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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

So it’s called the iPad: Five thoughts on how it will (and won’t) change the game for news organizations

So, it’s official: There is an Apple tablet, and it’s called the iPad. And, at least to these Apple-friendly eyes, it looks really, really nice. I can feel my credit card getting warm already.

But for future-of-journalism junkies, the question was never whether or not Apple could come up with a sexy new device. The question was whether it could have an impact on the news business. Phrases like “save the news business” and “alter the economics and consumer attitudes of the digital era” have been tossed around an awful lot in the last few months.

So what did we learn today about how the iPad will impact journalism? Here are my first thoughts:

It will have a real impact on consumer behavior. This thing’s going to be popular — I suspect it’ll sell at multiples of the Kindle (assuming Amazon ever decides to tell us how many Kindles they sell). And the form factor will be attractive in a lot of contexts, and that’ll likely increase the amount of news and information that people consume. Anyone who loved the Kindle will love this (unless they’re e-Ink junkies), and the iPad will also appeal to big crowds who would have never thought of a Kindle — gamers, mobile workers, YouTube addicts, and more.

I don’t think the iPad changes the paid-content equation. The dream of the news business is that a device will come along that will convince people to pay for digital news. That was the dream of the Kindle — people will pay $10 a month to “subscribe” to all the news we give away for free on the web! And while that dream has dimmed on the Kindle, the same ideas kept popping up on the road to the iPad. As Brad Stone and Stephanie Clifford wrote in the Times:

People who have seen the tablet say Apple will market it not just as a way to read news, books and other material, but also a way for companies to charge for all that content. By marrying its famously slick software and slender designs with the iTunes payment system, Apple could help create a way for media companies to alter the economics and consumer attitudes of the digital era.

Or as a Wired headline writer put it: “Apple Event to Focus on Reinventing Content, Not Tablets.”

But the iPad, as we know it today, doesn’t change any of the fundamental economics of news commerce. On the iPhone, you can sell news apps through the App Store; you can upsell specific pieces of content to people within your apps; and you can sell advertising within those applications. (Apple takes chunks of the revenue from those first two options.)

On the iPad, you can…do those same three things. The only thing that has changed is the size, and that big beautiful screen. Will people who weren’t willing to buy news on an iPhone be sold on the idea just because the text is bigger and the photos are prettier? I’d be surprised. The commerce proposition hasn’t changed.

It was telling that the first website Steve Jobs used to show off the iPad’s web browser was The New York Times. (Apple and the Times have a longstanding mutual appreciation.) Showing nytimes.com before showing off the Times’ iPad app illustrated the big problem device-as-savior advocates face: As long as a device is a great web browsing machine, and websites remain free, it’ll be difficult to push people into the walled garden of an application. Not impossible — difficult. And If you’re willing to put up a paywall on your website, then you have issues to consider much larger than the iPad.

I didn’t see anything today that made me change my opinion that device-based dreams of a news deus ex machina are wishful thinking, and that the difficult revenue decisions will have to be made pan-platform.

The iPhone app ecosystem isn’t changing radically. There are a lot of news organizations that have invested in building nice iPhone apps. That investment will also have value on the iPad, because native iPhone apps should work fine on the iPad — particularly relatively simple ones like news apps. And revising apps to be sized to the iPad’s screen likely won’t be difficult, given how previous changes to the SDK have gone.

One thing that the iPad does do is give user-interface designers many more pixels to deal with, and among newspapers’ core skills remains the ability to display organized text and information in a pleasing and useful way. On the iPhone, the limited real estate meant you were stuck with a rigid world of user-interface possibilities, which is why nearly every newspaper iPhone app looks roughly interchangeable with another. But as the New York Times iPad app showed, with its Times Reader-esque interface, there’ll be a lot more room for experimentation, and that should be fruitful.

One big winner: advertising. Mobile advertising has been deemed the next big thing for a long time now, and while it’s seen plenty of growth, it’s been living a confined existence. Ads in iPhone apps have mostly been locked into small banner ads secured to the bottom of articles and lists of articles. And the web has shown that banner ads stuck in the same place over time are extraordinarily easy for consumers to ignore. Nobody makes much money in that scenario.

But the iPad’s screen opens up a world of new possibilities — from sensible text ads to site takeovers (app takeovers?) to interstitials to more. Will consumers love all of those? No, probably not. (I won’t.) But they sell for a good deal more than banner ads, and that could generate additional revenue for news organizations.

Surprisingly little on magazines. A lot of the talk in tablet land focused on magazines — several mag companies have been working on their own tablet concepts, and the design flexibility of the magazine page seems like a natural match for a bigger-than-a-phone screen and form factor. The magazine subscription model even seems like a natural match for something like the Season Pass you can buy for TV shows in iTunes. But magazines weren’t mentioned at all. Several magazines have moved in the one-iPhone-app-per-issue direction, and those apps will be much more impressive on the big screen, but magazines are in the same boat as newspapers: waiting for the iPad ecommerce revolution to arrive.

It’s important to remember we’re seeing the first iteration of the iPad, which won’t even ship for two months. It took a year for the iPhone to get its App Store; when the phone debuted in 2007, everyone thought it was awfully nice, but it wasn’t sending news organization scurrying to hire Cocoa Touch developers. It took two years for the iPod to get its iTunes Store; the iPod’s impact on the music business only took off when the store arrived in 2003. So there could easily be an announcement in six months or a year that makes the iPad’s impact real.

But until then, the iPad looks like a great product that will please consumers more than it’ll change the game for news organizations.

                                   
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  • Michael Skoler

    To be a game changer for news, the iPad would have to do one of two things. It would have to convince people who don’t now consume news to start consuming it. Or it would have to convince advertisers that their ads on the large, bright iPad screen are more valuable, so they would be willing to pay higher rates or shift more advertising to news sites. Both are doubtful.
    http://bit.ly/abi1JA

  • http://www.twitter.com/mikewhitehouse1 Michael Whitehouse

    I’m somewhat with you on advertising being a big winner. The new mobile ad formats (interstitials, pushdowns, rich media, etc.) might sell for more than the traditional web banners and skyscrapers in the beginning. But only as long as click-through rates are higher than those on the older web vehicles. But I suspect that audiences will become blind to the flashier mobile ad types quickly enough.

    Good news for Apple is that, to date, global CTRs on iPhone/iPod Touch have been well above-average, easily outpacing Blackberry and Android:

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2010/01/13/iphone-android-symbian-click-rates/

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  • op

    Wait for iGlasses. The news will need new specs. I’m sticking with Raybans. Since 1937.
    http://www.ray-ban.com/ The future’s so bright, iGotta wear shades…

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  • bonjour

    It might not do much for news media, but I still think that it might do something for magazines.

    The problem for magazines has been recreating the “package” feeling you get with a print mag. We’re kind of getting there with the semi-recent crop of rich media digital magazines (example: imotormag.co.uk), but the experience is enhanced by being consumed on a much more optimal device than a traditional computer.

    If someone can make it work, make it cost-efficient to produce, and find a distribution model, I see a real potential for making a package that’s worth the consumer’s money.

    If it only supported Flash…. (Adobe CS5 can’t come soon enough)

  • http://twitter.com/BeatsandRants Trent Fitzgerald

    The Apple iPad won’t change the game for journalism, for now. They have to add a video/camera & iMovie on it for it to revolutionize journalism.

    Once that happens, it will be a game changer for journos and how newspapers get their news. I think people will pay for original content from websites that they can’t find anywhere else.

    With a video camera and iMovie, journos would be able to record video, edit the footage and post it on their blogs (or newspaper websites) in record time.

    That will be awesome for a writer like me.

    The iPad right now is a game player not a changer. It’s a nifty little gadget that consumers will buy just to play with it and be amazed by its awesomeness.

    But Apple has to get serious with their iPad for it to be a game changer. If they add a Hi-Def camera, user-friendly iMovie app, and drop AT&T, Apple will flip the journalism/blogging game on its ear.

  • http://emediavitals.com Rob O’Regan

    Joshua, great post, one clarification though. I wasn’t at the annct, but from everything I read that was a custom app that the NYTimes demo’d, not their website. Though I agree with your main point – why pay for an app when you can browse the website for free on that cool display…

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Hey Rob: They did show off the NYT’s iPad app, but before that they also showed off the NYT’s website — it was the first site Jobs used to show off the iPad’s web browser.

  • http://emediavitals.com Rob O’Regan

    Joshua – my bad, i read your post too quickly. Speed reading kills. Best, Rob

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  • Jeffrey Bernel

    As a university faculty member I hope text book publishers take note of this technology and begin to offer electronic versions of their print media.

  • http://blogs.computerworld.com/gagne Ken G.

    I don’t know that YouTube addicts will be considering the iPad, once they realize it doesn’t support Flash.

  • http://www.smcitizens.com Giedrius Ivanauskas

    Great post. I agree with the idea that iPad won’t revolutionize the journalism but after all it is not completely useless device. I think in the future with all needed upgrades (camera, flash and etc) it will become a household icon (actually this strategy that iPad came without camera and other available tech is a bit ridiculous).

    Anyway I’ve noticed that we share a common interest in changing media environment. I would love to find out your opinion about changing business models in new media. Do you think it can revolutionize the journalism ?

    http://smcitizens.com/2010/01/27/redesigning-business-models-in-social-media/

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  • http://www.commonraven.org Dave D

    Thoughtful analysis. I like the iPad’s implications for independent publishers, though. Granted, it will take 5 years to get the beast up & running, but this could represent a boon to independent print content publication and distribution.

    Would I purchase favorite titles in the iTunes store for a buck apiece? Definitely! Imagine your favorite magazines or comics embedded with animations, audio and interactivity.

    Fewer trees cut in publication, less oil consumed in distribution and greater access to the mass market? The concept of the personal tablet – if implemented correctly by Apple and the dozens sure to follow – will definitely change the way we consume media.

    The fact of the matter is, we’ve become a nation of rich media content producers and intellectual property developers. Folks simply can’t give great content away for free via websites forever. The more the real economy moves in the direction of fostering intellectual growth, the better (imho)!

  • http://playanon.blogspot.com Catherine

    Excellent observations.

    I thoroughly agree that the iPad won’t change the paid content equation, though I think the whole idea of what entails content and how it’s shaped have to be reconsidered in order for journalists like me to make a living!

    I tossed these questions around on my own blog the afternoon of the iPad’s launch, and I’m no closer to making up my mind on its potential pros and cons as they relate to the news industry. But I do think throwing ideas around is more important than ever. Great post.

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  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Ken G.: The iPad doesn’t have Flash, you’re right, but it will have a dedicated YouTube app, just as the iPhone does.

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