Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Can the Apple Tablet Save Print Media?

Can a digital device "save" print media? Will people be willing to pay for previously-free content if it's packaged in the right way? Provocative questions that strike to the heart of the digital divide and the inherent paradoxes of digital content delivery...
Published: January 4, 2010
"Is an Apple tablet the second coming of the iPhone: a device that can do anything, including saving embattled print providers from doom?"
Fair warning, the tablet-related religious metaphors lie thick across this article. Nevertheless, I think my biggest beef with it is when he tries to answer my question: "It's free now, what's to entice readers to pay for it plus the cost of the new device needed to view it?" His answer is this: "...why would people suddenly be compelled to pay for something that they’ve gotten for free? That’s where Apple comes in. A simple, reliable interface for gaining access to paid content can do amazing things: Five years ago, almost no one paid for music online and now, nine billion or so songs sold later, we know that people are willing to pay if the price is right and the convenience is there." I find this difficult to swallow. Mostly because the comparison isn't apples-to-apples (if you'll forgive the pun). Before iTunes and their imitators, most digital music was illegally downloaded. The dominant portion of our society is inclined to follow laws as long as they make sense and aren't the pragmatic equivalent of going five miles over the speed limit. So a cheap, easy and reliable legal path to digital music was win/win for the listener. This paradigm doesn't apply to print media. It's free and legal at the moment. I'm not downloading New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles from Napster, I'm reading them for free on those newspapers' websites. So a simple comparison simply doesn't work. For better or worse, print media from the New York Times to Sports Illustrated have been offering free, legal online content almost since they opened their first website. In order for it to change now, all of them would have to change together so that no one site continues to give away the milk for free. Which is called 'collusion' and it's my understanding that that's still illegal. Attempts prior to this to get people to pay to view news stories & feature content have been met with mixed results outside of niche markets like stock tracking. At the moment, the market stands thus: If you're offering a unique service that others cannot duplicate at all or at least as well, you can charge for access and people who need that information will pay to see it. Outside of a few exclusive scoops, news reporting is not unique to you. Put another way: if I can get perfectly legal milk free from the New York Times, why would I buy it from Slate? I feel for print media, as you may recall I began my college career as a journalism major before - perhaps wisely - deciding that my future lay in more artistic directions. And I have all the sympathy in the world for people who would like to get paid to write. Me too, please! If they're ballsy enough, then they could conceivably gradually shut down their websites all together (which is probably what we're talking about without really saying it in the NYT article) and offer more and more of the content on the new Apple Tablet, iPhone/Droid apps, Nook or Kindle. But that's still a dicey proposition when free, legal, content that competes isn't going away. It's a format-shift that beggars comparison to the shift from CD's to MP-3's. It's about shutting off a tap altogether and replacing it with a new outlet, and that's beyond risky, it's damn near suicidal. Then again, something's got to give or we'll lose print media as a viable business altogether which would be a blow to us all whether we realize it or not.
Read Related Posts:
March 2009 - Quotable Quandry April 2009 - What We Call the News
Scott Walker Perkins blogs on technology and literary culture and writes literary thrillers. His current novel is titled The Palimpsest and he is working on a project tentatively titled 42 Lines. Email: swalkerperkins@gmail.com

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).