Back in January, Judy Sims pleaded with editors and publishers to keep the print guys away from the process of developing apps for Apple’s forthcoming iPad:
The format and shape of the iPad feels comfortable and familiar to print guys. And for that reason, they will think they know how to design for it despite having little or no digital product experience. They will want to lay out pages the way they do in a newspaper or magazine. They will want to charge per article or figure out a subscription model that can be included in their ABC numbers. They will want to keep reader interaction, community and linking to a minimum.
In short, they will kill any chances of real innovation. Don’t let them do it.
Sims’s plea was for editors and publishers to put together a team of digital innovators and send them away for a few weeks, without any rules, to create something that “just might blow your socks off.”
Judging from the iPad concepts dribbling out from various publishers (check out this slideshow from paidContent), it seems pretty clear that Sims isn’t going to get her wish. Most of the concepts I’ve seen are heavily printcentric, seeking to use the iPad’s screen and form factor to replicate the magazine experience in ways that haven’t worked particularly well on screens until now. Yes, a photo or bit of text may lead the viewer into a slideshow or video or give them something to interact with, but you’re recognizably within a slightly reimagined magazine and a controlled environment.
It’s a potential trend that worries Reuters’ Felix Salmon. Last week, he wrote that Wired’s iPad strategy, as seen at South by Southwest, “is both the obvious one and the sensible one, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” From what Salmon saw, Wired won’t include Wired.com stories on the iPad, will return to holding print content back from the Web, and will generally mark a retreat from Web principles: “The whole ethos is a magazine-like one of a closed system with lots of control — the exact opposite, really, of the internet, which is an open system where it’s very hard indeed to control the user experience.”
Salmon notes that this is good from media-company and brand-advertising perspectives, as it offers a better chance to recreate magazines’ glossy ads and re-attract the dollars that come with them. But from an open-Web perspective, “the Wired iPad app marks a clear retreat back towards what were once known as walled gardens.”
I think Salmon’s right — the first wave of iPad apps are going to be a return to walled gardens, fueled by a renewed sense of control that designers feel they surrendered in the Web era. What’s really interesting will be what comes after that.
I don’t think the slicker, more-controlled formats ushered in by the iPad will necessarily be a bad thing. As I wrote in my initial reaction to the iPad’s unveiling, the device will create a different, largely new experience than that offered by the Web or smartphones — for the first time, we’ll really be able to “lean back” with a properly sized screen while reading something digital, watching a movie or casually surfing. I think that will prove enormously appealing to a lot of people, and create a model that could have staying power.
Moreover, most magazines haven’t worked very well on the Web. A good magazine is a vibrant, lush experience, but it’s also a finite one, and that’s satisfying in its own right. You can read an entire issue of the New Yorker or the Atlantic and feel like you’ve accomplished something. For all its wonders, the Web doesn’t offer that — rather, it replaces it with a vague sense of insecurity. On the Web you never run out of things to read; you just run out of time.
Given all this, I won’t be surprised to see some magazines stick with a closed, controlled iPad presentation. And I won’t be surprised to see some of those publishers focus on iPad presentations at the expense of the Web.
But those closed presentations will compete with the Web anyway, even within the iPad. And this is where a lot of the iPad concepts I’ve seen get awfully thin. With Web content, publishers aren’t going to be able to exercise the control that print gave them and they hope iPad will return to them. Quick will trump lush; free will trump controlled.
How publishers address this problem at a time in which they’re diverting resources to the iPad will be interesting to watch. I bet some will abandon the Web, or retreat to using it for shovelware versions of their titles, seeing the iPad and print as a better product mix. (Correspondingly, a lot of Web sites will go through a phase of making lousy, static-feeling iPad apps.) A brave few publishers will take Sims’s advice and create something interesting that feels new. But not many of them. And meanwhile, the real innovation will come from new publishers who approach the iPad without the cultural and business-model baggage of the print or the Web.
We won’t really know where we’re headed until we’ve seen a few iterations of this process. This is where I disagree partially with Sims — I don’t think the iPad will kill real innovation so much as it will delay it. And this is where I think what Salmon worries about will prove true, but a passing phenomenon. By the time a few cycles of iPad development have run, we’ll have seen some iPad hits, some interesting misses and a lot of dull missteps. Lessons will have been learned by those interested in learning them, and the device itself will have gained new capabilities. That’s when we’ll see some of those Walled Gardens 2.0 reopen — alongside ones that decide to stay shut.
Poynter’s Bill Mitchell has a must-read on side-bet businesses that could help news organizations through their current woes.
For those who think this is something new, Mitchell passes along Michael Schudson’s observation that American newspapers got their start as advertisements for printers who made their money printing other things — as well as by offering postal services and serving as general stores. And he notes that today, the Washington Post gets the majority of its revenue from Kaplan, its education business.
Of course, few news organization are likely bets for launching test-prep behemoth, but smaller papers have done well with smaller ventures: The Pocono Record’s editor tells Mitchell that the paper does a nice side business selling reprints of photos taken at sporting events and festivals by the paper’s photographers. (Because the photo galleries are posted online, they also give the Record a nice traffic bump.) An Alaska TV station runs airplane flights and fishing trips. And lots of specialty news organizations offer special reports or host meetings.
Mitchell offers three considerations for news organizations considering such side-bet ventures. At the top of his list: “consistency with the organization’s values.”
Agreed — to which I’d add a wrinkle. To me, the core values of every news organization should include serving as a key member of a community and as a collection point/repository for information about that community. (Though not necessarily the sole such repository or the core of that community.) I think news organizations have accelerated their decline by losing sight of this mission, through cutbacks that have damaged their institutional memory and fetishizing empty traffic numbers that accompanied oft-meaningless “reach.” Some side-bet businesses of the sort discussed by Mitchell would simultaneously bring in more money and reinvigorate news organizations’ role in their communities.
The Pocono Record’s photo galleries bring in money, but I’d argue they’re also a community resource, a digital expansion of “refrigerator journalism” as discussed by Roy Peter Clark in the comments on this post. And I’d say the same thing about other side-bet businesses that connect readers with local businesses, particularly if they’re constructed to make the news organization a valuable middleman.
My folks have a summer house in Maine, and one of their local papers there is the Lincoln County News. Like the Record, the News posts photo galleries from local events and sells reprints. It also has Web forms for submitting events, birth announcements and news of engagements and weddings. For those who think small local papers are just shovelware, there are a lot of great, community-friendly features here. What else could the News do? A next step might be to tie together wedding announcements with local caterers, wedding planners, and the like, link birth announcements with florists, and so on. Tie the food/dining section in with reader reviews and location-based services. Instead of just linking to restaurants’ Web sites, offer to build or improve restaurant Web sites — or any potential advertiser, for that matter. Then the paper gets a cut of referrals. (You’d have to be careful, of course: Restaurant reviews, for example, couldn’t be dictated by business relationships. But bright lines have always had to be drawn, and small towns have always been webs of personal and business connections.)
For a local news organization that built itself out in this way, the business of news might seem secondary on the balance sheet: The organization would be a Web consultancy, photo service, community bulletin board and partner with many local businesses that also had some journalists on staff, raising the question of which business is the side bet. But from one point of view — a critical one for paying the bills — news has always been secondary, the stuff around the ads meant to connect businesses with local customers. All of these connections would support the news organization’s mission of participating in and supporting a community — just as those long-ago print shops provided valuable services to local businesses and individuals, sold useful items, served as a gathering place and even printed some news.