Will Apple's iPad save the news industry?

Will Apple’s new iPad help the news industry?

Sure. Any new device that encourages people to read and watch more information will help publishers. With a larger screen than Apple’s iPod Touch and iPhone, and far better display than we’ve seen from the Kindle or other e-book readers to date, people moving to the iPad from those devices should be expected to increase their “screen time,” since they’ll be using a more aesthetically pleasing device.

But can the iPad save the newspaper industry? What features in the new device might help financially struggling newsrooms encourage more people to pay for news delivered online?

Slow down, folks. First, if you haven’t watch this years-old clip from Fox’s old Mad TV sketch comedy show, please do now. It’s best not to place any industry’s hopes for survival upon a device whose name elicited so much ridicule from one half the population that Twitter users immediately moved “iTampon” to the top of the Trending Topics list in response.

I know that many news managers desperately want some technological innovation to come along that will turn back time and make people fall in love with printed content again. But paid circulation and readership were falling at most U.S. newspapers long before the World Wide Web made it easier for people dissatisfied with their local newspapers to find many more alternatives. The problem isn’t the Web – it’s that people have been rejecting and, in increasing numbers, continue to reject paying for the content offered by newspapers’ newsrooms, in any medium.

The only ways that a new publishing platform will increase revenue for a publisher are:
– If the platform replaces a previous platform, allowing the publisher to reduce access to its content, and thus, increase price;
– If the platform expands availability of its content, allowing entry into a new customer market;
– If the platform provides a more suitable medium for its content, increasing its desirability, and thus public demand.

The iPad, and eReaders in general, don’t replace any other publisher platforms; they merely provide an additional option. Nor do these readers significantly expand the availability of content beyond that already established by the Internet and smart phones.

Someone will devise content that’s perfect for the iPad. It will likely take advantage of the device’s larger screen and portability and involve individual customization. (It’ll likely do much more, too.)

But after a decade and a half of online production, most newsrooms haven’t substantially changed their print-focused production process. It’s hard for me to imagine that the iPad coming along will now force that change, when Web browsers and smart phones didn’t in the past.

No, newsrooms that are suffering in the market need to quit looking for new revenue models and quit longing for new delivery platforms. Instead, they should focus on one thing…

If you aren’t connecting with an audience and customers, you need to improve your content so that you do.

When PhDs can write engaging blogs on the topics of their expertise, reaching an affluent worldwide audience, can you really afford to continue employing a general assignment reporter, who has no advanced degree or relevant industry experience, and may have finished somewhere in the middle half of his or her high-school graduating class, to cover the same stories?

Can you afford to continue clinging to the myth that print narrative “writing ability” is somehow more important than research analysis skills, professional knowledge and a long memory for reporting in a complex, technological age? (Are you still using clips to make hiring decisions?)

Can you afford to keep taking a hands-off, “impartial” approach to reporting on problems that affect the survival of the community you cover, thus enraging readers looking to you to stand up to the liars, crooks and charlatans in the community?

Neither iPads, nor paywalls, nor government subsidies will long save a publication that too few care to read. Is your news business in trouble? Quit longing for saviors, and start producing better content.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. I really think this sole focus on news content

  2. says:

    “If you aren’t connecting with an audience and customers, you need to improve your content so that you do.”

    Spot on Robert. It boils down to this: We have to make interesting, compelling content. If we provide content that folks want and need to use, be entertained by and interact with people will buy it. If people buy our content in sufficient numbers, then the advertising will come.

    — Paul Camp

  3. says:

    Great post. The format of the online newspaper is quite different than the traditional format. The digital format displays all the news on the front page, and we click only on the stories that interest us, thereby severely limiting our relationship with the news producer. A newspaper, on the other hand, has its pages flipped and content discovered one page at a time, along with its ads. I subscribe to the WSJ paper edition and read it religiously. I have a wonderful experience as a flip through its pages. I enjoyed the Kindle edition as well since the news discovery experience is similar to flipping pages. But the Web? Non, merci.

    Though the iPad provides a wonderful ibook reading experience, the example of the NYT being displayed on its screen is just a copy of the website homepage, where users will go, click for a story or two, and leave as fast they can. And who can blame them? A computer screen was never meant for long reading.

    –Daniel C. (http://www.americanforkgazette.com)

  4. Really a great piece Robert!

  5. It is the first device that’s made me want to pay for online news content (and eBooks, for that matter). I’m not sure if I really would, but the idea is appealing.

    It does present some problems — not being able to share sections with others in your household, or stash the main news section in your bag to bring to work, etc., though perhaps syncing stories to read later on your iPhone would solve those.
    Regards Kevin, CEO Biletul Zilei