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Can the iPad save journalism?

February 11, 2010

Highly anticipated, Apple released their new tablet device on Jan. 27. While its name caused much snickering online (the term iTampon was one of Twitter’s most used terms that day, even before the actual product name), news organizations hope the iPad and similar devices will finally fill the void left in their business model by the surge of the Internet.

With the iPad, they hope to finally fit the content that has been accessible online for free into a pay model. But that is not going to be so easy.

A Sports Illustrated iPad demo version shows some of the possibilities of the new presentation form that merges a magazine layout with interactive elements, photos, video and personalization (definitely watch: http://bitly.tv/#/5wlrAq – when I grow up, this is what I want to do). Other publishing companies, such as Time and Conde Nast, have also developed prototypes of their products for the iPad.

SI demo version

A first look at how Sports Illustrated could look on the iPad - awesome, pretty much.

A point only skimmed in the demo video but surely included on careful though is that an iPad presentation also makes more interactive forms of advertising possible. Media users are bombarded with blinking, scrolling and music-playing ads, but these forms are more distracting than engaging to many. With an iPad, social media and interactive forms can be merged with media products again, which offers a revival possibility for the advertising market.

But the collective sigh of relief from the media companies may have been premature, as the New York Times points out. Parallel to the iPod/ iTunes development, Apple may to a large extent control how much media companies can charge for their products and how those are presented on the iBook store accessible from the iPad. Both the New York Times and Advertising Age point out record companies’ unhappiness with the Apple-controlled payment model.

Therefore, another revenue-generation plan seems more enticing: selling the iPad together with a media subscription. Joe Zeff, former editor at The New York Times and graphics director of Time magazine, writes on his company’s blog what mainstream media seem to have overlooked: Ranging in price from $499 to $629, ordinary consumers can’t afford an iPad. He asks:

“What if the publishing industry helped to defray that cost, bundling an iPad with a multiyear subscription to hundreds of newspapers and magazines?”

It’s the same principle as with your cell phone: buy a two-year plan, get a new phone for free. The fact that the iPad is distributed through a phone carrier, AT&T, may already point into that direction. (Leave aside that many users aren’t too happy about that – AT&T’s 3G network has already been strained by the many iPhone owners).

This could open the iPad market up to many consumers who would otherwise not have the means to buy such an expensive device (the question whether we need an iPad in addition to a cell phone with Internet access and a laptop remains to be solved, however).

Zeff also points to another way this new device can resurrect media companies – if they are smart enough to jump at the chance. With the iPad, consumers can get customized news more easily and through a sleeker interface. “Unlike the web, where newspapers and magazines have become virtually interchangeable, the iPad offers the chance for newspapers to leverage their strength: hyperlocal coverage that’s up to the minute,” he writes.

This speaks to a basic principle of paying vs. not paying: what you pay for has to be better than what you get for free. News organizations have to produce more creative and unique content if they want people to pay for their products. Interchangeable wire service reports are not going to cut it.

Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, said as much in a talk before journalism students at the University of California-Berkeley. “His conclusion: Digital distribution will be a boon to newspaper publishers if they can also radically redefine their product and means of reaching consumers,“ Advertising Age reported.

While it’s not set how, it is certain that the iPad and similar devices will cause another big shift in the news business – hopefully, one that news organizations take advantage of.

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From → Media

One Comment
  1. Very nice article…

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