Dave Kindred is one of the legends of newspapers. He is winner of the Red Smith Award -- the ultimate in sportswriting, sort of like the lifetime achievement Academy Award for sportswriting. He has worked for The Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, The Louisville Courier and a noble experiment called The National. He has written nine books, and he is working on his 10th -- which will be all about The Washington Post and, in a larger way, newspapers.
I should also say here that Dave has been as important to me and my career as just about anyone ... he sent me a note once when I was an uncertain young columnist in Augusta, Ga., and he has been there to mentor, encourage and inspire me ever since. A few days ago, he sent me a note about the iPhone post here, and I asked him if he would write a few thoughts about the future of newspapers. He sent me this within a day.
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I'm going to do three things here. First, I'll reprint an e-mail I wrote to Joe after reading his blog item comparing newspapers to his iPhone. Then I'll get all excited about a new thing that will make it possible to be a dinosaur and a futurist all at once. Third, I'll whimper a lot. First, the e-mail to Joe ..... \
"Good stuff. But y'know what? Not to be too lumbering a dinosaur here, but only one of the apps you applaud has anything to do with NEWSpapers. That those things -- weather, movie times & other bulletin-board trivia --appear in a newspaper is the product of newspapers' fat, happy, monopolistic days when they tried to be all things to all people....."
Here I interrupt myself to sing, "Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end," after which I mutter, "Those days, they've ended, deal with it."
Back to the e-mail to Joe. . .
"I want an app called NEWSWORTHREADING. Just the facts, ma'am. (A "Dragnet" allusion proving I am a lumbering dinosaur. So shoot me.) Tell me a story. Give me a Poz column. Give me Wright Thompson writing 3,000 words on anything. And I don't want to read it three lines at a time in the palm of my hand."
The iPhone, the iTouch, the BlackBerry -- all those hand-held gizmos -- are fabulous creations. They are utilitarian devices of a high order. They also are -- excuse the expression -- adult toys. Not that there's anything wrong that. But as much information and play time as they offer, the hand-helds do not give me what a newspaper does -- a rich reading experience. Nor do they give advertisers any reason to buy display ads when those ads are the size of postage stamps. So every time I read a rhapsody about hand-helds, my inner dinosaur roars.
Agreed, newspapers as we have known them for the last quarter-century cannot be saved. As Joe said in his blog, we all know why. But it's one thing to say newsprint is obsolete and it's another to say that an iPhone is an adequate replacement. It is not. Today's hand-held is a tool and a toy. Yes, it can deliver journalism but in miniature. At best it's a headline service that sends you to a PC or even, gasp, the newspaper awaiting your return from work. It cannot do the simple thing a good newspaper does best -- give a story the impact that makes it worth our time.
When the hand-helds seduce readers away from a newspaper, one consequence is the loss of revenue for that paper and, in time, the loss of reporters and editors who breathed life into the paper. These are hard jobs and they're done well only by people who understand how hard they are and yet are willing, even eager, at pinch-penny salaries, to do them. Because Joe respects newspaper work as much as I do, he ended the iPhone blog with this paragraph:
"That’s why I cannot get away from the idea that people still want what newspapers have always given them. But now, the technology has allowed them to get that information and entertainment and daily help easily and from many different places and, seemingly, for free. I’ve got to believe that this new technology should allow smart newspaper executives to create a great product, a combination of print and digital and mobile, a newspaper spin-off that would feel essential to people. Anyway, I want to believe that."
There is, in fact, good reason to believe.
The reason is an electronic reader, called an e-reader.
This is the part where you can be a dinosaur and have the future, too.
Soon, maybe even this year, the Hearst corporation will introduce an e-reader with a screen the size of a standard sheet of paper -- not a dinosaur's newspaper size, granted, but Time or Newsweek size, which is close enough -- in any case, not the six-inch diagonal of Amazon's Kindle. "The larger screen (to quote a Feb. 27 report at CNNMoney.com) better approximates the reading experience of print periodicals, as well as giving advertisers the space and attention they require."
The reader is likely to debut in black and white, CNNMoney reported, "and later transition to high-resolution color with the option for video as those displays, now in testing phases, get commercialized. Downloading content from participating newspapers and magazines will occur wirelessly. For durability, the device is likely to have a flexible core, perhaps even foldable, rather than the brittle glass substrates used in readers on the market today."
Other outfits in the e-reader race are Sony and Barnes & Noble, with some reports citing Apple, Google, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon.
As much as I dislike quoting anonymous posters, I must here. At MarketWatch.com, a commenter on Jon Friedman's column of April 17 certainly sounded authoritative on the subject of e-readers. "Jackafuss" foresees newspapers giving away the e-readers to people who buy subscriptions. How its e-reader will work, Hearst isn't saying, perhaps because the idea of "foldable" e-paper has been kicked around for a decade without ever becoming practical. The question more pertinent to our talk here is: With so much free information on the Internet, will people actually pay for a newspaper's product ever again?
Friedman's poster thinks so. He wrote: "Newspapers will not only survive but they wiill see huge profits through rebounding advertising rates and new earnings from 'delivery fees' just about the time production costs collapse. Electronic delivery through reading tablets is about to shift into high gear. . . .By offering large e-readers 'rent free,' newspapers will find it easy to contract with other publishers for low-cost delivery services. Even bloggers will move from free service to subscription service."
My first reaction was that I had two things to say about this.
And, sign me UP!!!!
Alas, no sooner had I made these decisions than I read a real futurist's blog -- that of Steve Yelvington, an ex-newspaperman now living in Augusta, Georgia.
He wrote: "At the risk of seeming like a chronic naysayer, I have to point to some problems with the idea" of e-readers. He cited 1) capital requirements, in that no one is going to be lending money to save a failing newspaper by investing in "completely unproven idea using technology that has barely made a dent in the marketplace" (that would be the Internet), 2) these devices almost certaiinly break down quickly, 3) the usual-in-all-new-endeavors hidden costs, 4) still no classified revenue, 5) loss of insert-advertising revenue (I hadn't thought of this one at all, and Steve says it's as much as 40 percent of some papers' revenue), and 6) a low signup rate because old-time newspaper readers may not want to learn to operate the thing, and why can't I just use the Web anyway?
"Now, don't get wrong," Yelvington wrote. "I think these e.ink-based devices are way cool. And certainly some people are placing very big bets on them -- especially Hearst. But I don't expect magic."
So, I'm back to whimpering.
I'll just keep my newspaper.