News to Go: Paper or Digital?

As a subscriber to many print publications, I now have a problem that I believe will soon affect consumers and publishers alike: resistance to increasing print subscription costs. I realized for some time that the problem was coming—print publications are increasingly expensive to create, produce, and deliver—but the problem really struck home when I received my biannual renewal notice for The Wall Street Journal. In my undergraduate days, I was a willing victim when I accepted a teaser offer of $16 for a 1-year subscription. I knew that price wouldn’t last, but I became hooked and since then I’ve renewed every 2 years, including the digital edition. However, this year’s bill gave me a case of sticker shock at nearly 30 times the original teaser price.

I’ve already switched several of my other print publications to digital, and I suspect pricing is going to strongly encourage more digital switching. Digital has many well-known advantages, often being more current with extraordinary opportunities for search and analysis. The XML standard, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, increases the power of digitized financial information as it moves from blobs to structured information sources with infinite opportunities for customization and reuse. Add wireless delivery and the appeal of digital documents becomes nearly irresistible.

Here’s one example of what will soon be available thanks to XML: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has recently proposed the use of XBRL for public companies, banks, and mutual funds for their financial filings. In late 2008, large public companies will be required to submit their filings in XBRL. Smaller companies may wait until December 2011. XBRL, a modular XML standard with tens of thousands of tags, will make interactive analysis of corporate information and even multiple industries possible. The SEC already offers predefined views of some pilot XBRL filings on its website. Soon we may skip printed 401ks and some financial print pages.

I’ve been following JustSystems, Inc., a Japanese firm specializing in XML tools, for several years now, and like many vendors they now offer an XBRL solution. I recently discussed XML trends with JustSystems’ senior VP of marketing Jake Sorofman and its marketing solutions manager, Peter Hrabinsky. They described JustSystems’ XFY ("ex-Fi") financial analysis product as a document-centric composite application framework. Simply put, that means XFY allows authors and readers easily to create, review, and analyze XBRL information. XFY lets analysts—not XML techies—combine text from popular office tools with XML and create documents that are truly live, changing as data changes.

We are also social creatures with an increasing love of collaboration. Adobe has latched onto the potential for live, collaborative documents with its release of Acrobat 9 and, a shared workspace in the network cloud. I spoke with Marion Melani and Michael Folkers with Adobe, who explained how Acrobat 9 now leverages all the former Macromedia assets, including Flash and web conferencing. Collaboration opportunities increase the appeal of digital documents even further.

Now, back to the Journal: That subscription renewal price is tantalizingly close to the cost of an emerging breed of mobile internet devices (MIDs) for which Intel and others are furiously developing chips. (Acronym alert: "MID" may change without notice.) Feature sets for these devices are still very diverse: Do you want a GPS with your book reader? The Nokia 810 series appeals to me, claiming nearly every feature I’d want. This MID is the size of a paperback book, supports Flash and PDF, and displays 65k color on a high-resolution screen double the size of my Blackberry screen. Still, I have yet to find a dealer who can let me see which versions of PDF and Flash it supports, whether I can really load a large digital edition onto it, and whether I can download web content to view when I’m on the Metro or off-grid.

The print experience is comfortable and offers a serendipity that is hard to match digitally. Print too is "always on," and it is highly portable even if static. And although digital is always on, that doesn’t mean it is always available, as numerous power and broadband outages recently in the District of Columbia reminded me. As of early July, my neighborhood has already exceeded last year’s count of downed trees and lost utilities. So how will I resolve my subscription dilemma? I’ll probably split the difference, renew for only a single year, and wait for some hands-on MID experience before going completely digital. A Nokia 900 and many other MIDs are probably coming soon. Wait until next year.