Newspapers and iTunes

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

I enjoy reading a paper in the morning. Browsing through the San Francisco Chronicle or the Sunday Times over a cup of coffee remains a highlight of my day. Sure, I read articles online as well, but it's just not the same experience.

That's why I was intrigued to see the Time magazine cover story a couple of weeks ago: "How to Save Your Newspaper." Unfortunately, the pair of articles inside were not about how to save the printed paper. Its death was presumed inevitable. Rather, the articles offered ideas as to how newspaper companies, and the journalism they produce, could survive in a digital format.

The basic tenet of the main article, by Walter Isaacson, was that newspapers can no longer survive on a model that gives its content away for free online, depending solely on advertising to make a profit. Especially not in these economic times. I agree.

The suggested solution in a nutshell? "The key to attracting online revenue is to come up with an iTunes-easy method of micropayment." In other words, the newspapers need a quick, simple, relatively inexpensive, one-click method of making a purchase. This would lend itself to no-hassle impulse buys when a reader spotted an article they wanted. Rather than a subscription, you pay per issue or per article. "Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day's full edition..."

The author acknowledges that similar ideas have been tried already -- and mainly failed. But this would be different. Just as Apple succeeded in getting people to pay for songs that were also available for free, a similar approach could work for newspaper articles. As a (non-trivial) bonus, the newspapers would once again be beholden to readers, rather than only to advertisers, for the content they produce.

I'm in favor of anything that works to keep newspapers alive. But I'm not sure the iTunes model, as described in the Time magazine article, is the magic elixir -- at least not without some tinkering. Here's why.

The iTunes pricing structure doesn't translate well for selling articles. I did some math to convert the typical prices for albums and songs in iTunes to their equivalent for newspaper issues and articles. Looking at the average number of articles in a daily newspaper and the newsstand price for an issue, I figured a paper could charge no more than about 90 cents per issue (even less for local papers that have newsstand prices lower than The New York Times or USA Today). As for individual articles, one penny per item would be the max.

I am not sure one penny is enough for papers to make money here. I suppose they could charge a nickel or so and still get a reasonable amount of sales. But I predict this would ultimately fail.

Articles are not songs. Another problem with the newspaper-as-a-music-album metaphor is that a newspaper issue is not easily divided into a collection of equal-in-value articles, as can be done with songs in an album. How do you count the Letters to the Editor section, or the daily editorials, or the obituaries? Some of these would have to be packaged as a unit (you wouldn't buy an individual letter for example). In many cases, I suspect the material wouldn't sell no matter how it was packaged. The paper would likely have to keep offering this content for free, or abandon the content altogether.

I especially worry about the Sports section. Will people really pay even a penny to read articles about last night's game, when the final scores, and probably game details, are available for free on a multitude of non-newspaper Web sites?

The paper will also likely not offer the comic strips and puzzles from their print edition, as these are typically syndicated and have their own separate distributions.

And this doesn't even begin to address the problems with the extra size of the Sunday paper and the extra long articles in magazine sections.

Writers are not musicians. The performers on an album get paid royalties, based on sales. Would such a model transfer to newspapers? Would columnists start getting paid a "royalty" based on the number of people that paid for a particular column? I hope not. Otherwise, I can easily imagine columnists filtering their topics to write only about what generates the most income, rather than what is the most newsworthy. I understand that, in a competitive environment, there is always some pressure in this direction. But a royalty payment system would make it much worse.

Similarly, would a major newspaper terminate its international coverage because such stories are purchased much less than the latest gossip about Jennifer Aniston? That's what happened to most of television news. I don't relish seeing the same thing happen to the remaining decent newspapers.

A modified proposal. In the end, I believe the major push has to be to sell issues, not individual articles. That would solve most of the concerns cited here. This would also encourage browsing through the rest of the day's paper, leading you to discover content you would have never otherwise even known about -- much as happily happens when reading through a printed paper.

The cost of an online issue would have to be cheap enough to encourage an instant purchase based on a desire to perhaps read only one or two articles, but I think this could work. It's not much different than purchasing a paper from a newsstand because of its headline.

But here's the kicker: To have this really work, let's do something that makes the online experience better than the printed paper. Let's push the iTunes metaphor all the way. It might work like this:

After purchasing a paper, you can read it online for that day only, or perhaps just for the next few days. Wait, hold on! You can also choose to download the day's paper to an iTunes-like application on your computer. Here, it is yours forever. This program does more than store the paper, it automatically divides the content of each issue into individual articles, listing them in a database fashion, much the way iTunes lists songs and albums. In this format, you could search for articles based on dates or keywords or whatever. This would be so much better than cutting articles out of a newspaper and storing the clippings in a dark corner of your closet. It's even better than saving a digital folder of Web archives of your favorite articles. If this sort of "iNews" application existed, I might look forward to getting my news online, rather than merely accepting this as the inevitable outcome.

Comments

Tiger

iPhone app
$ubscription model
x amount per year. Delivered to your phone (or desktop).
iTMS makes payment easy.

Lee Dronick

I too enjoy reading a newspaper, but several years ago I canceled my subscription. It was more of recycling the paper than a financial decision, that stack built up quick. Even with free curbside recycling here in San Diego it got to be a hassle; Every two weeks I take a 96 gallon container filled with recyclable items other than newspapers out to the street. I can get another recycling container for free, if I pick it up, but I also need to store it.

Instead I read the San Diego Union-Tribune online. Would I pay for that service? Maybe, it depends on what they would offer and how much it would cost. Would the news be advert free? If there are adverts can I print out the Sunday coupons? It would be hard for the industry to put the free news genie back in the bottle, but not impossible.

Ted Landau

Re “iPhone app subscription model”

Yup. The iPhone is another can o’ worms. My first thought is to have an iPhone app for the paper, but not have it be free. Charge some price for it, say $20, and it would work for a year (the equivalent of a subscription). This model would probably need refining, but it’s a start.

None of this will work, however, if viable free alternatives remain. It will almost take an illegal monopolistic action to get this off the ground. Or the willingness of the early adopters to stick it out until the others join in.

Photodan

Dumb. Aspirin cured your headache so it should also work for your broken leg.

1) Unlike news articles, people listen to songs more than once
2) Songs were only available for free because it was theft
3) Selling individual stories will only lead to papers only chasing sensational fluff stories. It will spell the end of journalism. (even moreso than the video news atrocities being permitted)

-Dan

rabber

I read the newspaper over breakfast almost every morning. I cannot imagine skipping this and reading it later in front of my computer and forget about reading it on an iPhone. Until I can use my iPhone or iPhone like product with a larger screen I will take the printed version. Until then, I feel that my monthly subscription for the printed paper should entitle me to free access online. If I cancel delivery, then I should pay a monthly fee that is less than the delivery.

While I realize that some items, like the comics, are nationally syndicated through other sources, I would expect to read them with my paper. I don’t want to run to 12 different websites to view what I get in one paper. They need to negotiate a way for me to go one place and get all of the content I expect in today’s paper.

Lee Dronick

Ted said “My first thought is to have an iPhone app for the paper, but not have it be free.”

I have the New York Times app for my iPhone and it is great for National and International news, but unless there is something sensational going on here then there is no local content for me.

Speaking of sensational news PhotoDan has a good point “Selling individual stories will only lead to papers only chasing sensational fluff stories. It will spell the end of journalism.” Headless Server found in Topless Bar! and then when you read the story you find that is about the bar’s computer server.

I have to agree . . .

with the other posters. I think traditional news distribution as we know it is probably very close to being dead, and news articles just aren’t the same value proposition as something like music. I don’t believe that any of the genies can be put back into their bottles-things have changed and that’s all there is to it.

Personally, I would only consider a subscription delivered to my iPhone or similar point of access of choice if there were no ads and I had the freedom to do what I wished with the content I’d downloaded, something RSS based or similar would be worth it to me if there were no cost related inflation. The system isn’t finished being shaken up yet, methinks. this may not be puzzled out until options like paper thin displays are a reality. In the meantime, I suspect that companies willing to get creative with things will be the only ones to survive.

I actually think the open and rapid-fire nature of online publishing could be a boon to journalism-it’s really difficult to release inaccurate or unethical information with the blogosphere watching your every move (a good example would be the dismantling of many of Microsoft’s formerly effective tactics). This supposed crisis just might become a renaissance, eventually.

Ted Landau

RE: “I don?t want to run to 12 different websites to view what I get in one paper.”

The more I think about it, the more I think this is sadly inevitable. There is no way that a digital newspaper will ever be the equivalent of the current printed model. Comics will be on a separate Web site, classified ads will disappear - replaced by Craig’s List, and so on. I see no other way.

Assuming the iTunes model is the future, newspapers will move to become a collection of articles that fit well in the iTunes model. Everything else will be dumped.

rjackb

I, too, love reading my newspaper every morning but think it probably is inevitable that they will eventually go away and be replaced by websites. But let’s not forget about some people, like my 90 year-old parents, who wouldn’t like that very much since they don’t even own a computer and/or have no access to broadband but do subscribe to a newspaper.

One good thing about it, though, would be much less wasted paper. But, at least with the current sites, I hate reading news on them. For one thing, it is very difficult to find anything—just pick a random article from the middle of a paper and try to find it on their website. Secondly, at least with their current sites, it is much harder to navigate. Finally, it just makes my eyes hurt due to the vastly inferior quality of the type (and I use a high resolution monitor with high pixel density).

I think a subscription model would probably work best and I don’t see any reason it would need to be any different than it is with a regular newspaper, i.e., send me a bill or let me pay it on their website. Consumer Reports already uses a subscription model and I think the Wall Street Journal may have in the past.

They would also need to completely redesign their websites to make the news easy to read. I was going to offer a few suggestions for improving their websites but then thought hmmm, might be an opportunity for me in the future smile.

rjackb

One more thing…

I don’t know much about syndication but why do you indicate it might be a problem. Here’s a link to a newspaper’s website that gives you access to syndicated editorial cartoonists: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/opinion/orl-syn-cartgallery,0,3086287.photogallery

Lee Dronick

“But, at least with the current sites, I hate reading news on them. For one thing, it is very difficult to find anything?just pick a random article from the middle of a paper and try to find it on their website. Secondly, at least with their current sites, it is much harder to navigate. .”

Got that right rjackb, they have horrid navigation. I guess it is to keep you on their website.

tellis30

Price it a bit lower than a paper version subcription.  Make it readable, as the NY Times.

grshaner

What about the coupons?  Lots of people get the Sunday local paper for the coupons.  So they would have to sell the whole paper, and make the coupons printable.

daemon
[quote author=“rjackb”] Finally, it just makes my eyes hurt due to the vastly inferior quality of the type (and I use a high resolution monitor with high pixel density).

rjackb what makes the type vastly inferior? What makes your eyes hurt so much? Do you experience your eyes hurting while using the monitor for things other than reading?

By any chance do you experience a flicker effect? If you do experience the flicker effect you might want to try a refresh rate of 120 hz instead of the standard 50 hz or 60 hz most monitors are capable of producing. Keep in mind, not all monitors can actually produce such a high refresh rate, you might have to make a run to a store that offers a variety of monitors instead of just 1 or 2 by a single manufacturer such as you would find at the Apple store. Basically you’ll want to get a sales person to help you, explain that you experience a flicker effect that strains your eyes and that you want to see a monitor operating at 120 hz compared to one running at 60 hz (even the monitors that are capable of 120 hz will typically default to 60 hz and no one will bother to change them since few people actually experience the flicker effect) and have them verify that the model at 120 hz is actually at 120 hz and not at 50 hz.

gopher

Daemon,
Not everyone can afford a 120 Hz compatible monitor.
That setting isn’t even available on many notebook computers.  Furthermore, Apple’s amazing adoption of glossy screens has led to MORE glare, not less, which hurts many people’s eyes, and makes it impossible to read the machine except straight on without any back or top lighting.
When you get older, your eyesight will start failing you in strange ways, and you’ll learn having a non-glary surface is much easier on the eyes, such as a paper, with ambient yellow light, and not compact flourescent white lights or halogen.  If they can change the color of those white lights to be the same as the old tungsten lights life would be a lot easier.  Same with switching back to matte screens.

rjackb

@daemon
The reason that type on monitors is vastly inferior is because the type is represented by pixels, i.e. dots on the screen, that have space between them. The type in an actual newspaper, on the other hand, is not represented by pixels but rather by continuous ink that has no pixels or spaces. The space between pixels on a monitor makes the text look at least slightly fuzzy regardless of anti-aliasing or other techniques.

The amount of space between pixels (which affects the degree of fuzziness) varies from monitor to monitor but 72 ppi (pixels per inch) was the standard for a long time which is quite fuzzy. You now see screens with much higher pixel density (I think it is around 130 ppi for an iPhone) which definitely improves text quality but is still very inferior to an actual newspaper.

In comparison to an inkjet printer, which is often capable of 300 dpi (dots per inch) or more, the text on a monitor still pales. Laser printers often have an even higher dpi but still don’t match up. Just hold up an actual newspaper article next to the same article on a website (using the same typeface, preferably) and the difference should be very dramatic.

The only monitors that I am aware of that might possibly compete with newsprint are those used in the medical imaging field which have extremely high resolution and ppi—and a commensurate cost.

My understanding is that devices such as Amazon’s Kindle do not use pixels thus might actually be a better alternative than a computer monitor for printed material like a newspaper.

Jack

daemon

Jack,
Try moving back from the screen, you really shouldn’t be close enuf to see the pixels.

daemon

Jack,

Try sitting back away from your monitor. It wasn’t designed for you to be close enough to see the pixels.

rjackb

Sorry, daemon, and no offense, but I think you are missing my point. It is simply that text represented by pixels at current common monitor resolutions is inherently harder to read than is text in a newspaper, magazine, or other printed material that does not use pixel representation for text. You can certainly find information about this on the Internet.

To move on, it just occurred to me that monitors actually use a very crude technology and have been doing so since the invention of television in the 1920’s. Sure, there have been improvements such as both a higher number of pixels and higher pixel density but the basic technology of pixel representation of images, including text, remains unchanged.

I can see no fundamental technological barrier to electronic devices, such as monitors and televisions, using a different and far better technology that is not pixel based and displays images, or even just text, without gaps much as newspapers or magazines print text. It would be something like the difference between pixel-based text in Photoshop and vector-based text in Illustrator. Sounds to me like a good opportunity for someone. Or maybe someone already has done it but it’s not yet economically feasible.

daemon

Jack

There is a way of show things without pixels, it’s called film.

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