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iPad's Not Soft Enough to Cushion Journalism's Hard Landing

By Renay San Miguel
Jan 29, 2010 5:00 AM PT

The more I see devices like the new Apple iPad, the more I come to appreciate Steven Spielberg's 2002 sci-fi spectacular "Minority Report." It was the first thing I thought of when I saw video of the company's newest "magical" creation and executives demonstrating its New York Times app.

iPad's Not Soft Enough to Cushion Journalism's Hard Landing

The app seamlessly integrated video content with the usual Grey Lady font and text. With a finger-tap on multi-touch screen, video boxes pop up to enhance what you're reading on the iPad, and all done within the stylistic confines we've come to know and appreciate with the Times. Immediately I flashed back to the scene in "Minority Report" where Tom Cruise -- by now a fugitive from the law he recently served -- is sitting on a near-future subway car, and a passenger across the aisle is reading a paper-based USA Today. But on that front page was moving video of Cruise beneath a headline warning that he was on the loose. Then the headline changes to show the other top stories of the moment, circa mid-21st century.

We're probably not that far from the day when integrated circuits, wireless connectivity and malleable screens can combine to project images on a paper-based product. The NY Times demonstration Wednesday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco came the closest yet to delivering on that promise. It was classy, elegant and useful.

Sorry to say, but none of that means that Apple's tablet will help lead journalism out of its current economic wilderness.

Bucks for Box Scores?

Many others, including yours truly, had written prior to the iPad's launch about whether or not the device would help convince skeptical consumers to pay for news content delivered by A-list journalism brands. I still believe journalism's problems are deeper than anything that can be fixed with a gadget or cool software.

People are already used to getting their news for free, and they'll find a way to keep feeding that habit even if the iPad and paywalls both become the standards for consuming and funding Web-based news content. Never mind whether Apple's iTunes store can expand to include newspapers, magazines and books; most people don't have the same kind of emotional connection with last night's box scores as they do with a Beethoven symphony or a Beatles ballad. They certainly won't pay a monthly subscription for that content. They might consider a micropayment plan, since it's the same a la carte business model that's made iTunes the top music seller in the world.

However, that doesn't mean I want the newspaper or magazine industries to stop working with platforms like the iPad. The newspaper and magazine industries need to keep meshing text, video, photos and user interactivity for the device. Technology gives the iPad the ability to turn into landscape mode, and who knows; maybe more journalism jobs lay in that landscape as well.

New Storytelling Modes, New Business Models

The Sports Illustrated tablet demo is another example of a media company putting the right people to work on development kits and coming up with a fun way to check out scores and highlights. Connectivity provides links to other sports Web features, and a virtual keyboard gives users the chance to kick in some feedback about favorite teams. The app actually is a concept piece that was shown to various media outlets in December, so it's not built specifically for the iPad. However, it shows how some companies are relying on innovation to help their media content make the transition to mobile computing platforms.

Sports, business news and other specialized journalism segments may be able to pull off subscription-based business models for those platforms, but they still won't replace traditional newsstand, home delivery and other 20th-century revenue streams. However, the new concepts in page design and video boxes/streams leave ample room for online advertising, even with the slump it's seeing thanks to current economic woes. Online advertising will return, make no mistake.

I was surprised that I didn't see more newspaper and magazine demos at Wednesday's Apple event. I would have thought that Apple CEO Steve Jobs would want to play up all the different ways that the iPad could help users within a certain socio-economic demographic access new kinds of content. If you can afford the highest-priced iPad model at US$829, then maybe you have a desire to read a more media-rich Architectural Digest Web site, or can pay whatever a fashion magazine will charge for access to a Web site chock-full of real-time tweets from trunk shows, photo slideshow and video presentations from Milan, Paris or New York.

The e-books lined up on the virtual bookcase in Apple's iBook Store during the iPad show-and-tell highlight a different set of issues for tablet-seeking consumers. It also underlines how some media companies still want to have things their way in a consumer-empowered world. If I'm going to pay more per book to use an iPad as an e-reader rather than Amazon's Kindle, then I'm damn sure going to want to download that book on or near the same day that the hardcovers hit my neighborhood Barnes and Noble. The release windows for physical vs. e-books was highlighted by the recent release of Game Change, the latest headline-generated political tell-all. Many Amazon customers were giving it one-star reviews simply for the fact that publisher HarperCollins did not immediately make a Kindle version available. The publisher finally relented, but those wanting to read Game Change on their Kindles have to wait until mid-February before they can have that chance. I realize the revenue gap between hardcover books and e-books, but there has to be a way to provide the instant gratification that customers have come to expect in 2010.

New Journalism Jobs

In the meantime, someone has to shoot all that new video on newspaper and magazine Web sites and for their tablet apps. Someone with layout and page design experience has to work it all up into an eye-catching style. Somebody has to mix and mash-up traditional storytelling techniques with the new media.

Tablet computers like the iPad -- or, for that matter, smartphones, netbooks or reader software -- won't convince people to start ponying up cash for their online news, but experimentation may result in employment for some out-of-work or up-and-coming media professionals.

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 After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.

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