Can the Publishing Industry Save Itself From Apple Saving the Publishing Industry?

Apple infuriates me, frequently and often. Seriously. The company is even more arrogant than I am (albeit with far more justification), and it does stupid things. All the time.

Just today, for instance, Apple pulled a copycat app from the App Store on a (most likely justified) copyright infringement claim by a competitor. That's stupid! Let the courts decide if there's a copyright infringement issue here.

But Apple didn't ask for my input, which is frankly something else to annoy me.

Seriously, folks, there are so many other things that Apple has gotten right that it (usually) more than makes up for the gaffes and missteps. In my never-humble opinion, of course.

For instance, Apple more or less saved the established music industry from itself by introducing the iTunes Store and getting people to pay for music online. It did so despite the best efforts by that industry to sabotage iTunes.

In return, the (established) music industry resents Apple, and it even feels entitled to unearned profits from Apple's hardware sales in exchange for being saved.

My favorite thing in this ongoing melodrama was how the labels blackmailed Apple by leveraging regulatory complaints being lodged against the company by European governments concerned about FairPlay, a copy control Apple implemented only because the labels demanded it.

What the labels wanted and received for letting go of copy controls was higher prices for music downloads, despite the fact that they were already making substantially higher profits from iTunes than they did from CD sales. The gall is astounding.

The labels are all pissy about how much power Apple has as the #1 music seller in the U.S., to which I say the labels are run by idiots and they should be thankful that there is at least one company out there capable of doing a better job of selling music than them.

Something crossed my desk today that reminded me of the iTunes/record label issue, a column warning The New York Times and other newspapers about hopping into bed with Apple.

Writing for New York magazine, Gabriel Sherman laid out the case that Apple (iTunes/unannounced tablet), Amazon (Kindle), and other platform providers want to control the customer with their various content delivery vehicles, and that newspapers should not let this happen.

At issue here is Apple's unannounced tablet, about which it has been leaked that Apple has reached out to publishers of newspapers, magazines, and books to get content deals for iTunes distribution to the tablet (and I'd bet for Mac and PC, too, but we'll see).

Rumor has it that Apple CEO Steve Jobs wants to save the newspaper and magazine the same way Apple saved the labels (and in the process make several new fortunes selling the devices that will be part of the saving formula).

I buy into that particular rumor for two reasons. The first is that I think Mr. Jobs has the kind of hubris (and track record) to think he can be that savior, and the second is that newspapers need saving.

Unlike the record labels, newspapers don't appear to be run by idiots, but they do need help adjusting to the changes the Internet has wrought on their business models. From Craigslist to access-everywhere-to-everything, to the lower barrier to entry for new media to enter the market, newspapers have faced dramatically decreasing revenues.

And unlike the record labels, newspapers are worth saving. An informed democracy needs to be informed to stay a democracy, and newspapers provide a critical role in doing the informing. From local reporting to dedicated editors and fact checkers that provide vital oversight over what gets published, we need local and national papers.

And they need to figure out how to make money online. The realities of online advertising and sundry other factors have resulted in free online content not paying for itself. Subscription models have also mostly failed, and Amazon was brazenly performing highway robbery before our very eyes by charging 65% for delivering newspaper subscriptions to Kindle devices.

Mr. Sherman, however, warns us that Apple controlling the customer through iTunes means that newspapers get shut out of a key piece of the relationship to that customer, and that therefore newspapers should resist in any way possible.

The New York Times, for instance, is moving to a metering system similar to one implemented by The Financial Times of London that will charge frequent readers for content once they surpass X amount of articles in a month.

"With iTunes or an Apple-controlled online store, publishers will be cut off from their readers," Mr. Sherman wrote. "Apple will handle payments and Apple will control all the lucrative demographic information that publishers collect to sell to their advertisers. The tablet may vastly improve the mobile reading experience, but in terms of providing a business model that publishers will leap to adopt, there's a strong case to be made that the Times and others shouldn't fall prey to the iTunes trap."

Seriously? "The iTunes trap?" Is that the trap of being saved? Of seeing new and increased revenues? Is that the trap of finally monetizing all those online eyeballs? For goodness sake, save us from the horror!!!!!

I think that any industry in the kind of straights the publishing industry finds itself in should count its lucky stars if iTunes distribution could become big enough and important enough to matter one way or another. If newspapers on a tablet through iTunes don't become a raging success, little has changed. If it takes off, however, newspapers will have a significant new revenue stream that could allow them to survive, or even thrive.

And if they could do it on their own -- if they could reverse their fortunes through their own efforts -- Apple wouldn't have anything to save them from.