Monday, April 13, 2009

Lessons from the iPhone

I remember years ago, when I worked at the old Cincinnati Post, the features department decided to do a story on the cartoon Beavis and Butthead. As I recall, we were several months behind the times on the story, which is one of those newspaper quiarks that has always killed me. I realize that it’s hard to be on the cutting edge of what’s hip and new and fresh and now -- Lord knows, I’m behind the times -- but those six-month late stories with headlines like “Facebook Is New Way To Keep Up With Friends!” or ledes like “Many people have said goodbye to writing checks and licking stamps and have started to pay their bills through ‘electronically!’” ... they make my side hurt.

Anyway, we at the Post were doing this Beavis and Butthead story, but of course we were a family paper* and as such would not print the word “Butthead.” So, when I picked up my post I found this outdated story about a cartoon that had already run its course, and the headline was “Beavis and Friend.”

That was one of those rare moments when I wondered about the future of newspapers.

*I just caught an interview with the late George Carlin where he was talking about how family newspapers would not put certain words in the paper, and he said: “How do they think the families got started in the first place?”

Now, of course, those thoughts about the future of newspaper are daily occurrences, sometimes hourly occurrences. Every single day, I read another story about why newspapers are dying, I talk to another friend who mentions a horror story at their shop, I hear about another newspaper that is on the brink of collapse. This blog is not really about that ... it’s supposed to be about ideas and opinions about where newspapers (in the larger sense -- news gathering organizations) are going.

But I will admit having one of those “Wow, the world has changed” moments yesterday. Not surprisingly, it revolved around my iPhone.

First, I will point out the obvious: When I was growing up, newspapers were everything. I don’t mean that as an editorial comment. I mean just about every single thing anyone wanted to know, they found in the newspaper. What’s the weather supposed to be? Look in the paper. What time is the movie playing? Look in the paper? Did Duane Kuiper get a hit last night? Look in the paper. If you wanted to know the score of the Vikings game, your horoscope, what was happening in the Middle East, if it was time to move the clocks back, lake levels for fishing, snow levels for skiing, what new music was coming out, who was having a yard sale in the neighborhood, where you could find a job, coupons for the supermarket, prices for cars, what was playing on television, what time the game started, what advice Abby was offering, what all those police sirens going off were about, what happened at the school board meeting, where to buy a used bicycle, what to expect at the new restaurant down the street, what was going on in Charlie Brown’s life, if the local college got the highly recruited running back on and on and on and on and on, forever, it was in your newspaper (or you damn well wanted to know why it wasn’t).

Put it this way: Whenever a local television station messed up something -- blacked out a game, changed its schedule at the last minute, replaced something with a local telethon, whatever -- newspapers would get hundreds of calls. Why? Nobody called the TV stations when their paper did not show up in the driveway. But that’s what newspapers were back then: They were supposed to be the answer to every question and the solution to every problem and the daily connection to the world. It was a nice place to be, and lots of people got very rich on newspapers ... almost none of them being reporters.

Well, I don’t need to explain how much that has changed in the new world. But I admit being somewhat overwhelmed when, in a bored moment, I was reviewing at the apps on my iPhone. I had never looked at them quite in this context ...

TWC: This is The Weather Channel App. It is free, and this is what it gives me: To-the-moment weather conditions, an hourly forecast for the next 12 hours, a 36-hour forecast for the next day and a half, a 10-day forecast to begin my planning, a weather map to look at the area and a radar so I can see for myself, video giving me local weather in real time and so on.

-- Now, as I go through each of these apps, I want you to think about this: How much BETTER is this than what newspapers used to give me? And how can newspapers compete with it? I think with the TWC App it’s clear: There’s no way to compete.

Now Playing: In this free app, the iPhone finds precisely where you are and gives you a list of movie theaters within a few miles, tells you what is playing at each movie and what time, gives you extensive reviews of the movie and allows you to watch the trailer, if you want.

At Bat 2009: This is not a free app, but basically it gives you up-to-the-minute boxcores and stats for each game, you can follow along pitch-by-pitch using’s Gameday, listen to audio, and they will post videos of highlights just minutes after they happen.

i.TV: This is an interactive TV guide that works specifically with your television system, gives you times, reviews, information about each show, tells you what’s coming up, and it can be set so you can rate the shows. You can also get a DirecTV app if you have DirecTV and it gives you much of the same information, and also allows you to record Parks and Recreation from anywhere, like I just did.

Instapaper: This one’s ridiculous. You insert a “Read Later” button on your Internet browser. And anytime you run across a story you like but don’t have time to read, you click the button and, voila, it’s on your phone, easy to read next time you are bored anywhere -- the dentist office, the plane, the kitchen table, the bathroom, whatever. One of the great newspaper selling points has been that it’s the easiest thing in the world to read in the bathroom. Well, reading an iPhone is plenty easy too.

AroundMe: So this free app finds your location and then tells you where you can find the nearest: Banks, bars, coffee houses, gas stations, hospitals, hotels, movie theaters, pharmacies, pubs, restaurants, supermarkets ... and it gives you an address, a telephone number, shows you where it is on the map.

SportsTap: Every sport, latest news, box scores, schedules for all major sports teams, pro and college.

Craigsphone: Craigslist for the iPhone. That’s all. Anything you want to buy. Right there. I could buy Kansas City Fleetwood Mac Tickets for $125. I will not. But I could.

And, of course, there are countless news aggregators that would allow me to get news in about five million different ways (I do have a New York Times app, which is a bit slower than it should be ... I should figure out a way to create an iPhone app for my blog).

The larger point here is not to, once again, talk about how the whole concept of newspapers -- with the inevitable delay between printing and delivery, with the immutability of print, with the fixed costs -- struggles into day’s world. We all know that. We know it backward and forward.

No, the larger point is that as amazing as all the apps are that are listed above, none of them really provides much that is NEW other than technology. What I mean is the sports news you get, the around me information, the advanced TV guides, the movie app with reviews, even the weather reports, all of it is mostly just a repackaged, timely and utterly convenient version of what newspapers (and the Yellow Pages) gave Americans 30 years ago. In many ways, the game has changed entirely. But in other ways, the game has not changed at all. People still want much of the same information. We just want it faster, we want it constantly updated, we want it to be convenient, we want it to fit our lives

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.


  1. Great post Joe. I have had plenty of those "wow, the world has changed" moments. The convenience of these apps, is only getting better and more creative.

    Newspaper exec's already have strong brands, but they need to apply the new media rules to it asap. The more apps and information that comes out, the more overwhelmed people will be, leaving a perfect opportunity for strong brands to exploit.

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  4. Sorry, I'll try this again.
    I learned three things today, lede is spelled lede, spell check doesn't like lede and I was probably overdue in canceling my newspaper subscription.
    I'm still not ready for a smart phone, but I am in the market for a netbook. I've been reading a daily newspaper for 50 years, and even being a PC user for 25 of those, it still feels strange to get all of my printed news on a screen. Since The Star's "newspaper product" keeps pushing me that way, I give up. I've already set up one browser on my wife's laptop to load all her funnies when she opens it.
    So it goes...

  5. Joe,

    Newspapers had the distribution thing down. That gave them the platform for all the information they distributed. The key was that there was no other competing platform.

    (I'm pulling this out of my ass, so I'm not sure I buy it. Work with me, and let's see if it works.)

    Given the capital costs and distribution costs, it made sense for for as many differents kinds of information to piggyback on that platform as possible.

    You see the newspaper as the information, the content. But I think that you might be wrong. The newspaper is the platform. And the platform has passed/is past its usefulness.

    So, what's left? You just wrote of the numerous *different* apps that are needed to replicate the old newspaper. Sure, the iPhone is a great platform in many ways, but perhaps the key one is that it allows independent creation of different apps. That is, the "killer app" of the iPhone is the App Store. Because The Weather Channel can now deliver your weather news, and MLB can give you baseball games, Craiglist can give you classifieds and and and...the basic platform developer (i.e. Apple) is not required to develop expertise in the various information area that might be delivered on the platform.

    That's quite unlike the newspapers. They had to maintain the platform and distribution, in addition to developing the information expertise in order to fill their product with content.

    If you remove the old platform and distribution -- which now appears quite inevitable -- what is left? Can they do sports better than ESPN? Can they do weather better than TWC? Can a single organization do any of these areas better than specialists? And is there any value in a common provider?

    Isn't that the question? Is there any value to consumers in a common provider of diverse forms of information?

  6. I don't know, it seems to me that the AroundMe type apps, those based on pinpointing your location with GPS and giving you useful information based on that, are different in kind from what a newspaper of yellow pages would have given you. As a recent transplant to KC I find the movie listings in the newspaper maddening, because I don't know where any of the theaters are.

    Newspapers are metro-based, and that is one of their advantages -- they give you a viewpoint that's wider than your neighborhood. I'm not sure I see how that could be combined with the new hyperlocal technologies.

  7. Good post... and spot on. Now look what Mr Nine-Inch Nails is doing... hammering a big, nine-inch nail into the coffin of a browser...

    And with it Google Search..?

    All the best, etc

  8. I'm so sad about the state of newspapers in this country, but I'm not sure if they can be saved. If the name NEWSpaper is any indication, they ought be about news. Yet its clear, they can't possibly be the first source of news (or very rarely). Usually, when newspaper reporters break a story, it gets leaked to TV stations before the story can even be printed.

    Now, clearly, newspapers have to adapt. The time lag issue is clear. They can't compete in personalizing information for their market in the same way that web-based programs can.

    The best thing I have to offer is this--the lesson of magazines. Sure, all of print media is hurting, but I get the feeling that newspapers are getting beaten down at a much faster pace than most magazines. It's not just the larger media market... its something more.

    Magazines have had to deal with the time-lag issue for years, yet Sports Illustrated has remained relevant to us, even as ESPN has taken over planet Sports. Why? Because SI has traditionally hired the very best sportswriters in America, and they have contributed thoughtful commentary. Commentary is an area that Newspapers and magazines can compete in, because it doesn't depend on "breaking" news stories first. It depends on good writing.

    I think if newspapers considered this kind of shift, they might have a chance at surviving. This isn't a great solution, obviously, if we shrank newspapers to only editorials and commentary, there wouldn't be much left. But I think there would be renewed interest in that product.

    Newspapers can continue to deliver local news stories, I think. The media outlets present on a local level aren't quite where the national media is, and I think locally, the papers can compete still. National news is gone for the star... commentary on national events is a possibility. Of course, local sports coverage is always done best by a local paper, which may be the biggest loss of a hometown paper.

    If the hope of this blog is to find ways that newspapers can succeed, you've accomplished a great deal today by admitting and identifying some areas where newspapers can not compete any longer. Finding out what we're doing wrong is at least as important as figuring out what we should be doing.

  9. Joe,

    Very nice post. I live in Baltimore and have been a Sun subscriber for all of that time. About two months ago, we had the paper get redesigned and
    1) it got a lot smaller.
    2) There are at least 2 pages that are only pictures.
    3) There is the who is divorcing who in Hollywood page.
    4) There is one whole page of national/international news.

    I also have an iPhone and most of the same apps that you have. What they lack is the integration of a newspaper. I have to launch each individually to get their specific content. That may be the point where journalism might survive in a digital world. Clay Shirky has an interesting blog entry on the difference between newspapers and journalism (which we all tend to conflate) -

  10. Tim O'Reilly of web 2.0 fame just twittered this post and that is how I found it. Tim has about 300,000 people following his twitter updates.

    Great post and you did a great job of putting the current state of newspapers into context. The question is not how people will consume information (it will move to all digital and mobile) but who will create the content, who will edit it, who will add to it. Professional news organizations are struggling because the business model was based upon creating the content and distributing it. Once unbundled how do you get people to pay for just the content? You figure this out and I will start a company with you. We will see the quality of content deteriorate unless this is figured out. I feel for those in the newspaper (and TV news for that matter) business. If its any solace, I am in the advertising business and lets just say many of us wish we were in the newspaper business.

  11. What about the ads? I used to love browsing through my favorite ads in the Sunday paper. I'd check only a few of the stores I visited regularly. It was an opt-in, non-obtrusive, time-sensitive system that worked well for finding a bargin and keeping up with fashion (both clothes and in tech in my case). Advertising tends to be a dirty word on the Internet and in all electronic media, but is there a place for this type of selective, opt-in system in the iPhone or anything else any more? Or is the segmentation your allude to too permanent and too pervasive to allow for the past amalgamation?

  12. I absolutely agree, the iPhone is the new newspaper, with a drop of magic it seems, no matter how much you read it never finishes. All the news at your fingertips. I love reading the news in my morning commute, and by the time I get to the office there is always something new to see. And it's hardly possible to fit all the morning press in your jacket pocket.

  13. "I should figure out a way to create an iPhone app for my blog"

    There's no way you have the time, my friend, but someone absolutely should.

  14. In this age of crisis, the newspapers industry can really be helped by technology. There is now, in fact, for publishers the possibility of selling and distributing their newspapers directly via iPhone reaching many new readers all around the world. This solution will allow them to reduce printing and distribution costa and to monitor clients behaviour towards their products. On the other hand iPhone owners will enjoy a visually pleasant application that is highly optimized and full of fanny options like which one of listening to a podcast version of each article read aloud by a high quality synthetic voice, directly on the iPhone. The lastest of this technology is called Pagestreamer and this is its website:

  15. Hopefully I can avail these apps, and download this as soon as possible. I will be on this, trying to set up everything and be right after this stuff. I am excited to avail these apps and try its concept.

  16. Not all the information in the newspaper also noted on the iPhone. But iPhone can be a source of useful information of any thoughts you want to know. With iPhone everything is possible.

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  20. I think, people won't learn a lesson form this topic but there are a few who would get this as a learning form their phones. Well, each of us has their own belief.

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  22. That's right, whatever the technology, iphone or whatever, we are all searching for the same thing - news, etc. Technology changes,but technology is meant to SERVE people. They just make things easier, that's their job!