What the oversized iPhone means for traditional media

The iPad: will it be the saviour of newspapers?

The iPad: will it be the saviour of newspapers?

 

PRESENT TENSE:SO, STEVE JOBS this week did his showbiz-geekery thing and eventually produced the Apple iPad while resisting the temptation to admit that it’s a giant, oversized, novelty-cheque version of the iPhone, writes SHANE HEGARTY

Instead he talked of it being the future of personal computing, and his track record allowed him get away with that. Meanwhile, a great many journalists watched and blogged and reported the details and the reaction. But on their minds was one question above all: will this feed my kids?

There was a growing hope that Steve Jobs would save a lot of people’s jobs. In the days leading to its release, there was a cascade of “will the tablet save journalism” articles. (Let’s leave aside the assumption that only traditional media companies represent “journalism”.) Since Wednesday, that question has subtly altered, to be replaced by articles asking “will the iPad save journalism?” The only thing that was really new was the name. The device was roughly as anticipated. It did not bring an answer. But it may yet have brought opportunity.

In journalism, there are a great many people waiting for a saviour. Rupert Murdoch’s plans to charge for some online content is watched closely, because he may point the way to the future or he may simply be directing the media towards another dead end.

In the iPad, though, comes something far more intriguing – a new format.

And for an industry that has long wondered whether it was wise to open itself for free in the early days of the internet, this may be a chance to reset the clock.

The launch included a look at a New York Times app for the iPad, although the company had been given just three weeks to come up with one. Still, it was interesting to see one of the old guard being taken under the wing of a modern media giant so as to illustrate the iPad’s potential.

Until now, online newspapers have been hampered by the way in which a keyboard and a screen made it far less tactile or engaging to read than in print. But with the world’s media available for free at the touch of a button – in versions that veer between excellent, clumsy, and terrible – it has been a worthwhile trade-off.

The iPad, though, would appear to offer something closer to the pleasures of a print newspaper or magazine. At the very least, it moves us closer to a half-way point between the old and new media. It’s not entirely novel – the Kindle has already proven a popular medium in the US - but this is another level by virtue of its size and format. Still, two questions remain: can publications come up with a design that works on the iPad? And can they charge for it? There are clues elsewhere. GQ magazine sold 6,600 versions of its iPhone app of the December issue. January sold 12,000. These sales, as it happens, are dwarfed by the print sales (it managed to shift 800,000 copies between news stands and subscribers), so the pittance it made off the iPhone app will hardly cover the office coffee budget for the month.

Nonetheless, it’s being considered something of a success, because its iPhone edition offered a dynamic version of the magazine that works specifically for the iPhone. And it did it at a price. It cost $2.99, which is seen as a decent mark – about the price of a cup of coffee, just below any psychological barrier that the $3 mark might bring.

Condé Nast, which publishes GQ, is specifically targeting the tablet market, which will “support the kind of highly featured, immersive reading experience we intend to create”. Sports Illustratedhas a version ready to go.

The New York Timeshas set up a division to follow up on the promise of its launch. And every major publication must be examining the possibilities. If it is year zero, no-one would want to get stuck in prehistory.

Even if there is some benefit for magazines, will that help newspapers? There are many who argue that they will be stymied by the consumer’s expectation that online news should be free; that the genie is out of the bottle, has granted readers their every wish and that no amount of coaxing will get it back in there. And the iPad could further damage newspapers. For example, many people now read newspapers online during the week and buy print only at weekends. The iPad could punch holes in even this safety net.

Still, this week may have offered an opportunity to start again, to develop a new model and, perhaps, charge for it. If the question is “can the iPad save journalism”, the answer is not clear. But it may yet offer the industry a chance to save itself.