I have seen the future and it folds

Ten years ago I worked in a declining industry. Regional newspaper readerships were aging, as papers struggled to connect with their communities. Staff cuts and inflexible new technology at the paper I worked on meant we had a 9:30am press deadline for some localised editions – which rather made a mockery of the word “Evening” on the masthead.

Like many others in my generation of journalists, I quit print for a new media. The new media would be all the things that the old one was not. It would be instantly updated, interactive with its audience, and free to access. In the future the new media would become mobile, contextual and relevant. It would be like having someone come up to you in the street with the information you needed to know, exactly when you needed it.

Funny how the future arrives in the most unexpected form. For me it was just outside Edgware Road tube station, about 3:45pm, when a man came up to me in the street and handed me a copy of The London Paper.

Now I’m not going to go into a debate about whether this one is a better put-together product than the other contenders in London’s free paper war. To be honest, the design was faintly reminiscent of my student newspaper – lots of boxes and tints, and over-quirky headline fonts.

But what blew me away was the immediacy of the content. There’s something slightly Harry Potter about seeing the latest Tube information in print as you’re about to enter the station. And how refreshing to let readers vote by text on whether the comment writer should be allowed to pen another column. I’d gone for years thinking those things were the special domain of the digital media, yet here they were in print, in the palm of my hand, with the ink coming off on my fingers and everything.

The sense of everyday magic was compounded by the way the paper was delivered: no shouting unintelligible manglings of the title; no fumbling for loose change at risk of being mown down by bulldozing commuters intent on walking at exactly 4.2 miles per hour. Just a guy in a fluorescent vest offering the paper so I could take it without breaking my stride. He was standing strategically, moments before the point at which I’d need to put my hand in my pocket to pull out an Oyster card and thus be unable to take a paper. This user experience is what sets the bar so high for mobile content.

I’m not sure what all this means, except that to paraphrase Winston Churchill (I think), I used to think newspapers knew everything. Then I thought newspapers knew nothing. Now I’m amazed at how much they’ve learned.

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