iPad: questions beyond the tech

I’m as interested as anyone in the journalism world about the prospects for Apple’s iPad tablet to boost the fortunes of the news industry. A lot of hope rides on dreams like the Sports Illustrated prototype (video demo above). My friend Josh Quittner, editor-at-large with Time Inc., was on the development team for that project and shared some great inside scoop on the focus groups, particularly in how well tablet advertising was received by viewers/users. A lot of the media hype has centered on features of the device, the size, the battery life, rather than the realities of implementation for news products. To that end, here are some issues I haven’t heard much talk about:

  • I’m intrigued by the concept of “motion designers” being a new breed of journalist/tech hybrids who will bring these new digital products to life. Will they come mostly from the broadcast world? From the web or print? Will ad agencies lead the way? Regardless, for news products to thrive in this format, content must be king, and good news judgment, a flair for writing (stories and headlines, audio and searchable text) will be paramount, and an eye toward marketing will lead the way. There’s no question that a new intense type of teamwork, collaboration and communication will be needed to produce these products. For a time anyway, project leaders are going to rule the roost.
  • How quickly will J-schools (or biz schools for that matter) ramp up to teach these new skill sets? How will they meet the challenge of adding yet another software skill set to their requirements, while holding onto fundamentals?  (I expect this to be a big topic in March when I meet with the Alumni Advisory Board to the J-school at Indiana University.)
  • Strikes me that for a very short period of time (six months?) this will be a big-boys game. We’ll see some whiz-bang digital formats for The New York Times, top mag titles, maybe TV shows (“American Idol,” “Lost”) and a few consumer products will surprise us with engaging experiences. Early tablet apps (Tapps?) will be too expensive for mainstream news orgs to create, and the know-how will reside with a few. But soon after, templates will be needed to open the door to smaller publishers. (Food for thought: could the SI prototype above possibly be templated? Doubt it. And would such a product be released weekly? Doing anything nearly that immersive and appealing with me next to impossible for a daily newspaper smaller than The Times or Post.)
  • The availability of an affordable, easy to adopt template will be a HUGE concern for small to medium sized newspapers and magazines, who barely have enough staff to produce a decent web site (and here I’m counting the awful state of online advertising design in smaller markets – both still and animated). Even some large-market papers in the US have struggled to introduce a halfway decent iPhone app – the technical challenges of automatically feeding data  through an old-school print-web workflow are just huge. The current economics are a huge challenge. Without money for technology and staff, how will these players possibly go tablet?
  • Finally, for a while anyway, this will be an elitists game, from a users standpoint. How soon will the price drop so that it truly becomes a mass-market appliance? Mass appeal is already established; mass usage will be needed for information suppliers to charge advertising rates anywhere near the old standards charged by print and broadcast. And let’s face it – the ad rates charged by news web sites will not save the industry, nor certainly those charged for news apps or mobile phone delivery.

With future updates, I’ll be eager to hear whether Apple announces anything like iTunes for the news industry. iNewsstand? Something that may allow me to purchase a story here and there for five cents, without thinking much about the transaction? I think this will be crucial – along with creative subscription packages for unlimited access. If the only options are $5 a week access (as Newsday charges the 30 users who don’t already pay for the print subscription or cable package) or $15 a month (as NYTimes is supposedly considering for their web site fee), I think we’re dead in the water. The average household may not be likely to carry more than 2 or 3 of those kinds of subscriptions.

Would love to hear thoughts from readers. What are your hopes and concerns?

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2 Comments

  1. recolletta_en_ba

     /  February 28, 2010

    would like to see more discussion about the realities of ipad economics … isn’t it likely that only a small percentage of society will be able to afford this, or even want it? yes the cognoscenti will jump to get one, but let’s remember that not everyone is in that echelon. six months from now a lot of the enthusiasm may be in a different situation.

  2. just wondering

     /  February 28, 2010

    Will many publications beyond the NYTimes and SI and the like, be able to afford producing iPad versions? Many medium and small papers can’t even do an iphone version correctly. Or a simple mobile feed for other phones. Just sayin’

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