Fiddler with tablet 1994

Fiddler with tablet 1994

Thinking about improving the health of your readership? Take a tablet.

Meet Roger Fidler. A lovely man with a mind like a laser. His page on the venerable Reynolds Journalism Institute website, where he works, says his career began in 1962, which strikes me as impossible since I think of him as a contemporary. But then he has always been a man ahead of his time. Perhaps the man.

Here’s one reason why: He was the first to envision the concept of the e-reader. In 1981. That’s the time when IBM first introduced the PC.

I confess that after the third time I heard Roger speak — around 1996 I think — a crowd of us went to the bar and someone said, “Why does such a smart guy always talk about the same thing?”

Boy. We didn’t get it. Please record that in my prognostications and forecasts I’ve never gotten it more incorrect than I did with Roger.

Fidler knew what he was talking about in 1995, when he already had a prototype tablet that he demonstrated to rooms-full of skeptics.

At the time he was profoundly influential, as director of new media at Knight Ridder, when it was the place to be in terms of newspaper innovation. Imagine the energy at KR, with Fidler on digital and Mike Smith, now the director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, on editorial transformation.

But as time passed and KR went the way of so many innovative news media companies, the brilliant anticipation was lost. Sadly, too many newspapers have become followers rather than leaders.

Still accurate

Roger’s predictions couldn’t have been more correct, and his message today remains as prescient as it did 30 years ago. “I’m confident that media tablets and e-readers will be commonplace worldwide by 2020,” he recently wrote me. “By then, they’ll undoubtedly be lighter, thinner and cheaper than those on the market today.”

That strikes me as the understatement of all time.

According to the Pew Research Center, news consumers are showing a remarkable affinity with e-readers.

In the United States alone:

•More than 11 percent of adults already own a tablet computer of some sort.

•Approximately 53 percent of tablet users consume news on their tablet daily.

•A third of tablet users say they spend more time consuming news than they did before they purchased their device.

•News consumers say they prefer tablets over traditional computers and television, as well as printed newspapers.

•Almost 60 percent say the tablet replaces what they used to get from a print newspaper or magazine.

•Thirty percent of tablet news users said they spend more time getting news than they did prior to owning a tablet.

Soaring penetration

In 2012, 120 million tablets will be sold worldwide, and, according to Gartner, by 2016, 600 million people will be accessing the Web via their tablet devices.

In Europe, tablet penetration is even more impressive, with 42 percent of business executives now using a tablet computer, compared to 24 percent one year ago, according to research company IPSOS.

All product innovation follows four steps: Invention. Implementation. Adoption. Refinement. As a rule, the step from invention to implementation takes longer than expected — in Fidler’s case we’re talking over 25 years — while adoption is faster than expected. Nothing has been adopted faster than the tablet.

For newspapers, the tablet, in the view of many, can rectify many of the challenges publishers have experienced as they migrate to the digital world. And let’s not forget the implications of refinement: what newspapers can do to make tablet consumption even more attractive.

Points to consider:

•Consumption times. While traffic to newspaper websites remains high, readership frequency and time spent on newspapers’ websites remain stubbornly low. The time a tablet user spends reading newspaper content on his iPad, however, appears to rival the time he devoted to reading the printed paper.

•Subscription and retention. Subscription conversion and retention rates for tablets exceed those for print products, according to early research.

•Demographic barriers. A German study found that older consumers — the newspaper industry’s lifeblood — read content faster on a tablet than in print, and that ease of adoption is as high as it is for younger readers.

The tablet is helping publishers overcome some of the hurdles blocking them from participating in the digital space.

What’s still open for debate, of course, is how much tablet users will pay for content. At this point, it looks as if bundled subscriptions, where publishers combine print and digital subscriptions in a single package, might be the way to go.

I’ve written extensively through the years about the industry’s failures in translating the newspaper to the digital experience.

Yes, challenges remain. Designers must still make navigation easier, and there is much work to be done in making mobile advertising more effective and more appropriate. But I believe solutions to both of these issues will be found, and in ways that didn’t occur in the era of the PC.

That said, we need to be realistic.

For all of the technology’s allure, publishers must be careful not to throw everything at these gadgets at the expense of print. But we do need to invest and innovate. We also need to move fast and we need to move as one.

Today, every publisher is secretly seeking its own solution, resulting in an enormous duplication of technological and marketing investment.

Work together

We compete in terms of content and creative presentation, but surely there must be some way to collaborate in terms of market development.

Hanging on to the App Store for innovation does nothing for either our brands or price retention. I fail to understand why publishers are giving up their brand values and 30 percent of their revenues to this single channel to market.

I rarely say this, but here goes: Tablets are the future. Indeed — and I sense some of you are about to stretch out for your defibrillator — I could see a point where it is more cost/benefit effective to give a subscriber a free, customized tablet, loaded with their newspaper as a default, rather than spend money on paper and distribution. For me, once accused of being the Luddite of the futurist business, this is a big call.

This reading concept could be the platform that bridges the gap from the print to the digital world.

It’s a tablet worth swallowing.

France-based newspaper and media industry consultant Jim Chisholm can be reached at jimchisholm.net.

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