Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tree huggers as tree killers

In the 1440s, Gutenberg invented the printing press. The largest book that he printed became the all-time best-seller — a timeless classic — Die Bibel.

I wasn’t around then, but I gather that printing was fairly expensive for about 400 years until dramatic improvements in printing press efficiency in the 2nd half of the 19th century. With that, printing became widely used for more transient purposes, including the tabloid newspaper (once a penny) that created the fortunes of William Randolph Hearst, and many other press barons in various countries.

[Typewriter]It’s no secret that over the last decade, more and more people are getting their news online, rather than in printed form. The latter is often referred to as the “dead tree edition” by the younger generation or middle-aged pretenders.

The online competition hit IT trade journals first (since by definition they have good computing access), but is also putting pressure on the local newspaper. The competitive responses seem to be to seek a hybrid online/offline business model, go entirely electronic, or fold entirely.

But while voyaging beyond California the last few weeks, I’ve noticed an interesting counter-trend: the subway throwaway tabloid. Flashy, colorful, short stories: think USA Today, but not as deep or serious — and free.

I first saw this when I returned to Boston last month for a conference, and spent 3 days riding in from a friend’s house in Quincy. The two papers (Metro and Boston Now)were widely sought out by commuters on their morning or evening commutes. Although we had a couple of free weeklies (the Phoenix and The Real Paper), the free dailies certainly didn’t exist when I commuted on the “T” in 1977-1979.

The next example was this week in Switzerland, where 20 Minuten ( is available in both German and French (20 Minutes). It has an afternoon competitor, Heute (i.e. “today”). Of course, in Switzerland, commuting might mean a bus, tram, streetcar, or a two-hour intercity train. It looked as though (can’t confirm this) that 20 Minuten has local news in regional editions. It looks like the company has a hybrid model, with free online news as well.

So in Boston and Switzerland, there’s free daily newspapers — dead trees and all — at a time when traditional paid dailies are shriveling and dying out. If two cities in two countries have it, it must be a trend. (In logic, we would call this inductive proof: 1, 2, … N). I haven’t checked San Francisco, London, New York or other possible cities, although the Metro website makes it clear that it’s also in New York and Philadelphia.

What’s going on? My analysis is that the dailies work as impulse reading for commuters who didn’t bring anything else to do. So as commuters in big cities save energy and carbon dioxide emissions by riding mass transit, they are killing trees that capture carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.

Meanwhile, auto-based commuters don’t have a newsrack in their driveway, and increasingly are shifting to new, electronic-only media: satellite radio, MP3 files, podcasts, etc. So as they emit evil CO2, they are consuming only bits. Satellite radio isn’t really practical in subways, and the other options often require planning ahead to have something to do in a car. (Of course, subway commuters have MP3 players too).

I’m not saying there is a hypocrisy here, only an interesting irony. The new (or existing) tabloid publishers have found a demand and they’re servicing it.

I reminds me of back in 1978, when former Newsweek reporter (then media pundit) Ed Diamond was the (adjunct) faculty advisor to The Tech, the school paper where I then worked. As I recall the story, he asked students to devise an information carrying device that could convey 10,000 (100,000) words with color pictures, be used in a variety of locations including under a tree, on a plane or in a bathtub, and mass produced and sold for only a dollar or two. His prediction has held up 30 years, and it could be another 10-20 years before e-book readers really become a practical replacement (except for the bathtub).

Note to my international readers: “tree hugger” is (often derogatory) American slang for environmentalist.

Graphic credit: cartoon from today’s (Wednesday’s) Wall Street Journal Europe.

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