“I’ve heard Apple has just put in an order for millions of screens this big,” someone said, sketching out a square about 15cm x 15cm (slightly larger than a quarto page, in the old money).

Interesting, if true, as they say. At the moment we have three different screens – the full monitor/laptop size, the 25 cm netbook screen, and the iPhone screen.

None seem to be right for the work those of us in the meeja/knowledge etc world do on the fly. The portable laptop is ridiculously big, the iPhone too small, and unfolding a netbook to take emails etc already feels archaic.

My assumption has been that what would eventually come along is a double iPhone screen – foldable so that it fits in your pocket, with a minimal physical join. Thus creating a screen big enough to read multiple sites on simultaneously, ‘newspapers’ etc etc.

The new Apple one, if it’s true, sounds too big – not pocketable – but part of the process whereby online media will take another leap, and push paper media yet further into the distance.

Eventually we’ll hit on a fixed screen form, just as newspapers settled into the broadsheet/tabloid duo, books the 250 page quarto standard, and so on. At that point it will last until post-screen technologies develop sufficiently for widespread use – ie virtual screens projected by laser onto a space of air.

Even then, as with qwerty, the final screen size may become the standard frame through which we write and read for some time to come.

Once we get to this ‘ideal screen’, there will be a corresponding shift in online media – and the last vestigial traces of newspaper design will die. Everything from story length, to the old headline-standfirst-body, the pull quote, will be reconstructed.

The basic form of the newspaper story – three paras of new material, eight paras of recap, reaction quotes, conclusion – will change.

People are increasingly noticing what media pros – especially media summary writers, this correspondent’s one time profession – already know, that newspapers are stuffed turkeys, overwritten to the eyeballs.

There used to be a reason for this: lack of access to previous editions. A story on a new battle in the Malayan emergency had to have a recap of the whole conflict within the story itself. Also, it helped pad out copy to pour around ads. Now, why not have the three paras, a vestigial summary and hyperlink to background stories?

This time lag – the old newspaper form persisting into the online era – is one reason why sales are falling globally. Our basic readerly horizon is changed.

I mean newspapers just seem so long these days. Such groaning chronicles of ancient sunlight. The idea of sitting down and ploughing through one is ridiculous to me, and I grew up on them , addicted to them. What does it feel like to a 25-year-old, interested in the world and politics?

The idea of a newspaper – not merely the material form, but the intellectual form derived from it – must be like the old 19th century idea of learning a few improving verses of scripture before breakfast.

This reflection is prompted (yes, yes, I’m prolix, but this is an essayette, not a news story per se) by the news that Murdoch and Microsoft are possibly in talks, to migrate News Ltd content, and that of other publishers, to the Seattle Deathstar’s currently pointless ‘Bing’ search engine, as a way of enclosing it behind a group paywall.

That would undoubtedly generate up-front revenue, but is it the ‘saviour of the newspaper model’ as suggested?

Several things would suggest not. Firstly, there’s a question as to whether the wire services would migrate. Currently when one does a Google news search on say ‘Kyrgyzstan’, the first paper that comes up is something like the Kansas City-Star.

Do the good citizens of Topeka have an interest in Central Asia above and beyond the rest of the world? No, it’s simply the standard wire report coming up in whichever wrapper Google picks out first. If that’s still on the free list, then there’s no reason to migrate to Bing – everything I need is right where it was, and News and others won’t be missed.

It’s also possible that ‘papers’ like The Guardian will go to the full ‘trust’ model – discontinue the paper edition (which never made a profit) and run a full online news service off the profits from the CP Scott Trust.

With the huge amount of philanthropic wealth around, Murdoch may find himself competing with consortia of trusts who simply want to see news-gathering services continue, with screen ad revenue a minor part of their mix.

The third problem for Murdoch is the continued blindspot about what it was he was actually selling. Newspapers. Slices of pulp and ink going out the front door – at a rate cheap enough to make it pointless to copy, rather than buying your own.

Murdoch’s self-regarding tales about nous and great journalism etc are bulldust – viable newspapers were built on the back of huge printing presses unaffordable by smaller organisations, thus guaranteeing market control.

Now, the full portability of text has occurred, it should be obvious that news organisations will decompose – just as department stores no longer have their warehouses out the back, and chemists no longer have someone in the back making up goop.

There’s all sorts of possibilities for downstream online products which simply repackage the news of News Ltd and others – while avoiding copyright infringement. Making smaller livings from stripped down services, they may well be biting the hand that feeds, but that’s a tasty treat while it lasts. Such services will be small – but so were the first mammals, after all.

Let’s face it – in five years time, in two years time, will the term newspaper even be meaningful? They’re halfway to metaphor like the ‘cut and paste’ buttons, whose meaning the next generation won’t understand.

Gazing into the oracle of a mirror-like screen, Rupert hasn’t realised that his experiments in longevity – the 5am jogging, the vitamins, the hope that he has Dame Elizabeth’s genes – may create his worst nightmare: that he will live long enough (still as tycoon of FOX) for News Ltd to be nothing more than a distant memory.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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