Are Tablets the Right Rx for Print Pub Ailments?
Tablet mania is hitting a fever pitch. HP, Apple -- supposedly -- and even publishers themselves are jumping in with flat, folder-sized devices, and magazine and newspaper publishers seem to be hanging a whole lot of hope on the emergence of this sort-of-new form factor, thinking it will open new opportunities to heal their businesses. Is this really a cure-all for the news industry?
The cavernous halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center during any Consumer Electronics Show, and the endless rows of exhibitor's booths hawking edgy technology products, can remind you of the final shot of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- which is itself, of course, an homage to the last sequence from "Citizen Kane." We're talking boxes and crates stretching out into infinity, and somewhere within is the secret to a super-powerful weapon straight from God, or a childhood toy forever lost to an unhappy billionaire.
At the 2010 CES, the unhappy billionaires are traditional media executives looking for the secret to once again making money from newspapers, magazines and journalism. They're hoping their weapons are the new tablet/slate computers, along with new e-reader devices, making the rounds in Las Vegas.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off one of those weapons on stage during his Wednesday night CES keynote address. It was no coincidence that the HP Slate PC in his hands had the cover from one of Stephanie Meyer's bestselling "Twilight" books on its screen, courtesy of Amazon's Kindle for PC software. The Windows 7-loaded device with wireless and multi-touch capabilities is typical of the new round of tablets you'll see this year; they're designed more for media consumption than the stylus-and-screen versions that Bill Gates tried to push out the door earlier in 2003. Those largely became niche products, perfect for conducting business inventories, not so much for average consumers.
These newer devices are finger-swiping marvels with no physical keyboards, more reminiscent of those digital picture frames that everybody has no doubt bought for somebody's parents or grandparents at least once since they hit the market. They're for viewing and uploading pictures, downloading YouTube videos -- and for reading. The aforementioned media executives hope your reading choices will include newspapers and magazine content, so they can start charging you for it while using those nifty color screens to load you up with online advertising.
Apple, always the stylish elephant in CES's room since the introduction of the iPod in 2001, will no doubt have the last word on those executives' hopes and dreams when it is expected to take the wraps off of its idea for a tablet computer later this month. If Steve Jobs' company can approach this new technology segment with the same verve and ingenuity it used for media players, laptops and smartphones, then journalism may indeed experience a mini-renaissance. All those people reading iSlates and HP Slates will need content, after all.
I'm afraid the good news about the news might be short-lived. The fault with journalism, dear Brutus, lies not with our devices but with ourselves. Journalism is sick, and the cure isn't going to be as easy as "take two tablets, and call off all the mourning."
Delivery Versus Content
I ask Kathy Gill, a senior lecturer with the University of Washington's digital media program, if any new delivery technology can save journalism. She tells me that my question "rests on the assumption that the delivery system is the problem and that the current structure should be saved. I don't think that the medium -- defined as delivery channel -- is the major disruption. The nature of information as bits, not atoms, is a systemic change. And I'm not convinced that the bloated salaries and conglomerate ownership of our current media system should be salvaged, even if it were possible."
Technology raised newspapers to new heights, and then slowly rolled it downhill. The late 19th-century technologies that helped circulation grow let cities support several newspapers, all boosted by advertising in various forms, including classified ads that became the prime driver for their profits. But radio turned up the volume, then television, and now the Internet. With each development, newspapers saw readership decline. Craigslist blew up the classified ad revenue model. The Web, initially mismanaged by media types who gave away their content for free, and watched Google News aggregate it all, has no intention of letting this genie slide back into its bottle.
"The challenge for newspapers is not that consumers want their content to be free," Gill said. "The challenge is learning how to survive in a market where you no longer have a monopoly."
The buzz with these new e-readers and tablet PCs -- especially with whatever Apple has up its corporate sleeve -- is that an online store a la iTunes can replace some of that lost money. "Selling magazines via the iTunes store is a traditional, monopolistic mindset, assuming digital rights management to prevent resell or sharing," Gill said. "On the other hand, what seems like a significant percentage of iPhone customers are willing to pay a little for applications."
My argument is that devices don't break stories or investigate institutions -- people do, whether they are "journalists" as we've always known them, or passionate citizens with a blog and access to government meetings and records. Getting people to pay for all of that on a Kindle or iSlate or whatever may bring in some money, but it won't save the industry. And digitally-borne information always seeks a free level, despite the best DRM efforts. If we crow about apps like Twitter helping to get around Iranian authorities regarding protests in the streets of Tehran, why should we expect U.S. media conglomerates to have any more success?
Skiffing on Portable News
One of the cooler e-reader devices previewing at CES is the Skiff, a Kindle competitor that the result of a partnership between Sprint and the Hearst news syndicate. Hearst brings with it an awful lot of A-list content, and it's promising a digital storefront that will wirelessly deliver those stories, pictures and video to the Skiff, which boasts a large 11.5-inch screen, a week's worth of battery life and one of the thinnest, lightest form factors in the category. The PR firm handling the Skiff sent me pictures of the device, and one of them shows a pair of hands bending the non-glass e-ink display for the reader.
I hope journalism can be just as flexible, but I'm curious as to what people will be reading on their Skiffs, Slates or iSlates: snark or substance? Gill isn't worried about the future of celebrity "news" (her quotes), sports and entertainment. "I do worry about Watergate and Pentagon Papers-type reporting, but I'm not convinced that the current conglomerately owned media system is friendly to that type of reporting. With the numbers of reporters -- print and TV and radio -- declining every year, I don't see how public-interest journalism could do anything but go down in inches/minutes."
I'm a little more optimistic that quality journalism will survive in this digital age, but somebody does have to figure out a way to pay for it all. If I'm wrong and it turns out to be pay-for-download content, either in subscription or micropayment, iTunes form, then bravo for journalism. But I'm not sure that the search is over yet for a business model that satisfies the desire for free content while making sure it all gets funded. It's still somewhere in that warehouse, next to the Ark of the Covenant and Charles Foster Kane's sled.
Thanks to smartphones and connected devices like tablets, more people are reading content on smaller and smaller screens. I just hope quality journalism won't keep shrinking along with those screens.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.