Monday, June 20, 2011

Tablets and Journalism

This picture belongs to the NY Times

Ars put up an interesting article yesterday about the NY Post putting up a paywall for iPad users only, supposedly forcing them to download the paper's app. It mostly outlines how badly they executed this idea, and doesn't really go into the potential for it. I first saw the article on Reddit, where most of the users seemed to be outraged that somebody would charge for content online. The ones who weren't outraged were the ones who know that the NY Post is really only good for trips to the bathroom, and not for reading material.

Journalism is in a sorry state these days, with newspaper sales in decline across the country and an increased reliance on TV news, which has about as much substance and integrity as a Taco Bell burrito after it goes through your digestive tract. Papers aren't doing well because users expect to read all of their content online for free, and ad sales aren't picking up the slack. Every journalist in America is wringing their hands right now, wondering when some new commercial model is going to come along and save them from endless weeks of ramen.

While the New York Post obviously didn't think their idea through very thoroughly, I think there is still potential for it. What if you could download a newspaper's app for free, have access to some free content, and then pay a small amount of money for the day's stories? It would be equivalent to picking up a paper in a store, reading the front page, and deciding to buy it. Remember when you used to do that?

Tablets are a perfect venue for a system like this. I can easily imagine a (near) future in which coffee shops are filled with people staring at their little rectangles, reading the day's news. Additionally, the hardware is still new, and there's still an opportunity to get users used to paying for stuff (as opposed to on the web, where it's all free). But substance wise, why, you may ask, would this be more engaging than TV news?

Consider Wired Magazine's tablet app. Where in the print magazine it simply has photos, the app features videos and other interactive media. The ability to share that content with your friends is supposedly easy too. The New York times has a similar app, apparently with similar functionality. Subscribing to the New York times unlocks all the features, though you don't have the option to buy a single day's paper. I wonder how much money this is making them?

Also: what if Wired's dream comes true, and tablets replace the laptop and desktop computer for most casual media consumption? If they're cheaper and do everything schoolchildren and office-workers need, I can see it happening. If there's a precedent for paying for online content, then maybe media companies can start making real money again.


  1. I personally find it difficult to imagine that the future is locked down. But it has happened before. Back in the day anyone could set up a radio station. But then governments around the world locked down the spectrum and sold it off to the corporations.

    That's exactly what they want to do with the internet - and they might succeed. But it won't be because some closed model won the competitive challenge in a fair fight. People just won't choose to be locked in if there is a free option.

    The debate about media convergence is faced with exactly that problem. Why would I want to buy a digital, internet enabled tv - while subscribing to various pay content providers? All the content in the universe is available out there for free.

    The way I see it - there is just a massive amount of overhead being scooped off the top of the market. Publications will survive - but they'll need to downsize, become more niche, and develop close relationships with their readers... only then will they get people to pay.

  2. I tend to agree, though the big question is "how?"