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|May 14-20, 2009
• See Letters page
• Jim Hightower
Can daily newspapers save themselves by going electric?
by Paul Danish
Nothing concentrates the mind like the knowledge that you’re going to be hanged in the morning — and for the nation’s sclerotic daily newspaper industry, it’s, uh, morning in America.
Circulation and advertising are dropping like lead balloons, and newspapers are dropping like flies.
The Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are history.
The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press have discontinued home delivery and turned themselves into tri-weeklies.
The Chicago Tribune is in Chapter 11.
To make ends meet, the New York Times has been selling off its building floor by floor, like condos. A share of the company’s stock is currently selling for about the price of its Sunday paper.
All of which helps explain why these days folks in the newspaper business are focused with laser-like intensity on “tablets.”
Not the kind you take for terminal angst, the electronic kind — like Amazon’s portable Kindle book reader, only bigger.
The idea — the hope — is that if a portable reader the size of a standard sheet of paper or a bit larger and with a display quality approaching that of paper were available, papers could be produced, delivered and read electronically — which would be spectacularly cheaper than the current dead-tree versions.
As a result, several of the major newspaper chains are trying to develop such a device. And when Amazon unveiled an upsized version of the Kindle, the Kindle DX, a couple weeks ago — with the publisher of the New York Times in attendance no less — a lot of newspaper people acted like they had just gotten a reprieve from the gallows.
Until they actually saw the thing, that is. More about that in a moment.
But first, why the excitement in the first place? What are the advantages of an electronic tablet newspaper over a paper newspaper?
Start by following the money.
Item: Paper. Before the economy tanked last year, newsprint was selling for about $650 a ton. A typical daily paper burns through tens of thousands of tons a year. A paper the size of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal will spend several hundred million dollars a year on newsprint.
Item: Ink. Most daily papers don’t buy it by the barrel. They buy it by the tanker truck.
Item: Circulation. Currently, home delivery is the most labor-intensive part of the newspaper business. It costs a lot less to send a paper via a wireless link than to pay someone to toss it in the bushes.
Item: Printing presses. They can cost millions. An electronic newspaper publisher doesn’t need them.
By some estimates, publishing newspapers electronically would cost only a third as much as producing and delivering the paper product. But lower production costs aren’t the only advantage of electronic publishing. Electronically published papers can offer subscribers big advantages, too.
They can deliver a lot more news and content, for one thing. Adding more pages to accommodate more news to an electronic paper doesn’t require a publisher to buy additional tons of newsprint.
Electronic papers could update their content continually, instead of once a day. That means print journalism could become a primary source of breaking news again, something it hasn’t been since the advent of radio. That could attract a lot of new readers.
A partially customized paper — one carrying specialized news that reflects the individual subscriber’s interests — becomes a real possibility, as well.
But why bother with tablets? Why shouldn’t newspaper publishers just forget about both the paper newspapers and their electronic clones and just retreat to subscription versions of their websites?
Well, portability for one thing. Computers, even laptop computers, are clumsy things to haul around and read documents on. But there is an even more fundamental reason than that.
In one word, layout.
Newspaper layout is the forgotten “value added” of papers. It’s also the thing that to a large extent sets papers apart from other news media — in terms of both their journalistic and business roles.
A newspaper page is a matrix of stories and headlines that cue the reader to their importance and to their relative importance in relation to each other. That matrix is a way of metaphorically organizing information that is as powerful and useful as the desktop metaphor used in computers. It provides a way to make sense of the news. It provides the reader with a ready-made framework on which to organize his worldview. Readers willingly pay money for layout. It is part of what they’re buying and one of the defining properties of the paper.
But using layout to organize the news is not even half the story. There is also the matter of the ads, without which the newspaper can’t survive. The economics of print newspapers are such that subscriptions barely cover the cost of delivering the paper to the subscribers. Advertising is what pays the bills and earns the profit.
In a newspaper there’s a symbiotic relationship between news and display advertising in which each serves to draw reader attention to the other — on a page-by-page basis. That’s a big part of what makes newspapers attractive advertising markets.
Websites, often touted as alternatives to newspapers, do a surprisingly poor job of replicating the newspaper paradigm or offering a satisfactory alternative to it — not least of all because they don’t offer very many opportunities to turn pages, which means their ability to display ads (and sell ads) is limited. They also suffer from the fact that as a result of an accident of history, most computer screens are landscape format. But 500 years of experience with printing has established that, with rare exceptions, the printed word is best displayed in the portrait format. A tablet reader means an electronic newspaper can be displayed in its natural habitat, a vertical page, rather than on (ugh) a latter-day TV screen.
So if the electronic newspaper is to be a real alternative to the dead-tree product, it needs a screen, in portrait format, large enough to accommodate newspaper-style layout. It also has to have a way to “turn” those virtual pages as quickly as pages can be turned in a paper newspaper.
So can the Kindle DX save the newspaper? Probably not, but something a lot like it just might.
Kindle does a lot of things right, but as a display for electronic newspapers it has three shortcomings.
Its screen is too small. It takes too long to turn the page. It doesn’t have color.
Kindle DX’s screen measures 9.7-inch diagonal. Alas, probably the absolute minimum necessary to do acceptable newspaper layout is a 13.75-inch diagonal — i.e. a screen the size of a standard piece of paper. A 15-inch diagonal screen would be better still.
The supermarket tabloids have been using a 15-inch diagonal format in recent years, and their layout (while lurid) is nothing if not compelling.
Early reports are that it takes a relatively long time for the Kindle to turn a page. How long is too long? I haven’t seen a number posted yet, but if it takes longer than it takes to turn a page in a newsprint paper, it’s too long. One of the biggest strengths of paper papers is that they’re real page turners — which means a reader can flip from page to page quickly and see a lot of content — especially ads. If it takes two or three seconds for Kindle to go to the next page, readers will not go to nearly as many pages, and the number of eyeballs falling on a given ad will drop. Hint: a good electronic newspaper tablet will let users turn pages like users of Apple’s iPhone turn pages — by flicking a finger on a touch screen.
Kindle doesn’t have color. For their first 200 years, newspapers got along with little or no color printing just fine. However, today’s papers are competing with both television and the Internet, which are all color, all the time. To be competitive ad vehicles, e-papers will need color.
Fortunately for the newspaper business, several companies are developing tablet displays more suited to the needs of papers than the Kindle DX. For instance, a start-up company called Plastic Logic has a tablet with a 13.75-inch diagonal screen (albeit no color) in advanced development. Hearst Corp. is working with a company called FirstPaper to develop a tablet for e-papers.
Will newspaper readers be willing to buy the screens and then pay for a subscription to the paper? Chances are they won’t have to. Papers will most likely follow the wildly successful cell phone: the tablet comes free with a two-year subscription to the paper.
I suspect the real uncertainty around electronic newspaper publishing isn’t the technology, but whether the industry has enough time to make the transition to it before it goes belly up.
The concept of the electronic newspaper was floated more than 20 years ago (by Roger Fidler, now at the University of Missouri). At the time the industry’s reaction to it ran the gamut from bemusement to yawns. I’d be a lot more sanguine about newspapers’ long-term prospects for survival if they had taken it seriously back then.
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