Posted by: structureofnews | November 5, 2010

Magic Bullets – or Magical Thinking?

Kevin Anderson, at Strange Attractor, gets in some well-deserved digs at the hype that surrounded the launch of the iPad now that some data is available and things are coming down to earth.  It’s not the first time he’s unpicked the mythology of the iPad as the savior of journalism; when it first launched he took apart the antediluvian thinking of publishers who were hoping for a return to fat print margins.

It’s looking less like a magic bullet and more like magical thinking.

Wired iPad downloads, after a surge when the app launched, are now down sharply.  Not surprising – when I got my iPad I hunted around for content/games/downloads to test out on my cool new gadget; now I’m settling down to what I actually want to use it for.

What drew publishers to the iPad is the idea that it seemed to replicate print well, albeit with some multimedia bells and whistles – that people would want to have a cozy, undistracted offline experience with their publication on the tablet; and that advertisers would pay big bucks for that relationship.  Now maybe that’s true – but I doubt it.  As Kevin notes:

When I listened to the magazine and newspaper industry talk about the iPad, they talked about how close it approximated the paper experience. As a digital consumer, I said it then and I will say it again: I don’t want a paper experience. Frankly, on a recent flight, I was frustrated trying to wrestle my print FT into submission in an economy seat. I can’t search it. I can’t flick between sections. I have no problem reading on a screen. I want to save and share what I read.

I’m sure some people want a print experience.  But generally those aren’t people who shell out hundreds of bucks to buy a shiny new electronic device so they can replicate what they can get at the newsstand for a fraction of the cost.

And more importantly, why keep harking back to an older time, and an older experience, when an iPad or tablet can offer so much more?   The opportunities and economics of digital are completely different from print.

That’s not to say that an iPad app should be like browsing the web; there are different advantages to this medium, not least the fact that the tablet is portable.  Anyone who has one can attest to the attraction of curling up on a sofa and watching video, or playing a game in bed, or reading at the dinner table.  The iPad is surely changing the way we interact with content; but it’s unlikely it’s taking us back to the print experience.

There’s certainly something to be said about propping up the iPad in the kitchen and listening to the Al Jazeera newscast stream in while cooking.  But that’s not the same as wanting to pay for a downloaded reading experience.

I’m not suggesting that having a simple iPad app is a bad idea; it isn’t, especially if you already charge for online access.  Then all you’re doing is offering customers a variety of ways to pay for our content.  But you shouldn’t expect readers to be eager to pay more for something that’s free elsewhere.

And if you do want to charge more – and I’m all for charging more – then you should think about how to leverage the technology to come up with a product that offers more to customers.



  1. What people do with iPad in the kitchen is not listening to Al Jazeera newscast stream but playing How-to-Make-Fresh-Pasta video.

    For all the HK people I saw on MTR or buses who’s holding an iPad, none of them are reading news – either playing games or watching videos. And I doubt they’ll read news on it during breakfast.

    So what do you actually want to use it for?

    • Speak for yourself – I actually do listen to Al Jazerra in the kitchen.

      But it’s true that – or probably true that – much of what’s done on the iPad isn’t reading news. There are a lot of advantages/differences to it as a reading/news platform: It boots quickly; it’s very portable; it plays video and audio well. And the app-centric model means it does lock you into single tasks/products with fewer distractions than browsing on a PC. I suspect it’s great for gaming, and learning how to make pasta. And could be very good for interactive news “games” or environments where people want to immerse themselves – akin to a fantasy football league. The lack of a keyboard means it’s hard to really interact beyond dragging and dropping and button-pressing, but that doesn’t have to be a huge hurdle.

      Which is another way of saying: I don’t know. But it’s definitely not a mobile, it’s definitely not a PC; and it’s certainly not print. Or even print-plus.

  2. good molly (Re)Structuring Journalism , i read your blog , be a nice blog and greatly. Good for everyone. bulk Introduction and News Technologies content. i will plan to read and comment your website.

  3. On the other side of the coin, one would wonder why the advertising charging model for iPad revolves around print (by downloads, i.e. circulation) and online (by CPM and page views), if iPad replaces neither the PC nor paper experience. Probably no one really knows how to accurately put a price to that experience between content and readers.

    If I want to make pasta in the kitchen and didn’t want to hassle with a cookbook, then I would probably pay for an app which show me step-by-step of pasta cooking… and probably something to protect my iPad from the inevitable mess that I will create. It is the content that I want, the tool that I need, and through a media I prefer.

    • Razlan,

      It’s a good point re the ad model; I suspect it’s because we’re still figuring this out. But well worth digging into as well.


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