Monday, April 20, 2009

Kindred: Thoughts About E-Reading

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.

* * *

    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.

    Hoo-RAY!!

    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.

14 comments:

  1. I have one question that keeps popping up reading this discussion, and maybe I'm not as smart a newspaperman as I should be, but how have TV and radio survived all these years without charging us for their product?

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  2. TV and radio have programs that are much harder to get for free on the internet than newspapers. TV is entertainment. The Office is only on NBC, it is not on the other channels. News is a commodity. I can find out if the MN Twins won their game probably 100 different places on the internet, I could watch it on the 10 o'clock news, I could hear it on the radio. That's the problem, newspapers are trying to charge people for information that is freely available and easily obtainable from a variety of different outlets.

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  3. Indeed. The e-reader was touted as "the future"... in 1993.

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  4. Anonymous is right. So many local papers devote too much space to wire copy and syndicated content. There's too little real journalism going on at many big city papers.

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  5. two comics of note in today's kc star... here are links to the FREE ONLINE VERSIONS (sorry):

    Monday, Apr 20, Pearls before Swine: http://news.yahoo.com/comics/090420/cx_pearls_umedia/20092004;_ylt=AnZap.BwHJ3eU5avbcekQjsDwLAF

    Monday Apr 20, Non Sequiter:
    http://news.yahoo.com/comics/nonsequitur;_ylt=AjEB3T3Keo7GJz9uAK23IP0D_b4F

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  6. I understand that this is a somewhat whimsical blog, but there are some statements in this post that just can't stand.

    > They [iPhones, et al.] also are -- excuse
    > the expression -- adult toys.

    That's a factual(-sounding) statement made without any actual data. A simple survey could tell you: how much iPhone use is business related?

    > It [iPhone] cannot do the simple thing a
    > good newspaper does best -- give a story the
    > impact that makes it worth our time.

    Again, what? Do you have marketing data that illustrates how people see news differently on small devices?

    It seems to me that one of the ways that the newspaper business got into trouble (also on display in the 4th-to-last para) is by holding strong opinions about new technologies based introspective (read: "I think ...") marketing.

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  7. While covering the recent Sony Ericsson Open in Miami a fan rode in the elevator with me -- she was heading to her seat in the upper tier, I was heading to the media center. The fan looked at my badge and launched into a whole speech at how horrified she's been in recent weeks to realize her newspaper might no longer be. Not long after a few other civilians made a similar comment to me. It seems like the newspaper reading public is finally waking up to the sad -- and dangerous, as in who is going to be the watchdog of society dangerous -- goings on in our profession. Unfortunately, people are waking up too late to this turn of events.

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  8. Steven Johnson just had a very insightful piece in the Wall Street Journal about Kindles, e-books and how the Internet is changing the way we read.

    His argument is that as books become e-books, Google will be able to index and catalog books online. The impact of this is exciting and alarming at the same time, but I don't want to spoil what is a great article, so feel free to read it for yourself.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123980920727621353.html

    While his focus is mainly on books, he does bring it back to newspapers at the end, saying that perhaps a micropayment system will evolve for books like it has for music on iTunes (you can buy an album or buy just a song, perhaps in the future you can buy the book, or just buy an essay/chapter from that book?), and that once established as a means of purchasing text online, newspapers will then be able to follow suit.

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  9. So, I've been wondering about the success of Amazon's Kindle and Kindle 2 e-readers. Amazon, naturally, won't break out the sales figures for the Kindle, as noted in an early Feb post on WSJ:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123354137471338127.html

    I've been wondering whether these e-readers, which are capable of offering thousands upon thousands of book titles, several newspapers (including the NY Times, WSJ and Washington Post, etc.), and several magazines (the majors like Newsweek, Time, Fortune, etc.), are capable of serving up content that would actually entice people to part with their hard-earned money to purchase both the content and the hardware needed to display it.

    As much as we try to keep it clean (and sorry, Joe, if this is a family blog), rational business people have to admit the power of porn when it comes to driving technological change. I don't see that Amazon is making any adult or even so-called "laddie" mags like Maxim or Stuff available through its authorized distribution channels online... at least, not yet. Does Sony offer this type of content on its e-book platform?

    Just something to consider. I would argue that, without this type of content, these e-reading devices will continue to be little more than (pardon the pun) adult toys for a small niche market.

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  10. I take exception with the “watchdog of society” cliché. Newspapers are a FOR-PROFIT endeavor—most owned by corporations. The rank-and-file papers take their cues from the New York Times and the Washington Post. Those papers take their cues from the current administration.

    ‘Oh, we’re starting a pre-emptive war with Iraq? When do we begin?’ ‘You’re taking away our Constitutional Rights to fight terrorism? Sign me up!’ ‘What, we’re giving the architects of the recession $1,000,000,000,000? Where’s our cut?’

    If the newspapers stand in opposition, they risk losing access; readers; revenue. Society’s watchdog, indeed.

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  11. Adrian is correct. One thing the journalists in all these discussions (Poz, Bill James, Kindred) have in common is their belief that newspapers are some sort of public service, manned by selfless souls driven by an overarching desire to speak truth to power.

    Bill James's potted history suggested that, after the invention of the steam press, journalist-owners sprung into action to disseminate the doings of their communities among its citizens — starting as one-man-bands with crime stories and later on bringing in business managers and expanding into sports and cartoons then hiring advertising representatives and ending up with advertising departments.

    Maybe there were some like that. But the majority, possibly the vast majority, of newspapers in the early days were advertising sheets – news was the stuff that filled the spaces between the ads. In coastal communities the main news consisted of such things as shipping movements; in inland areas the emphasis was on feed prices and such.

    The advertising department came first; journalists were the final piece in the jigsaw. And that business model still holds. The advertising department is the most important department in any newspaper. It pays everybody's wages. Always has.

    As for the watchdog role . . . yeah, that happens. But, just as often, newspapers are simply a conduit for press releases.

    The UK at the moment has a major political scandal which has resulted in the firing of an aide to the Prime Minister. Who got hold of the story and broke it? A blogger. One Guido Fawkes (anyone with a basic knowledge of British history will recognise the name). Why didn't a major newspaper break the story? After all, they all have political correspondents with an insider's knowledge of the corridors of power. Well, correspondents who wish to continue receiving tips and briefings from those who wield the power have to build a friendly relationship with the power wielders. And when they do, they are immediately compromised. They are fed only what the power wielders want to feed them. Don't bite the hand . . .

    I will guarantee that all across the United States, all across the world, there are journalists who work close to centres of corruption and graft, in high and low places, who do not shine the torch of truth on it for no better reason than to do so would make their jobs more difficult.

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  12. Adrian,

    Thank you for that comment. I’ve been harping about that for years. All this doom and gloom about how there will be nobody to cover the malfeasance of government etc. Give me a break, if they are the watchdogs then…(some metaphor, to explain something bad already happened). The newspapers are basically the mouthpieces of government. The New York Times is the nation’s newspaper, and everyone else just follows them.

    If you really want to understand the role of newspapers, read Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent” or watch the movie, if you can get a hold of it. Really, a lot of the gloom is imagined.

    Dominic

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  13. I have to agree with the last three posts. People do want to read in-depth 'objective' investigations into organizations. They'd probably even pay for it. Would the Washington Post (or any other paper now) spend the time and money to pursue Watergate? If not, then this is the niche newspapers have lost.

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  14. E-reader? That rang a bell.

    Oh yes, Keir Dullea was using one in 1968:

    http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/2088/2881/1600/Image196.0.jpg

    Once again, technology is catching up with science fiction.

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