The Apple iPad looks like a beautiful device for consuming all kinds of media, including print. But will that help newspapers and magazines? Not unless they fundamentally rethink their businesses. If anything, it will only accelerate the disruption they are already experiencing.

Is the newly launched Apple tablet, the iPad, beautiful? Yes. Drool-worthy, in fact. Will Apple sell a lot of them? If the iPod and the iPhone are anything to go by, then yes — and at $499 for the basic version, they are priced to move. But does the iPad contain anything that could be seen as throwing a lifeline to the foundering ship of traditional media? Well, no.

Once you get past the hype (of which there has been a boatload), the iPad is really just a larger version of the iPod touch, with some interface and usability tweaks thrown in around things like email, games and e-books. Has the iPhone changed the traditional print media business? Not at all — unless you think selling an app for your publication (as Conde Nast has for GQ) is a game-changer.

Yes, the New York Times app looks impressive, with video that plays right inside the newspaper display (although you can do that on the NYT web site, too). But will a fancier app change the nature of the newspaper business or the magazine business? No. Is the Times going to charge for its app, or charge people for content through the app somehow? There was no mention of it in Martin Niesenholtz’s presentation as part of the Apple launch.

Theoretically, in-app sales could add to the bottom line at some newspapers and magazines, if they can convince enough users/readers to pay. But will they pay for the same content they can get online for free? Unlikely — even if they can resize the font and watch videos. Yes, advertising inside the app could bring in additional revenue, but that’s not likely to be a game-changer either.

Could the iPad be used to help create and distribute content or connect to services aimed at specific groups, through the kind of membership-based model with which The Guardian is planning to experiment? Possibly. But that again is a nut that newspapers and magazines will have to crack with or without the iPad, and the existence of the device isn’t necessarily going to make finding the right business model any easier. Could you take someone from a travel story and connect them directly to a travel site to purchase a ticket? Sure you could, but you don’t need an iPad to do that.

Another thing the iPad makes abundantly clear is that if you want to succeed in a world ruled by a giant iPod touch, you had better develop (or acquire, or partner with someone who has) some serious multimedia chops. This device is designed to do large full-color photos, full-screen video (even HD) and much more. If all you have is a traditional newspaper-like page with a few small photos and some grainy video, you are going to get left in the dust.

That might make things easier for magazines like Conde Nast, which are used to dealing with large-format, high-quality images and which understand design. But if you’re a newspaper, let’s be honest — large, high-quality images are not exactly your thing (except for the wonderful Big Picture feature at Boston.com). Many news organizations, including the New York Times, are getting better at doing video, but most of them still have a long way to go.

As many observers have noted (including Robert X. Cringley in a recent blog post), the biggest problem that traditional media entities have right now is a cost base and production system and corporate structure that was designed for one specific platform — namely, the neo-industrial process of laying out and publishing a printed product that is delivered to people’s homes. That structure and process is completely out of whack in relation to the new platform (the web), which is growing in ways the printed version is not. And it’s not just off by a little, it’s off by orders of magnitude.

Think about it this way: Have iTunes and the iPod rescued or saved the music business? Hardly. If anything, they have only accelerated the disruption in that industry, and exposed how out of touch, out of control and cost-prohibitive most of it still is when it comes to doing business online. The web has been doing the same thing to traditional media for the past decade or so, and devices like the iPad are only going to accelerate that process.

Which means that newspapers and magazines still have to figure out what they have that is unique, different and special in a way that makes people want to pay for it. That was the problem before the iPad came along, and it continues to be the central problem facing content creators of all kinds, not just newspapers and magazines. It’s just exacerbated for them because — unlike books — so much of what they traffic in is a commodity, here today and gone tomorrow.

And the iPad, whatever else it might be, is no magic bullet.

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  2. Mostly agree. However, as we move forward into the “device” based future of the internet (versus the “browser” based past) we’ll start to see the “higher-quality” content producers (along with advertisers) finally find a profit model.

    Media companies have been trying to profit in a world without gravity, floating in space where none of the normal rules of motion apply. Newcomers, born in zero-gravity have found some success at the expense of the established players.

    By putting a device between the consumer and the content producer, Apple has just re-introduced gravity. And now that the old, familiar rules of content distribution control have returned, I think we’ll see established, traditional media hit the ground running.

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  6. I have to agree with Daniel, they now at least have another more modern and full-featured distribution device where if they do it right they can charge. Yes, they need to evolve to this, some will, some won’t.
    I could see where you get one slimed down, low-res version free through their websites but if you subscribe to the enhanced version through iTunes (or other stores) you get much, much more.
    And, I could see them breaking down those subscriptions into the various sections of their current product – sports, national news, local news, arts. Become componentized and even partner with others to enhance those components.

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  8. Thanks for the comments, Daniel and PXLated — I think you both make a good point, in that there is potential here for smart publishers to differentiate using a new platform, and to develop customized content or other features that people might pay for. But then, I thought they would be able to do that with the Web too, and that hasn’t happened yet either :-)

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  10. Mathew – I think the reason it didn’t happen on the web is they all thought the old advertising model would pay off so everything was free – and – they really didn’t differentiate themselves so another equal source was always just a click away – and – they were/are so locked into their current distribution and associated costs.

    The iPad (and it’s ilk) won’t save then if they don’t shed their legacy distribution systems. They probably need to treat this like a completely different business. Journalist/editors/etc are a unit, print dist. is a unit, and new media is a unit. The first sells things to the other two but each of the distribution methods has to be profitable on their own or shut down.

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