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Jan. 28 2010 - 10:35 pm | 1,126 views | 2 recommendations | 11 comments

The iPad saved print media by not saving it at all


Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Thank goodness that when Steve Jobs took the stage to sit in his Le Corbusier chair and show off the iPhone Maxi, er iPad, he didn’t roll out some cockamanie plan to have a digital magazine and newspaper stand with some kind of special pricing program and application store, and trot out, say, Arthur Sulzburger or, well, who else really, would it be but Arthur Sulzburger, to talk about how great the iPad was going to be for the future of news? Thank goodness, and here’s why:

There’s no need. Everything that newspapers and magazines want to be able to do with per-issue pricing, subscriptions, video, automatic delivery, etc., is already enabled by the iPhone app store, which is the same place iPad users will turn to for programs and content. As Apple’s demo employees were telling the geekerati assembled at the play-table after Jobs’ address, ‘if you use an iPhone, you already know how to use this.” There have been a number of disappointed ruminations by media types, and Ryan Tate summarizes the angst ably in Gawker:

But what their demo — the sole non-website newspaper content — lacked in actual pizazz it failed to make up for in hype, either. Nothing from Jobs on a dedicated newspaper (or magazine) store or reader application. Hardly any waxing poetic by Apple on the possibilities and content development path for newspapers and magazines. Which, as we said before, is absolutely Apple’s prerogative — these guys are in the business of making money, not rescuing other industries — but has to give print media execs heartburn.

Exactly, Ryan. It’s ridiculous to think that Jobs is going to hitch his wagon to a bunch of old-time media companies and do their R&D for them. There’s been nothing stopping them from programming subscription-ready value-added content apps for the iPhone ever since OS 3.0 came out in March 2009. Is it Apple’s fault if the content is not compelling enough for readers to want to purchase? Or if the magazines or newspapers can’t figure out how to rework their content to make it compelling? Or build an app that is on a ‘must-have’ level? Right this minute the most successful paid app in the App Store from a media company is ranked #45: CNN Mobile, for $1.99. It has 3 stars, because most of the reviewers complain it’s full of advertising and has a crappy layout. How is that Apple’s fault when so many small developers have figured out to how provide awesome experiences on the platform, and big developers, like Facebook, have singlehandedly redefined what an App can be?

What Jobs has done with the iPad is exactly what made the iPhone successful: he created a pretty spectacular space for app developers to compete over eyeballs for. Some iPad users will only play games or watch video; others will read books and news; a third group may just want to email from the road. A fourth group will inevitably hack into the thing and find ways to multi-task and run background apps and whatever else Apple is banning in its sandbox.

In other words, Apple is not interested in throwing a lifeline to industries that can’t figure out this new world we’re living in. Maybe there’s some karmic reason OS X and the iPhone/iPad OS are based on a core called Darwin. There is a Darwinism at play here; figure out a way to get users to put your app on their device. Then figure out a way to keep them clicking on it, and making you money. If you can’t, you’re toast.

The book publishing industry is not exactly going to be mistaken for a futurists convention any time soon, but when I wrote about e-readers for a couple of publications recently, I talked to some executives who specifically said they don’t care what platform their content is available on, as long as it’s out there and revenue can be collected on it. That’s not just desperation, that’s faith in your product. (I know some publishers are playing cat and mouse with ebook release schedules, but that’s not going to last as more of the audience moves to e-reader platforms. In fact it’s mostly a negotiation tactic with Amazon. Since Apple’s letting publishers set prices, unlike Amazon, they have no reason to deny readers the electronic version of their books on the same day the print copy rolls out, or possibly even earlier.)

In short, the tools are already there for the iPad to become the ’savior’ the print media is looking for. But Steve Jobs is not your new bicycle. He will be happy whether the top paid app on the iPad is the ‘New York Times Daily Subscription’ or ‘Rock Band.’ And to be fair, some media companies are investing heavily in creating online content that finally gives users what they want. Sports Illustrated rolled out a tablet demo in December that looked ridiculously beyond the reach of any extant device–until the iPad came out yesterday. Now, truthfully, for SI or any old-school magazine to produce issues on a weekly frequency that contain anything like the content and multimedia seen in that demo is going to take A LOT of manpower. Far more than those places are staffing right now. The good news is that their are oodles of journalists already trained to use these tools and produce this kind of content. The bad news is they require salaries and expensive equipment and hardware. The better news is that these big magazine companies still have the money to place a bet on multimedia editions of their magazines. The great news is a whole new generation of publishers can start working in this medium today, without all the legacy costs of a print publication.

The race to develop a machine like this has already been lost. It’s over. Not that Apple’s first gen iPad is the end of the road; but no magazine consortium is going to beat Apple at this game down the line. The best thing the magazine companies can do is stop kvetching, stop wasting money on hardware, and give content consumers all they’ve ever wanted all along: an amazing content experience that they’re willing to pay for.

Apple has just created the ultimate sandbox. The newspapers and magazines are the rich kids who can afford the coolest Tyco toys. The question is, can they get over the fact that the sandbox is in Steve Jobs’ backyard? Readers aren’t going to wait around for the print media to get over their sulking; they’ll be happy to play with whoever shows up first at Jobs’ iPad sandbox with their dumptruck or steamshovel, even if it’s made out of plastic and the windshield’s popped out, as long as it’s fun and worthwhile. Readers will grow with those apps as they evolve and build audiences and revenue. If old media doesn’t get its act together, they’ll be playing with their shiny metal front-loaders in their crappy cardboard sandboxes, that wilt in the rain, all by themselves, right around the time Stevie and his friends are graduating to the jungle gym.


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    With your Sports Illustrated example you said beautifully what I’ve been thinking… How they going to produce that on a daily basis? They don’t have the staff knowledge to do it. And only expensive TV producers can pull it off. I’m not as optimistic as you that current laid off journalists can produce a compelling experience like the one in the SI prototype. However, there is a new generation coming up that could pull it off. But they cost money, too, and will consumers ever pay for what it will cost. My feeling is that it won’t be SI that does it, but some new sports media company without built-in biases and print legacy. I believe in creative destruction. That’s not the Big Media way.

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      Hey Lewis, One thing I should’ve been more clear about is I wasn’t talking so much about laid off journalists as young journalists w/multimedia training coming out of j-schools across the country right now. (As you deduce.) If anything, mags should set loose those w/video & audio skills to work with established writers to exchange skills so that after a year, the old guy knows how to work a flip and edit in Final Cut, and the young guy knows how to win a source’s trust and write a compelling lede. But as you say, and I agree, the chances of this kind of refocus and collaboration happening in an old-media centric environment are just about nil.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    This reminds me of an incident I had in the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom. A youngish reporter came to a “hard-news” editor’s desk with a few suggestions for updating the paper’s website via reader-friendly (read: nontraditional) innovations to make interactivity between reporter and consumer more fluid.

    Needless to say, the old-schooler dismissed the ideas out of hand. Not to say the editor is a dinosaur or unimaginative — on the contrary, I respect the hell of the person, who has exponentially more reporting talent and experience than I could ever dream of possessing.

    But could it be the only way the only way to save traditional media is to — gulp — stage a youth revolution? To discount previous experience as irrelevant in a completely new journalistic “sandbox.” I’ve had friends at other media organizations also complain that the old powers stubbornly resist digital changes.

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      Kevin, I think what old-timers are left are now fully aware that being resistant or ignorant to change only serves to faster sow the seeds of their own demise. Even the most backwater small-town publisher seems, to me, to have gotten religion on online media by now. But the thing is, wanting to produce good online journalism and knowing how to produce it are two very different things. There’s still a lot of failing out there, which to a certain degree is OK, but at this point, I really think the environment is ready for a next generation attempt. What we’ve seen from most of the big players have been nothing more than iterations on the strategies they’ve had since rolling out their first websites in the mid 90s. It’s time to leapfrog that and give consumers something new that leverages the iPad and their increasing comfort level with technology…if they don’t soon, startups are going to beat them getting to the punch, and getting to their audiences.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Best piece of analysis yet on the iPad. People confuse Steve Jobs with Bill Gates. Steve works for Apple and wants to see it continue to be the most successful marketing juggernaut on the planet. He’s not interested in saving the world, saving the children, saving the whales. Bill Gates can do that. Steve just wants to make money for Apple. God, he’s good. And thanks for putting iPad, and Jobs, in the proper context.

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    I’m glad you mentioned the Sports Illustrated demo in your column. This not only shows the potential of the tablet publishing, but also that a closer collaborative relationship between art direction and editorial is what will be needed to produce such a beast.

    Lewis Dvorkin is correct, of course, to question whether such a hugely multimedia publication could be produced frequently and that a strictly tablet or web-only publication might be in a better position to do it.

    In any case, a good tablet publication doesn’t have to be so complex. The Bonnier R&D YouTube video produced with their design partners BERG hits on the idea that simple reformatting for the web (and I presume tablets/readers) would greatly improve the reader experience, as well.

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      There is so much in all this that it boggles the mind. One thing I fear in the multimedia focus (and Paul can speak to this as much as I can) is that news will lost, or at least overwhelmed, in the rush to entertain. If I recall the SI video, it felt more like Show Time than news. Hey, I’m all for glitz, but the news quotient most be maintained. People may not want newspapers or magazines or broadcast or cable, but they definitely still want the news.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I agree. The multimedia has to be in service of the news function. So far, that’s not been an issue (hardly) but that’s something to watch for when big old media co’s DO start utilizing all the bells and whistles of the iPad

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        These demo videos are like concept cars: they show all the bells and whistles and demonstrate what the designer thinks is possible. For Sports Illustrated, lots of motion and sports videos seems to make sense to me, and I see no reason why it would be terribly difficult assuming they lined up the networks as partners. Imagine what ESPN the Mag would look like knowing they have tons of video content at their disposal.

        For me, the key point is to get the art directors more directly involved in layout. In most magazines, the only involvement with the web the AD has, once the site has gone live, is the resizing of photos — the web editor is the one throwing the copy into the CMS. Layouts are standardized on most web sites with only the ability to add photos or embed a video as the variables.

        I would visualize tablet publishing as much more like magazine publishing — each page is an opportunity for the AD to decide how best to convey the meaning of the copy, the art work, etc.

        Tablet publishing quality will ultimately be judged just like print: on the value of content, not the glitz of the multimedia included. A great investigative story will be successful based on the research and the ability of the writer to reveal new truths — just like print and the web.

        But tablet publishing does give the writer, editor and art director more tools, and I see nothing wrong with that.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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