What an Apple Tablet Would Mean for Publishing

Should Steve Jobs introduce Apple's tablet (the iPad, iSlate, iTablet, or perhaps iBook) at the company's press event on Wednesday, the device will likely contain a number of features: users will be able to play games on it, surf the Web, read e-books, and much more. But perhaps the most important feature it may contain will be the ability to save the press from its demise.

At the end of a failed 15-year experiment in giving away its product, the press (newspapers and magazines) has begun to renounce free. It's slow in starting, because of the inertia of this decade and a half, but the New York Times announced recently that it would begin charging for its Website, and others are sure to follow. (In fact, this was a huge game of chicken, where U.S. newspapers wanted to start charging for their content, but none wanted to be the first to take the leap.) But payment for Websites alone won't be enough to change newspapers' and magazines' bottom lines from red to black. Apple's tablet, however, will.

The end of free

It's time for free to end. Newspapers and magazines made the mistake, in the early days of the Web, of giving away their content for free, in exchange for revenue from Web advertising. (One could argue that this is not exactly free for users, given the annoyance they have to put up with.) While this may have been viable for a few years, everyone now knows that Web ads simply don't work. In the early days of the Web, people clicked on banner ads because they were new; but they quickly just became a nuisance, and now everyone ignores them.

In the past few years, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, and newspapers and magazines are cutting back and folding all across the U.S. For example, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, shut down in early 2009, used to have more than 200,000 weekday readers, and a half-million Sunday readers; now you can't even wrap fish with it. Gourmet magazine had nearly a million monthly readers, and you can no longer cook fish with it.

Yet we need the press: the fourth estate is a necessary check for our government and business. As long as free thrives, the press can't do its job correctly. Free may be good for freeloaders, but it's bad for society. Those who want things to be free forget that there are still people doing the work they get for nothing, and those people need to be paid. As the old saw goes, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. (And, please, spare me the comments about how free will lead to other forms of income; this has been tried, and has been a massive failure, with only rare exceptions such as Google.)

It can be said that "news" is worthless, that it is a commodity that can be provided by anyone. News about accidents or politicians' infidelities, election results or sports scores is little more than facts: names, dates and numbers. News agencies can funnel these facts to a central aggregator which can then syndicate them at low cost to newspapers and Websites around the world, and this type of news will continue to be free on the Web.

What news agencies can't do is the added-value reporting, the analysis, opinion and in-depth reporting that we want to read to better understand, and that we need for society to thrive. It may be a coincidence, but in recent years, investigative journalism was severely lacking at a time when it was needed the most. Only when people pay for news can we have quality reporting.

To those who protest that "no one will pay for a newspaper on the Web", consider some very successful experiments in paid online content. The Wall Street Journal charges around $100 a year for full access to its Website, and plenty of businesspeople pay for this. This is because the Journal provides the kind of news that is not plentiful; people pay for the quality of the business news and analysis that they can't find elsewhere, as well as its timeliness.

The Economist charges $95 a year for full access to its Website. The New York Times has long charged for on-line access to its crossword puzzles. For $40 a year, subscribers have access to new puzzles and to archives (though print subscribers get access to the puzzles for free). Most of the British newspapers charge for their crossword puzzles as well. Again, this is unique content that does not have its equal elsewhere for free. Here in France, where I live, full access to the main newspapers' Websites cost about €60, or $85, per year. Plenty of newspapers and magazines around the world have already ditched free.

The future of news

Apple's tablet (and the copycats that will follow it) will be a game-changer, just as the iPod and iPhone have been. Because of Apple's aura, this tablet will get more attention than the plethora of e-book readers we have seen recently. And I'm betting that Apple will get it right, as far as features, interface and usability are concerned. It will also be an excellent tool for reading the news. Newspapers and magazines will be able to package their content in multimedia bundles (either as apps or something similar to the iTunes LP) that will be designed for reading on a portable screen; this won't simply be web pages viewed on a smaller screen.

The key to hardware being successful is the software that supports it. One of the main advantages to Apple's tablet, as far as the press is concerned, is the iTunes Store. Since Apple already has this platform to sell and deliver that content, even on a subscription basis, readers will be able to easily buy their favorite newspapers and magazines and get them delivered instantly. They'll be cheaper than the print versions, and they'll be a lot greener too. And the iTunes Store will be able to provide a better selection than readers can find by going to individual Websites. Whether by subscription or by single issue, it'll be extremely simple to buy newspapers and magazines to read on the Apple tablet.

This change won't happen overnight. Apple's tablet will probably be priced so that only the most tech-lusting among us will run out and buy version 1.0. But it will be a bellwether for the future of such devices and how they will change print media. New publishing experiments will be part of the attraction for this new device, and, in the near future, most major newspapers and magazines will offer tablet versions. And with them, a return to being able to provide the news we need.

[Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville.]

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