Of "appgazines" and saving newspapers
February 6, 2009 | 2:41 pm
Over on Time Magazine, Josh Quittner wonders how to give magazines a more compelling mobile reading experience than the distraction-filled web version. He looks briefly at the Kindle before dismissing its lack of touch screen and monochrome display as not being as good as paper. He touches on the Plastic Logic device, but notes its first generation will also be monochrome, and it will not be available for quite a while. Then he looks at Adobe AIR (the same platform that runs the Internet radio station Pandora.com‘s standalone application) and the possibilities it offers for creating a half-text, half-interactive "appgazine" program (reminiscent of the iPhone’s "appbooks").
The article is pretty lightweight, and does not offer any real solutions or much rationale behind changing to "appgazine" format beyond it being sort of neat. However, Quittner opens and closes the article by jokingly asking readers to send a dime if they liked it. Although he does not develop this theme further, it is hard not to see this as a reference to another Time article making the news rounds today: former managing editor of Time Walter Isaacson editorializes on "How to Save Your Newspaper."
In light of the problems that papers have been going through with dwindling advertisements, and the New York Times considering charging for its content again, the idea of doing something to "save" your paper is pretty timely—but Isaacson does not quite have the right answer. He thinks that the problem has to do with on-line newspapers’ losses of subscription and newsstand revenue, and determines that the answer is micropayments for paper content.
Micropayments—the idea of paying for content page by page instead of all at once—has been tried a number of times in the past, to less than stellar results. Isaacson acknowledges this in his editorial, but thinks that "times have changed." The problem is that micropayment systems have failed dismally with regularity over the last ten years, and each time their founder thought that "times had changed" and they had the problem licked. (It is reminiscent of the Monty Python routine about the man who built castles in a swamp that kept sinking until finally one of them stayed up—except that for micropayments, there is no evidence yet that this particular swamp is anything but bottomless.)
In his blog, Salon Magazine co-founder Scott Rosenberg lays out the whole sordid history of micropayments and why nobody has managed to get them right yet. He also talks about Salon‘s experiments with pay-for content and why they failed. Bill Wyman, former arts editor of NPR and Salon Magazine, goes further, pointing out that newspapers have never taken in any sizable percentage of their revenue from subscriptions—they basically pay the cost of delivery and not much more. The problem, Wyman says, is that papers have grown too complacent, too used to getting away with lousy news coverage because people subscribed to them anyway for the ads.
Now, things are different. Online, you have to publish stuff people want to read, or fashion it to seem that way. That’s the transition that’s killing newspapers; it’s something most reporters, editors and publishers never had to do.
Whatever the answer to "saving" papers is, I have a feeling that we have yet to find it.