10 years, or maybe 14 years. That's not a generation, at least not by my count. I agree with you that the decline will accelerate, and that the printed product will become more of an anachronism — I said as much in the post.

    P.S. In your post about newspapers, I think you meant to say “last rites” rather than “last rights,” unless that was a pun that I'm not getting.

  • BrianSullivan

    If you take Ballmer literally then maybe your response is correct. There will be information printed on newsprint on a periodic basis perused by people as long as people my age are around.

    Will it be the influential publications that we think of as newspapers today? Not a chance would be my predication. My children (which are older than yours) have never and never will read a newspaper except as a curiosity. That whole generation already thinks of the newspaper as an anachronism.

    Maybe your thinking is somewhat clouded by your life and experience working for newspapers?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I don't know how else to take what he said except literally — he was
    pretty clearly making a literal statement, not a metaphorical one. He
    didn't say “newspapers will still exist, but won't be the influential
    publications we think of today.” That one I would agree with — for
    the most part. As far as children go, my daughter (who is in
    university) said the other day that she was thinking of subscribing to
    a paper because she felt out of touch with what was going on in the
    world. So there's still hope :-)

  • BrianSullivan

    I guess I was surprised at the apparently vindictive way you attacked his statement and him personally (or that you responded at all). He may have been using hyperbole but the essence of what he was saying is still true in my mind ( I guess we should agree then that the essence of what he said is not the same for you and I and leave it at that)

    ( I hope that your daughter subscribes to The G&M if she chooses to subscribe to anything ;-) )

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    It wasn't really meant to be vindictive, or mean-spirited even — I
    was trying to be funny :-) I just think if Steve wanted to say that
    newspapers are declining in relevance and being online is becoming
    increasingly important, then I think he should have said that. To say
    “newspapers won't exist in 10 years” is just dumb. It's like how
    every new Web service is described as a “Google killer” or a “Facebook
    killer” — it's lazy and inaccurate, and designed for cheap shock
    value.

  • http://dmorelli.wordpress.com/2008/05/01/last-rights-or-rebirth-of-newspapers/ David

    Touche Mathew. You're rite… ;-)

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  • http://www.budman.tv Richard Budman

    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.

  • http://www.brickandclick.com Jeff Crites

    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.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Jeff — finally someone to help take my side :-)

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  • http://cloudid.com davidusher

    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:)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    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.

  • http://cloudid.com davidusher

    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:)

  • http://cloudid.com davidusher

    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:)

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    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.

  • http://cloudid.com davidusher

    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:)

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