Imagine: gone are the days of Letters to the Editor. When political commentary is shared exclusively on the web, history records: ink-stained fingers clutching styrofoam cups; trains echoing the rustle of off-white paper; and recycling bins stacked high with fashion tips and football results.

The newspaper is dead, and the humble newsagent has fled our streets to be replaced with off-license shops and billboards. Commuters flock to the cities clutching portable computers and tablet screens; news flicks past them with the wave of a hand. The rustling we hear is of pages in a novel turning, as a lone traditionalist sits surrounded by eReaders and headphone sets.

Here in 2010 we already consume vast quantities of news on TV, on the radio and online. We read opinion columns hosted by the likes of Blogger and WordPress, and we scour classifieds on eBay and Craigslist instead of the back pages of a newspaper. Periodicals – newspapers and magazines alike – are threatened by an online world that is capable of delivering niche blogs and stunning photography for free.

While newspapers may be doomed, the journalists who write them are not. ‘The press’, itself named for a printing process we’ve long-since improved upon, has long been society’s ears and eyes. Many journalists work in video and web media already, through stations like CNN and websites like BBC News, and those who still work in print are encouraged to cross-post to online columns. Newspaper publishers have had to develop an online presence, reaching out to PCs and portable devices the world over.

The issue we face is not the death of news itself. Instead it is the decline of something so ubiquitous that we probably take it for granted, and yet it uses vast paper and ink resources on a daily basis:

Publishers are already working on ‘digital papers’ – tablet screens and digital news subscriptions – following the last decade’s slow shift to web news media. Scenes like that above may soon look out of place, with commuters clutching iPads, bespoke publisher screens and other similar devices in their laps.

But what will the end of newsprint mean for alternative media as seen today? We live a cyberpunk ideal in which bloggers can report news without apparent ‘mainstream bias’, yet it’s clear that any advances in digital news publishing will be ushered through corporate control. The news industry, whose history is frought with accusations of propaganda, will hold the keys to a new digital platform rivalling current internet browsing. Can we expect an open-source TIME Reader? Will readers be allowed to load rival news content onto a single-source device?

When the content is the medium we have a potential for bias. No modern-day newspaper has a unique stake in newsprint, but if there’s money to be made in the way we browse for news, we face some interesting journalistic challenges. Just how would your favourite device choose to report on the conflicts of 2030, and where could you go to discuss it?

A crowd of avatars discuss the events unfolding in Deijima, streamed live into cyberspace (GitS SAC 2nd Gig © Production IG)

Further Reading:

  • Bonnier R&D produced a series of conceptual videos illustrating Mag+, a tablet-based magazine platform, a few years ago. Their venture continues with Popular Science+, available for the iPad and similar portable Apple devices.
  • Ryan Singel of Wired puts forward Nick Bilton (of the New York Times)’s argument, that “paper is dying, but it’s just a device”.