App jacked: What the iPad means (and doesn't mean) for newspapers

There was great speculation among newspaper and magazine people about what the iPad would bring to the table for old media. Would there be an iTunes for periodicals? Would there be a new hybrid format for magazines that combined the slick color visual presentation of print with the interactive bells-and-whistles of the web? And if so, would the combination of those two elements serve as a clap of the paddles to the lifeless business models of news organizations? To wit, would the iPad be new and shiny enough to get people to pay for content again?

Here's the quick answers: no, no, and probably not. 

There are questions now about whether the iPad even makes sense as a device -- if it hadn't been so hotly anticipated, its release might now be seen as a bad joke. A bigger, bulkier iPhone . . . without the camera or the phone? With no support for flash or java? And it still can't run simultaneous apps? And the 3G version costs north of $800? Good luck with that. 

But far more disappointing for newspapers is that, when it came to thinking about the iPad as an e-reader, Apple pretty much stopped at books -- without innovating one iota closer to a new solution for periodicals. It seemed reasonable that the company responsible for popularizing the podcast, in effect mainstreaming subscribable audio content, would take a shot at warehousing subscribable print. A couple of years ago, when New York hipster bible The Fader began offering its monthly issues as .pdf downloads through iTunes, the future seemed clear: eventually Apple will figure out a smarter way of delivering this kind of content. Two years and several flashy devices later, we got nothing.

Even when it came to pushing books onto the iPad, you have to wonder what the hell Steve Jobs was thinking. Yes, Apple is giving iTunes a makeover, but speculation that print and text content would become some kind of bundled, subscribable object -- along the lines, perhaps, of an iTunes LP, which contains not just music but video and multimedia elements -- fell way short. In fact, there's no print content in iTunes at all. Instead, Apple bundled the entire e-books component of the iPad into a single app -- iBooks -- which already has (today!) major competition in the same App store that will power the iPad (and that already powers the iPhone and iTouch.)

This gets to the biggest problem for Apple. The issue with the iPad isn't that its reading experience won't be as good as an e-book. (More on this in a second.) The problem is that the reading experience on an iPad probably won't be substantially better than it is on an iPhone. The dirty secret about iPhones is that reading on them is actually not bad. The e-book folks have successfully sold the idea that it's impossible to read at length on a backlit screen, and that only e-ink pages will keep digital-book readers from going blind. Which misses a crucial point: people are reading in shorter bursts. You might not want to read off a laptop for four hours -- but really, who has four hours to read a book anymore? 

Earlier today Ad Age reported on a talk that Google's chief economist, Hal Varian, gave to journalism students at UC Berkeley. Google believes that devices like the iPad (and also the iPhone) are opening up opportunities to reach "more readers during more hours of the day," Ad Age writes. The problem is that those hours are broken up into smaller packets of time. Here's a quote from the Google economist: "The good news is online information can reach people where they weren't accessible before . . . The bad news is they don't have much time there to read it." 

If you're reading books -- or surfing the web, or Tweeting, or playing games -- for no more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time (say, the amount of time you're on the subway, or in a waiting room), then you don't need a bigger iPhone. And if you are fanatic enough to read for a few hours at a stretch, you're probably going to invest in an e-ink screen. In the meantime, there are companies like Newton's Biblio who are rolling out software that will provide an interactive, web-connected, multimedia book and magazine experience on any device, allowing mobile readers to access the same book (and bookmarks, and notes) on their smartphone, netbook, or home computer. Remind us why we need the iPad again?

If the iPad had come out in the midst of the dot-com bubble, when newspapers were flush, plenty of organizations would likely have jumped at the chance to get a spot on it. And doubtless, many still will. But as it stands, the iPad has appeared precisely as newspapers are making tough decisions about which digital platforms can revive their sagging bottom lines. Media companies with dwindling resources probably won't be able to afford to be developing multiple electronic editions for multiple platforms -- they're going to have to pick and choose, and they'll naturally go where the eyeballs are. If they want to develop simple, text-based, non-interactive editions -- along the lines of the New York Times on the Kindle -- that'll be pretty simple. The paper will upload a .pdf to Amazon or B&N, and you'll be able to read the paper on an e-Reader. That leaves open the question of who, exactly, would pay money for an e-reader subscription when a more dynamic, and free, version is available on their phone. 

In order for newspapers to start charging for content again, they'll need to provide something that knocks a reader's socks off. It'll have to look and scan better than what's on the paper's website, and it'll also have to bring serious wow-factor interactivity to a magazine-quality design. It'll have to be available wirelessly and instantaneously. And for most publications, even if they're charging a nominal fee for the digital edition (either in an app store or in an online e-book store), it'll probably have to support dynamic web-like ad serving.

The hope was that the iPad would provide all of the above. It's certainly what Sports Illustrated had in mind when they posted this. The problem is, well -- there's no app for that. And if there was, could a Flash-deprived iPad even run it?

If those same companies want to develope eye-catching multimedia editions that have the elegance of print design and the flash of video, they'll have two choices: build apps for the Apple store, potentially creating multiple editions daily or weekly. Or they'll look for a broader platform like Biblio, creating one edition that can automatically be delivered to multiple devices. Of course, the  "broader platform" path has its drawbacks, too: now that Apple has bowed out of the fight, you can expect to see dozens of companies who'll be competing to provide that platform. The more players in the fight, the longer it could take for any one of them to gain the kind of market share that newspapers require to make their e-editions profitable.

Which means we're back to this: //

 Although I'd never pay money for a Kindle, I've got the Kindle app on my iPhone -- which allows me to read preview chapters of any e-book  on Amazon. And for public-domain books, I'm using a different app -- Stanza -- that's also tied to an e-book store.) In good news for the books market, the iPad has joined Barnes and Noble's Nook -- and other e-readers -- in adopting the standard, open ePub format. That is very likely to mean that ePub will become the mp3 of e-books -- dependable, device-agnostic, and dare we say shareable. (By which we really mean stealable.) But it also means that it's pretty much like every other e-Reader on the market: you just now will have the choice between color (iPad) and an easier-on-the-eyes backlit screen (everyone else). If a color e-ink screen materializes in the next 18 months, the iPad starts to look like a very expensive paperweight. 


This is not to say that a next-generation, game-changing iteration of books, magazines, and newspapers couldn't happen on an iPad. It just means that if you find one, it won't be brought to you by Apple. Instead, it'll be developed by third-parties and sold as an app. Which is exactly what smart media companies have been developing for the iPhone. Time, Inc's magazine consortium has been showing some really intense demo-versions of a hybrid multimedia magazine -- but the functionality is so hot, they'd either have to release their own hardware (unlikely, but not out of the question) or get into the software business (more likely). The big, smart media companies with R&D departments -- like Time and the NY Times -- will have the resources and the built-in audience to attack the iPad's capabilities and make something pretty. Everyone else will face a familiar decision -- spend money to copy what the big boys are doing, or throw their lot in with app manufacturers like Newton's Biblio, who aim to develop device-agnostic software that will deliver a multimedia experience on a laptop (as an old-fashioned desktop software application) or on mobile devices as an app. 


If you were a newspaper or a magazine, the last couple of months have been spent in hurry-up-and-wait mode. Everyone knows that newspapers need a new-media revenue model -- something beyond selling online ads for fractions of a penny per page view. The New York Times, who hacked down their Berlin Paywall a few years ago, have signalled their intent to make some people pay for some of the content on their website some of the time. Most newspapers don't have that luxury. Any newspaper that is not the New York Times has to contend with the example of New York Newsday, which erected a paywall, saw its unique visitors cut nearly in half, and attracted all of 35 paying subscribers. (That's not a typo: not 35 million, not 35 thousand, not 3500. Just 35.)

The other hope for newspapers is essentially to take a page out of the record industry's playbook and hope that, if you can come up with a flashy new format, the audience will pay for something it already has. That worked for music's major labels with the introduction of the CD, which inflated sales numbers throughout the 90s as consumers re-bought albums they already owned on vinyl and cassette. The analogy isn't perfect, but the newspaper industry is confronted with a similar problem. The basic online product of nearly all newspapers -- including news produced for the print edition, blogs, slideshows, video, polls, community networking, the whole shebang -- is free, and the vast majority of the audience 

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