I don't know where books are going. I don't know what will happen to newspapers. But I am confident that both will survive and perhaps even prosper in the new environment we find ourselves in. John Lanchester's article in the London Review of Books on the future of newspapers is well worth reading. Among other things, he reminds us that the future cannot be foreseen: As for the new media, they are clearly a work in progress, and it would be premature to say what their impact will be on the fundamentals of public and political life. Their impact on private life is more apparent, and seems to focus on an increase in the number of ways for people to meet and connect, both online and off. In some ways, the story of text messaging is a parable for the way the net has evolved. SMS messaging was taken up by Nokia in Finland as a way of allowing engineers to communicate short, factual messages about where they were, what they were doing and how long it would take. Nokia then made the service available on their phones, since, well, there it was, so you might as well let the punters have a go. They were amazed to see the spike in data traffic which suddenly showed up. The reason: Finnish teenagers were using SMS to organise their social lives. From there, texting hasn't looked back. Nobody decided what the purpose of SMS would be, it just evolved. It would be hard to deny that texting is a new thing; also hard to argue that it has fundamentally changed the world. I'd say that's roughly where we are with the journalistic uses of the new media. Their democratising and decentralising effects have barely begun, and aren't going to go away. In a sense, the WikiLeaks episode(s) shows both what the digital media can and can't do. Its release of information is unprecedented: but it is not journalism. The data need to be interpreted, studied, made into a story. For that we need . . . the press. And the elimination of printing and distribution costs is profound. Lanchester explains that the New York Times could give its subscribers for free four Kindles with worldwide 3G per year coverage for the costs it currently expends in printing and distributing its newspaper: If newspapers switched over to being all online, the cost base would be instantly and permanently transformed. The OECD report puts the cost of printing a typical paper at 28 per cent and the cost of sales and distribution at 24 per cent: so the physical being of the paper absorbs 52 per cent of all costs. (Administration costs another 8 per cent and advertising another 16.) That figure may well be conservative. A persuasive looking analysis in the Business Insider put the cost of printing and distributing the New York Times at $644 million, and then added this: 'a source with knowledge of the real numbers tells us we're so low in our estimate of the Times's printing costs that we're not even in the ballpark.' Taking the lower figure, that means that New York Times, if it stopped printing a physical edition of the paper, could afford to give every subscriber a free Kindle. Not the bog-standard Kindle, but the one with free global data access. And not just one Kindle, but four Kindles. And not just once, but every year. And that's using the low estimate for the costs of printing. I might even subscribe if they did that. Though my e-reader is not a Kindle.
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