Well, I think I have waited long enough! When Ashley Highfield became CEO of Johnston Press in the UK I had hoped that the next generation newspaper would pop out as speedily as the BBC iPlayer did during his digital reign at the BBC. But time is moving on and I feel that I must file at least an interim report on this front. And in doing so I will try to avoid the now useless words of the day, the “over-used and under-defined until meaningless “terms like Ecosystem and Curation which now litter this discussion until whole sentences can be written in code which only the originator can unpick – and which he dares us to question. Twenty five years as a consultant has made me value obscurity and multiple shades of meaning as much as the next man from McKinsey, but here I will try to avoid terms that defeat the object and soften the brain, and you can be the judge of my success!

The relationship with the newspaper has broken down, but not our relationship with the news. Excellent commentators like Chris Anderson have pointed out that very local news – the car crash on the next street, the local government decision on street lighting in an area – can have more lasting resonance than an international crisis or a distant war. Yet if we are interested in either type of information, we want all we can get until our interest peaks – and wanes. Our friends can be vital news sources alongside Reuters or AP. We need to be able to follow new themes without fussy form-filling, and we do not need to be bored by news updates on issues of no or of former concern. We want no intrusive advertising, but we are happy to be sold the new product lines of retailers who interest us, provided that they disappear when they cease to interest us. We want the back story in full when we want it, as a desirable default which we can call up but not as something which we have to endure on every theme that interests us. We want services that learn from us, yet also services which give us the opportunity to find new issues (“if you liked that, try this…”).

So the next newspaper is a community, with social networking elements, and an intelligent system with regard to internet-wide story-gathering. It looks to its readers privacy, and security, at every stage, and links to retail are permitted by assent of users only. It is dedicated to the avoidance of spam and casual advertising contact. In order to ensure that its lists cannot be sold for lead generation purposes it is probably a subscription service, utilizing some existing news brands to give it authority and credibility. Like Darwin’s tree shrews, there are some prototypes of aspects of all of this around, but no niche-dominating mammals are yet in sight. Facebook, with its graph search and its links to Bing clearly thinks this way, and poses a huge threat to the dessicated remains of the old guard press in Europe and North America. Yet Facebook may not survive its willingness to sell its audience. And at present it does not quite engage with the “workflow” of the consumer – this service must also link to user requirements in education (personal and family), to health and healthcare and to savings and investments – just like that good old jumbo Sunday supplement in print, only fully profiled. Facebook has the Recommendation style to do the job, using the community effectively to drive choice, but I believe it will be the inspiration of the next generation of solutions, rather than the floor plan.

Turn instead to look at some of the software available. Start with Gravity (www.gravity.com), the haven of the escaped crew of My Space regrouped under CEO Anit Kapur . But this is not another Community. It launched its Personalization API last week (1 February 2013) and has become a very effective technology for interfacing trad Web with the device world of mobile. And this is vital – Your Newspaper is very Mobile. Whether this personalization works for advertisers I rather doubt, but here is a technology which is ready to go for “publishers” and well worth experimenting with: press coverage of Davos noted that Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer had said that “interest graphs” (see Facebook above) were part of Yahoo’s future. Well, here they are in the present. And then, look at My6Sense (www.my6sense.com), the Israeli contestant in this beauty parade. Maybe the first move in mobile will be the personalised content bar of this type, since we currently seem lost for an interface on mobile platforms which enables us to unwrap personalised services at will… And now, go for a long browse on Trap!t (http://trap.it). Ignore that annoying exclamation mark! Here is a beta with a sample of 100,000 news sources just moving into AI gear to give a new twist to “adaptive reasoning “in the context of personalized information. It is founded on CALO technology – Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes – and comes out of DARPA (a first cousin therefore of Apple’s Siri). Despite the appalling linguistic crimes on this site (the founders, in true Silicon Valley mode, claim to have created a “cognitive prosthetic”), this is the closest that I can identify at present as the progenitor of the newspaper of the future. Mobile, intelligent, personalized ( yet suggesting new avenues). So who can implement, and what happened to those Russians?

The Russians in my headline are the Lebedevs, Alexander and Evgeny, Father and Son. And the context here is the fact that they own London’s evening newspaper, the Evening Standard. Formerly a DMGT property, this also entails owning some 33 hyperlocal web services around the London region. And the UK’s regulator, ever dedicated to preventing dangerous concentrations of media power in Britain, has just awarded the local television franchise for London, London Live, to (you have guessed it) the Lebedevs (presumably on the grounds that they were not Murdochs!) For once, I applaud a monopoly, since this media integration in a region large enough to sustain development at scale could be the spawning ground for the rise of MyNewpaperInLondon, as they will probably call it. When real broadband comes to the UK it will come to the London region first (the EU/UK plan calls for 100 mb/second by 2020, though that plan has been reduced in funding from £50bn to $24bn so the British government can build a prestige railway line to the North!). Whatever the politics, this intense content concentration, plus mobile, plus infrastructure, plus all of the available intelligent software equals an immense opportunity. Hope we are all equal to it!

Personally, I blame Marjorie Scardino. When she announced her retirement, this statement, included amongst her comments, might have been intended to encourage the Pearson troops and point them towards the challenges of the future and the Golden City on the Hill. Unfortunately, her comments also reached the wider publishing community, and encouraged that sort of complacency and fired up the sort of debate that the British publisher appears to love, since it enables him to conclude that it is all too complex and no one knows a guaranteed route to success, so it may be wiser not to try until matters have clarified a little more. To those, like me, who have spent over 40 years declaiming that experiment followed by re-iteration is the only way to go, and that you go nowhere in the digital world until you have failed at something digital, this is, at its least, a little frustrating. You see, I know that we have arrived and that we left the foothills behind in 1999. Not in education, I agree: Dame Marjorie’s brilliant step was to see past the publishers and address the real problems of education markets – administration, assessment, marking, communication with parents, teacher skills etc. The textbook was a small market which could be left until the infrastructure could be digitalized and then Pearson would have a head start in plugging their content into that infrastructure.

Dame Marjorie (aided and abetted by Anthony Forbes Watson) bought Dorling Kindersley for Pearson. Embedded into that company was real digital publishing. In 1996 DK was producing CD-ROM-based encyclopaedias and reference works that were a delight, for their day, in terms of interactivity and multimedia development. They were on CD-ROM only because online did not have the bandwidth, and it is noteworthy now that only with ePub3 has the eBook caught up with the mid ’90s CD-ROM. Yet, as a non-executive director of DK at the time, I was sure that we were doing real digital publishing for very large numbers of real users. So when I saw a report by Linda Bennett in Bookcrunch of a seminar by Cognizant entitled ” Digital Publishing: Still in the foothills?” (27 November) I frayed slightly round the edges. Really good speakers, but in a meeting where a questionner asks “whether publishers who engaged with such innovative ventures as digital development) could still truly call themselves publishers” one wonders whether Publishing will not always be in the Foothills, wandering around, lost and resentful and playing a game of their own with ever dwindling audiences of paper-lovers.

This is not to say that valuable points were not made. Mark Marjurey’s comment that “content won’t cut it much longer” is important, if it reminds us that it is not content per se that matters, but the context in which we deliver it that will drive our future developments. When someone asked “Is it true that social networking doesn’t sell books?” they were reminded that it is word of mouth that sells books (and presumably as effectively on Facebook as on Amazon). When someone said that the rentals model, the disappearing book that dissolves as you read it, “sounds bonkers”, they were at least reminded that this is a very valid model which may eventually prevail. But the skepticism expressed about the digital illustrated book may be totally misplaced. It all depends what experience you want. We have plenty of examples of text files co-located with audio, video and image where the user is invited to chart his own course through the material. But why are we so hung up with trying to replicate the the narrative experience of the illustrated book online?

About an hour later on the Web I did encounter a digital publisher. One who publishes for consumers yet does not use paper at all. Its Vice President was writing a Christmas message to the staff on November 28th. He reported that 13 of the Top 100 Kindle bestsellers were published by their organization, and he recognized 11 authors whose new titles on his list had sold 100,000 copies in the past few months. He pointed to the success of the company language translation scheme, with 12 titles translated by this operation getting into the German Kindle Top 100, and the German into English programme beginning in the New Year with a prize winning German novel. He spoke of serialization and reminded his internal readers that the programme they launched in September was now serializing seven never-before published Kurt Vonnegut stories over the next seven weeks. And he spoke of global outreach and of his plans to open a European operation in Luxembourg early next year.

The writer was of course Jeff Belle of Amazon Publishing. And his words make one realize how late in the day all this foothills talk is. He does, however quote Jeff Bezos as saying “Its still Day One”. Yes, but late in the day on day One!

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