iTablet: Saving Newspapers

A couple of weeks ago, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story on Apple’s upcoming new product, the iTablet:

Apple has sent specifications of the device to Australian media companies in an effort to sound out whether they would be interested in delivering their content to the tablet. None would speak about the device on the record.

But New York Times executive editor Bill Keller seemed to let the cat out of the bag in comments during an off-the-record meeting with New York Times digital staff this month. Footage of his talk has been published online.

The device itself is expected to be another “game changer” for Apple, summed up nicely by John Abell in Wired last week:

The device will have to make readers forget — really forget — the printed page. E-readers, for all that they do, don’t do this yet. There are plenty of them, and plenty more on the way. Much hope is invested in Amazon’s Kindle DX, which hits the market for the holidays. But in the end e-readers are third devices, or at least two-and-a-half (carried sometimes).

Finally — and this is the “my gift to you” part — the unveiling of an Apple Tablet will have to be accompanied by a fundamental policy change. Apple will have to let publishers roll the dice on pricing and cede control of the customer relationship it has jealously guarded. There are precedents which could point to this trajectory; tiered pricing and album-only sales are allowed on iTunes now, and app developers can more or less charge whatever they want.

Having just cancelled my home-delivery subscription to the local daily newspaper, I started thinking what it’s like to rely solely on the online version. My conclusion? I don’t care. All I ever read in that paper was Dilbert. I never liked the way the paper was organized, but I did like flipping through the ads — especially the free-standing inserts. Their Web site is busy, with a dated portal approach. And they don’t have an iPhone app.

The New York Times on the other hand, has an excellent editorial product, with a neat approach in print, an excellent Web site, and I actually enjoy reading it via their free iPhone app. From an advertising perspective, I’ll take the NYT over The Star-Ledger any day. They invested substantial resources in building their own system for targeting ads to segments of their audience, and I hope media planners appreciate it.

Maybe the iTablet will do it for print media after all. Ken Segall saw it perfectly last month:

Just as iPod changed music and iPhone changed communications, iTablet will change the way we consume media. We’ll all say “of course” when we see a simple and elegant way to enjoy newspapers, magazines, books, music, movies and all of the Internet in one painfully cool device. We’ll marvel at the new vision of “the daily paper,” combining print with video and gorgeous graphics that bring stories to life (never mind that it’s all out there on the web already). And we’ll wonder how civilized people could ever have allowed all those trees to be slaughtered, only to be mashed into mega-tons of newsprint that get tossed at the end of the day.

The scope of this revolution requires Apple to recruit partners. Big ones. They’re lining up the major media companies, who will announce new forms of content designed to meet the new iTablet standard, just as they seduced the record companies and movie studios before. Newspapers and magazines, now a dying breed, will re-emerge with new vitality as an integral part of our mobile lives.

It’s not that others couldn’t see this coming. It’s that they didn’t have the will, the ingenuity and the leadership to make it happen. This is a revolution that needed a good hijacking.

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Let Design Do It For You

Interesting pitch from Jacek Utko on how to save newspapers.

Your Papers, Please?

We heard about the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceasing publications of a paper-based newspaper, opting to go online only. That’s too bad, but if the business doesn’t make sense, why not?

Now the Ann Arbor News is going away, after 170+ years:

The Ann Arbor News will close in July after publishing as the city’s daily newspaper since 1835, publisher Laurel Champion announced today.

Heavy losses in revenue drove the decision. Champion said the current “business model is not sustainable.” Advertising revenue slumped more than 20 percent in January compared to the same month last year.

“This isn’t about abandoning local journalism, it’s about serving it up in a very different way,” Champion told employees, as she visibly fought back tears.

A new Web-based media company called AnnArbor.com LLC will be launched later this year. In addition to publishing continuously online, AnnArbor.com will publish a print edition twice a week.

Champion, who will be executive vice president of AnnArbor.com, told News employees they can apply for positions with the new company, although job losses are inevitable. A total of 272 people work for the newspaper at both its main downtown Ann Arbor office and its Pittsfield Township printing plant. The newspaper has a daily circulation of nearly 45,000.

What does this trend do to the power of the press?