Michael Lewis has a fascinating profile of President Obama in Vanity Fair this week, and aside from revealing what life is like for the President on a day to day basis it also offers a tight little illustration of just how comprehensively news consumption has swung away from paper and towards digital – and particularly to the iPad.

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion, but I found it telling that even though the White House is surely one of the newspaper industry’s most loyal customers, and the institution itself is as traditional as they come, Obama doesn’t appear to spend much time at all with the paper products. Describing Obama’s morning routine, Lewis said that the President first turns to his tablet for his morning updates.

After a quick breakfast and a glance at the newspapers – most of which he’s already read on his iPad – he reviews his daily security briefing.

And why wouldn’t he turn first to his iPad? In a post-article interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air”, Lewis said that Air Force One never lands more than 3 seconds later than its scheduled arrival time. Timeliness, in other words, matters to the President. But by the time news can be printed on paper and delivered to the White House, it’s already out of date. That point in itself is old news, but it was brought into sharp relief by the events in Libya and Egypt a couple of days ago, the repercussions of which are continuing to unfold.

Between the time most newspapers went to print on Tuesday night and were delivered to the White House the next morning:

  • Obama had been criticized by Romney, wrongly, for “sympathizing” with the Egyptian protesters
  • Ambassador Stevens and three of his staff had been declared dead
  • Sarah Palin had attacked Obama on Facebook
  • Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, had sent out a “sad and pathetic” political tweet

After the news had hit Obama’s desk in the form of paper, the story developed at Tweet-speed. Before the next editions could go to press, it had already emerged and been heavily reported that:

The inadequacies of print on paper as a news delivery mechanism have seldom been more ruthlessly exposed. The major news organizations – The New York Times in particular – did a great job of reporting this complicated story in real time, but they distributed it electronically. The newspapers on Obama’s desk would just be a cluttery reminder of an antiquated system.

It can’t be long until news printed on paper is seen for what it actually is – a slow, cumbersome extravagance. That sounds like a weird thing to say, given that the poorest people in our society can’t afford digital reading devices. But spilling barrel loads of expensive ink on to reams of expensive paper then spending even more to pay for expensive delivery of outdated news every day sounds even weirder. The time will come when cheap tablets and smartphones will make all but the throwaway subway editions of newspapers totally untenable.

Of course, the newspaper industry didn’t need an iPad-reading President to tell it that. But it surely must make it aware that the end of paper is more imminent than it would perhaps like to think.