Monday, January 4, 2010

New Tricks for Old Media

New York Times media columnist David Carr has a wish list for the Apple e-reader tablet alleged to be announced this month (to be called the iSlate). The device would provide readers with a lightweight, color version of a Kindle. Why does Carr find the digital tablet to be so revolutionary? Here's his admittedly optimistic view:
The tablet represents an opportunity to renew the romance between printed material and consumer. Think of sitting in your living room, in your bed or on a plane with a publication you really adore nestled into your lap. Since print was first conceived, people have had an intimate relationship with the text, touching, flipping and paging back and forth.
The tablet, properly executed, will be an iPhone on steroids, and anybody who has spent any time with that device knows that much of its magic lies in replicating that intimate offline navigation. It is a very human, almost innate, urge — readers want to touch what they are seeking to learn.
I'm skeptical that a digital reader can truly replicate the Old World intimacy of print media (even if a computer purrs and warms your lap), but his point is compelling. Other than retina burn, the least satisfying part of reading on a computer is being unable to lay back and flip through the text. There's a charming serendipity to catching a newspaper or magazine article buried in the midde of an issue, one that you surely wouldn't have caught as links blazed past you on the webpage. A digital tablet may let these lucky finds continue, and allow a greater immersion and interactivity with topics by connecting them with other media, be it video, images, or web links. But where Carr really thinks something like the iSlate can be useful is in resuscitating the revenue streams of old media companies.
But even if I am right, what good does that do print providers? Well, for one thing it helps magazines and newspapers enter a world where they can measure consumer engagement with ads, which is pretty much the only game in town going forward. But even so, why would people suddenly be compelled to pay for something that they’ve gotten for free? That’s where Apple comes in. A simple, reliable interface for gaining access to paid content can do amazing things: Five years ago, almost no one paid for music online and now, nine billion or so songs sold later, we know that people are willing to pay if the price is right and the convenience is there.
So whereas a static print advertisement relays no information as to how useful consumers found it, a clickable (or touchable) tablet ad can provide deeper insight into its consumption for the purposes of viewer targeting. But I don't see how this is a game-changer for print providers. Their problem isn't information on engagement with a particular ad, it's that print media has come to rely on advertising as its primary source of funding content, rather than asking readers to chip in more than a nominal amount. (Most of my magazine subscriptions come to around a dollar or two an issue, if that.) So while an Apple e-reader signals progress for readers of digital content -- with a reading experience that more closely approximates print -- it doesn't solve the issue of adequately compensating the creators of that content. It just makes for more enjoyable online reading.

Note: I'm not going to discuss it here (yet), but this article about portable movie files also appeared in today's NYT and is certainly germane to the new media discussion. More to come...

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