I Live in the Future: Part 1
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I used to love reading print newspapers. In 2004, when I started working at the New York Times, I was excited beyond words to discover that much of the Sunday Times was printed ahead of time and a stack of those early- run papers arrived at the Times building every Saturday. Not only did I work at one of the most respected newspapers in the world, but along with a paycheck, I also got the magazine, the Week in Review, the Metro section, and Sunday Business several hours before the rest of the world!
A new favorite ritual took root: I’d head to the office early
every Saturday afternoon, and when the first delivery trucks arrived,
I’d grab a few smudged copies and run home to immerse
myself in tomorrow’s newspaper. Before long, friends began
calling me to ask for advance copies of the real estate section or
the Sunday magazine.
Then, a couple of years later, I stopped my Saturday routine.
The calls stopped too. One by one, my friends were
switching to new reading rituals, replacing the smell and feel
of the printed page with a quicker, personally edited, digital
reading experience. Even when the paper was free, they didn’t
want a copy anymore!
The same thing was happening to me. I had started reading
newspapers in high school and for years had stumbled every
morning to the doorstep, blurry- eyed and half asleep, to fetch
the morning paper. But now I was checking the headlines in
the morning on my computer, reading articles on my mobile
phone on the way to the office, and surfing news sites all day
long. Aided by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter
that helped pull together the best content at a vastly quicker
pace, I now could see news more quickly online. I also had
a much easier and more succinct way to share the articles I
found interesting while adding my own commentary, helping
to cull the best morsels of content for my friends, family, and
coworkers. In retrospect, I was going through a personal “digital
metamorphosis”—something many of you will experience,
if you haven’t already. For some, it will happen over time as you
move one paper task after another to the computer, phone, or
digital reader. For others, it will happen quickly with the purchase
of a fancy new phone or new reader that suddenly opens
up a whole new world of electronic possibilities.
In my case, unread newspapers at home began to climb to
furniture- sized proportions by the front door, with the bottom
layer turning a sickening shade of khaki yellow. My wife and I
simply referred to the growing tower as the Pile.
Eventually, as the yellowing newspapers continued to collect,
I decided it was time to take the plunge. I waited until
lunchtime to make the call, checking the sea of cubicles around
me to make sure nobody could hear me. I felt like a philandering
spouse, and the idea of being a cheater didn’t feel good.
I picked up the phone and called the Times circulation department.
I even tried to disguise my voice in case someone
recognized me, adding a tinge of an accent and speaking a little
“Yes, I’m sure I want to cancel the delivery,” I told the rep.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t read it anymore.”
Of course, I love the New York Times. The stories are still
top notch, as good as they’ve ever been: perceptive, exploratory,
thoughtful, and informative. The problem is that the approach
just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I understand
the concept—the printed paper is a neat package with a hundred
or so news articles, displayed by subject and order of importance,
culled by Times editors, my colleagues. Top stories
are here, business articles are there, sports is in the back of the
business section on most weekdays.
But that’s the problem: It’s only a collection of what editors
think is appropriate. And it doesn’t swirl in my preferences.
My likes and dislikes; it’s just not designed for me. More important,
by the time those carefully chosen words on paper arrive
at my house, printed permanently on the page and selected
for a vast audience of readers, a lot of the content isn’t current.
A few years passed while I contentedly consumed the news
in my own way. I continued to do my work at the New York
Times Research Labs, helping the Old Gray Lady fi nd her
place in mobile phones, on the computer screen, and in video,
and my workplace infi delity remained my own private business.
Then, in spring 2009, I appeared on a roster of speakers
for the geeky O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference
in San Jose, California, aimed at cutting- edge technology developers.
A Wired magazine reporter attending the conference
asked for an interview.
Like a good corporate citizen, I checked with the Times
public relations folks to make sure the interview was OK. Once
they gave the go- ahead, I sat down with reporter Ryan Singel.
For over an hour, I showed Singel some of the prototypes
from the Times research labs, such as the inner workings of our
digital living room, where content can move seamlessly from
my computer to a phone and back to a big- screen television. I
showed him how videos on my computer of cookbook author
and “Minimalist” columnist Mark Bittman whipping up a dish
can appear instantly on my television while the recipe pops up
on my phone. Every device could be connected to the others,
and the stories I read on the computer could be illustrated with
maps or video interviews on the TV, computer, or phone. Some
day, I explained, sensors in the couch might alert the television
or the computer to turn to my favorite shows or sites, or sensors
in my phone might detect when I’m in the car and prompt information
to be read aloud instead of displayed. For those who
still want to read on paper, newspaper boxes might print out a
personalized version—with customized advertising and even
the ability to notify a nearby Starbucks that I was headed in
I talked excitedly about some of our prototype mobile
applications in which the news could change on the basis of
various scenarios. Imagine walking down a city block at lunchtime
while reading the Times on a smart phone; since the phone
knows it’s lunchtime, articles related to food and local restaurants
could appear. I showed him prototypes and concepts of
fl exible displays in which a bendable screen is constantly updating
the news and can be folded away like a piece of paper.
At the very end of the interview, as Singel was getting ready
to leave, he asked if I read the print paper. I was briefly unsure
how to answer. Should I lie? The decision had been made so
long ago that I hadn’t recently considered the consequences
of canceling my subscription. But it was now 2009, the age of
netbooks, iPhones, and Kindles. I decided to be honest: I told
him I mostly enjoyed reading the New York Times on my computer,
mobile phone, and e- reader.
A few hours later I gave my presentation, chatted with a few
interested attendees, and went back to my hotel room to discover
my e- mail inbox crammed with messages. Some friends
and coworkers in the newsroom were congratulatory. “Hey,
Nick, great article on wired.com!” they wrote. “It’s really great
to see the NYTimes get so much digital credit.”
But others, from coworkers on the business side of the
company, had an ominous tone: “Holy shit, people here are
“The grown- ups are talking,” one said simply.
I was mystified about what I possibly could have said to
get the grown- ups talking, so I went to wired.com. Under the
headline “Times Techie Envisions the Future of News,” with a
nerdy picture of me smiling with my laptop, ran this:
“Nick Bilton, an editor in the New York Times research
and development lab, doesn’t think much of newspaper[s].
In fact, he doesn’t even get the Sunday paper delivered to
“Thankfully for Bilton and his employer, he’s bullish on
news.” Continuing, Singel added, referring to my feeling about
paper, not about the Times, “It’s just the paper he hates.”
After this opener, Singel gave a concise and overwhelmingly
positive overview of the work I showed him from our lab.
The article was supportive of our work and should have been
great coverage for a company aiming to show its shareholders
that it is truly a forward- thinking digital organization. Some of
my colleagues were thrilled that the story demonstrated how
the paper was focusing on the future.
But some of my coworkers and bosses were incensed that
I had publicly confessed to shunning the core product of the
Times. Some even believed that I might persuade other readers
to cancel their subscriptions as well.
When I returned to the New York office the next day, I was
immediately informed that I shouldn’t be telling the world that
I don’t read the print version. To quell some of the trauma, I
apologized for my remarks.
In all honesty, however, I was completely confused. Clearly,
I wasn’t the only person who had stopped reading the print
edition. In fact, what has happened nationwide in the last few
years is truly shocking: In 2008, paid newspaper circulation in
the United States fell to 49.1 million, the lowest number since
the late 1960s and well below the peak of 60 million reached
in the 1990s, when the Internet was just starting to come into
its own. The Times has suffered as well, with circulation sliding
in the 1990s, leveling off in the early part of the century,
and then sliding some more. Daily circulation, which had been
close to 1.2 million in the early 1990s, was close to 1 million
at the time of my speech and would slip below the seven- figure
mark later in 2009.
Print circulation told only part of the story. With a deep and
painful recession accompanying a technological shift, advertisers
have abandoned print papers even faster than subscribers
have. Industrywide, revenue from print advertising has fallen
off a cliff, plunging to $24.8 billion in 2009 from $47.4 billion
in 2005, according to the Newspaper Association of America.
That’s a decline of nearly half in five years.
Newspapers are far from the only medium to face such agonizing
declines. The digital revolution is roiling just about every
form of media we know: Book sales in 2009 slipped to the lowest
level since 2004, according to the Association of American
Publishers. The Publishers Information Bureau reported that
although magazine subscriptions have grown slightly, advertising
pages sold dropped more than 25 percent in 2009. Despite
the growing popularity of Blu-ray discs and a healthy box office,
DVD sales fell 8 percent in 2008. The music industry has been
hit hardest of all. Worldwide dollar sales have fallen every year
for a decade—and the bottom is nowhere to be found. In 2009,
CD sales fell more than 20 percent in both dollars and units. Although
digital downloads are up and now account for about 40
percent of music sold, the revenue they bring in doesn’t begin
to make up for the disappearing disk sales.
Given this revolutionary shift in how we read, listen, and
enjoy entertainment, shouldn’t the Times be asking why I prefer
digital to print and exploring how I consume my news?
Shouldn’t we be moving forward and not backward?
Imagine that you owned a restaurant and offered your employees
free food, but they instead brought their own lunch
and dinner from home. Would you look the other way if plates
of freshly cooked pasta and garlic bread sat untouched on the
table? Hopefully not. If it were my restaurant, I’d want to know
why they weren’t enjoying my product, and I would do everything
I could to try to change that.
At Google they call this “dogfooding.” That is, if you make
dog food and the dogs won’t eat it, you might have a bit of a
problem. The people who built Gmail have to use it for their
e- mail service, and if something doesn’t work, they have to fi x
it. Collectively, if Google engineers don’t like a service’s feature,
they are supposed to change it accordingly—whether it’s
Google Search, Google Mobile, or any other Google product.
Along the same lines, if I wasn’t reading the print newspaper,
there was a reason.
Still, my published comments didn’t end with that slap
on the wrist. I heard from numerous people from numerous
departments numerous times. But at each turn I continued
to push at the issue. The conversation shouldn’t be about my
remarks in public, I insisted, but about my actions. I wanted
to point out that with regard to the new delivery methods and
the next generation’s consumer habits, the writing was on the
wall—or the screen, if you will.
I tried to explain that I—like many in my generation—
preferred the instantaneous digital experience because I could
share my favorite articles with others, adding comments and
joining a collective discussion while also viewing other readers’
opinions. The print paper is static, and so is its narrative;
in comparison, a digital narrative can include invigorating interactive multimedia such as videos and slide shows. I also explained
that people in my social networks and those I trusted
shared relevant content with me, and their remarks and news
gathering had become a critical filter for the stories I consumed.
It wasn’t about print versus digital; it was about immediacy, details,
links, interactive graphics, videos, and, most important,
hyperpersonalization. The majority of news I consumed was
still from the Times. I just consumed it in a different way.
Although I didn’t want to be insolent, they needed to accept
that and respond to it. My peers aren’t going to wake up
one day and crave newsprint. The world is shifting; ignoring it
won’t make it go away.
The whole experience was the least enjoyable—and most
anxious—of my six years at the Times. Thankfully, most of the
pressure subsided after a few weeks—although I’m pretty sure
there were some corporate suits who would have been happy
to see my exodus from the company with a box of my belongings
in hand. Luckily for me, and for the Times, this group is
in the minority, and the paper of record continues to push at
the forefront of the digital reshaping of news, aptly illustrated
by the fact that I worked in a research lab and am visible to
the public by the extraordinary journalism, innovation, and
cutting-edge digital content the Times puts out on a daily basis.
I should add here that if you still read the news on paper,
that’s perfectly OK. Paper is still gadget number one for reading
content; it’s disposable, relatively inexpensive, and relatively
simple to create in small or large quantities, and it doesn’t
need batteries or a power outlet. Admittedly, the online experience
still isn’t better than that of paper, and it has a long way to
go until it is.
But paper alternatives are coming, and in some situations
they are already here. Technology companies are working to
make every aspect of our lives sync up with the digital world.
Global positioning systems are replacing maps, grocery coupons
appear on your phone, and the online phone directory
is far more efficient than your local phone book. Eventually,
a paper replacement for your daily news will come along too.
This book will help you understand what this all means and
how you can respond.