Looking ahead to the ‘iPod moment’ for newspapers

What the iPod has done to the music business, another device will do to the newspaper business, writes Charles Arthur, a technology editor at The Guardian. This is not a new notion, but Arthur’s post is particularly well written and thought provoking. More important, Arthur writes about the idea of change — not merely about a gadget.

Logically, there’s a device coming our way which will be able to hold and “play back” (visually of course) huge amounts of text while being portable and convenient. That already exists in the form of paper, but it’s hard to search through paper or create “playlists” of favourite writers from across multiple papers.

I know my iPod changed almost everything about the way I listen to and buy recorded music — and it also added podcasts into the mix, which we never had before. Just about the only thing it hasn’t changed is my habit of listening to NPR’s Morning Edition via broadcast radio each day. I can’t bear to listen to any other radio (not even satellite). I have become addicted to the Skip button. (TiVo has done the same to my television viewing habits.)

Arthur discusses what will happen to people’s habits for using news and the other contents of the newspaper:

… as the music industry has seen the destruction of the album, partly through the (lack of) efforts by artists who haven’t come up with more than two tracks worth listening to, and those each 3 minutes long (excluding remixes). Now, people just go for tracks. I think that in the same way, newspapers will find themselves driven down towards “the article” — as happens already online, and was happening already. … The effect on journalists will be radical.

This is going to encompass video as well as written news reports; it will encompass breaking news as well as features and commentary. It will affect ALL journalistic content.

”The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content,” David Geffen, the legendary music mogul, [said] recently. ”Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it’s no longer about making music, it’s all about how to sell music. And there’s no clear answer about how to fix that problem. But I still believe that the top priority at any record company has to be coming up with great music.” ( “The Music Man,” by Lynn Hirschberg, The New York Times, Sept. 2, 2007)

What happened to the music business will — will — happen to the news business.

It’s already happening. But the device (whatever it’s going to be) will accelerate the process so much, it might just knock us flat to the ground. This is the future we are preparing for now. This is the future we must be ready to meet — or else, what happens to journalism?

Like Geffen, I firmly believe the fundamental answer is “coming up with great music.”

It will also be necessary to tag the content (as songs are tagged by genre); to time-stamp it scrupulously; to link reporters and organizations reliably; to build in hooks and connections to past reports and future updates.

Think of playlists, think of search, and think of sync’ing the iPod.

Is your content ready for the iPod moment?

12 Comments on “Looking ahead to the ‘iPod moment’ for newspapers

  1. Pingback: Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media » Friday squibs

  2. I hope nobody thinks this mythical device will some how save newspapers.

    Think about it — what you’re talking about is further unbundling of content from distribution.

    How do you make money? You can’t sell the content and there’s no place to stick the advertising (except maybe in video).

    One thing it’s important to remember is that every new technological innovation brings new ways of using the thing — the use isn’t always predictable. For more than a decade newspapers have been trying to squeeze the old print paradigm into a Web hole (think banner ads, purely a “push” technology solution for a pull platform). The fit isn’t good.

    Whatever this mythical device might be, it’s going to bring it’s own new and unique challenges. It will mean more control for the user and less for the publisher.

    Newspaper people need to stop the wishful thinking and the praying for a savior and get busy trying to save today’s problems. Unless we’re able to solve today’s problems, we have no hope of solving tomorrow’s problems.

    I would also argue, however, that the device is already here. It’s called the iPhone.

  3. @Howard – I didn’t address the revenue question, though I’d imagine that it would – if everyone is clever – have some special file format; at really readable quality on a screen, web pages look rubbish. So you’ll have a device and file format where both are paid-for to get the benefit of each. (Or maybe there will be display ads too.)

    Your point taken that this won’t necessarily be a financial panacea. However, I’m very certain – as I write- that the iPhone is not this device, for a simple reason: the screen is too small to let you read a lot of text. It’s a per-article, not per-newspaper-page, reader.

  4. But Charles, wasn’t that the point you made? “… newspapers will find themselves driven down towards ‘the article.'” I don’t expect to see jigsaw-puzzle layout on a hand-held screen. Do you?

  5. Hmm, yes, true. I think I’m wondering too much about what happens when there’s (inevitably) an ad crash. Back to the blog…

  6. People won’t carry around single-use devices.

    I mean, look at the iPod … it does much more than carry music these days. Hell, now it’s a phone.

    If it’s not a single-use device, then content producers don’t control the experience.

    If they don’t control the experience, they have no control over whether people actually look at their stuff or what the revenue model is.

    We’re back to the same issues of push vs. pull … I’m just afraid there is no push technology coming for newspapers. The magic wand will not save us. We either learn to survive in a distributed, pull media environment, or we don’t. It’s not about the device. It’s about a sea change in how people consumer media.

  7. I agree with you, Howard, that people do not want a pocket or purse full of separate devices that do only one thing. A few years ago, I searched for a phone that would let me get rid of my PDA.

    However, I have not yet seen a device that makes me want to use it — one device — to do everything. Such a device might come along, however. Maybe THAT is the device Charles was writing about.

  8. I’ll jump in here just for a moment to share my futurist vision of a rollable, bendable, plastic 8 x 11.5 inch screen with wireless internet access and touchscreen technology.

    The catch is that any attempt to make these devices a proprietary system are going to be met with zealous hackery, as the iPhone and iPods have been.

    So I don’t see e-paper as the savior of online news, but rather, another new delivery technology that newspapers would be wise to adopt, and sooner better than later.

  9. My objection to the e-paper device concerns portability. It’s light enough, but size and shape? Awkward, unless you carry a briefcase or messenger bag. Too big for a purse, pocket or belt clip. Still, the bigger surface promises big-enough text.

  10. Maybe the journos in the room should stop worrying so much about the “device” and continue to develop their storytelling skills.

    Let the marketplace worry about the device, just make sure your chops are good enough to compete in an “iPod” newspaper world.

    Does Mindy really care that I’m reading her blog on a Mac, PC, iPhone, Treo, e-paper or schmancy-widget? Or does she continue to deliver great content to keep me coming back?

    Just keep pushing the “publish” button Mindy and I’ll worry about the device that’s right for me to go get your info and digest it.


    The “device” will come, go, morph and it won’t be up to the content-providing journos to dictate what it looks like.

    Make great music. The marketplace will come get it.

  11. Yeah, I don’t personally have much interest in speculation about the future device. I just hope that real journalism producers are ready to deliver when it gets here.

  12. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » Meme: The iPod Moment

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