Newspapers and the iPad
First came Sports Illustrated. Then Wired. Then Bonnier. Then Wired again. And last week, Viv. One after another, magazine publishers post their home movies on YouTube, sharing with the world their iPad aspirations. They are dreams for the most part, unbound by the gravitational pull of the iPad SDK and other realities. Like Alice in Wonderland — or Wonderfactory — their rabbit holes allow them to change size at will and slay jabberwocks. Wherever it's needed, bandwidth and interactivity magically appear like vorpal swords, along with Tweedledums and Tweedledees to write all of the code and design all of the pages, both vertical and horizontal.
The alarm clock is set for April 3. Expect many of those publications to hit the snooze button and take more time. Eventually, they'll get there. Hands-on experience with an actual iPad — and inflowing dollars from advertisers eager to share the spotlight — will inspire publishers to make those dreams come true.
Newspapers are not magazines. And vice versa
It is no surprise that there aren't many newspapers publishing YouTube videos. Magazines lend themselves to the iPad experience, much moreso than the daily newspaper. Multimedia brings their imagery and ideas to life in a way not possible in print. What's more, their content has shelf life, maintaining its value over time, like a book or movie. But a newspaper is different. Mobile devices have conditioned readers to expect an up-to-the-minute digital newspaper. That works well at the breakfast table, but not during the morning commute unless you're among the few that paid extra for 3G capability.
Newspapers are challenged to deliver a product that surpasses their print, mobile and online editions. Otherwise, what's the point of reading an iPad edition, let alone paying for one? It needs to offer something not found in the traditional version already in your briefcase and the up-to-the-second version already in your pocket. It's worth considering the plusses and minuses of the existing forms before inventing yet another:
Connectivity • Print is not connected to anything. By the time it is received, the content is outdated. • Mobile is usually connected. As a result, we assume that the content is updated, making it more desirable than print. • Online is always connected, and the content is always up to date. Immediacy is the selling point, both for mobile and online newspapers. • Tablet is sometimes connected, sometimes not. As long as Apple sells WiFi-only iPads requiring signals that are largely confined to indoor spaces, one cannot safely bet that the reader is online. After all, it is a portable device that is meant to move, which translates to on-again, off-again access to WiFi over the course of a day. Even the 3G access is intermittent, offered in monthly doses through AT&T and positioned by Apple as a non-essential feature. "So if you have a business trip or vacation approaching, just sign up for the month you’ll be traveling and cancel when you get back," we're told. Bottom line: Until 3G — or 4G — connectivity is standard, tablet newspapers cannot offer immediacy as a selling point. Instead, they must tap into other strengths of the tablet experience.
Bandwidth • Print is limited by the number of pages. Duh. • Mobile offers unlimited pages, but file size is a concern. The tipping point is how long it takes to download content through the 3G network, and what is deemed to be tolerable by the consumer. • Online offers unlimited bandwidth, with blazing download speeds. Hence, rich media experiences thrive here. • Tablet straddles the line between mobile and online, depending on the consumer's habits. Many publications may choose to circumvent the connected/unconnected conundrum by making their content downloadable, as opposed to streaming their words and images. Like mobile, this will impose limits based on download times, as well as the finite capacity of the tablet's flash drive. Bottom line: Tablet newspapers need to break up multimedia content into manageable payloads.
Format • Print uses graphic design as a way to flavor content. Photography and illustration is large and impactful. • Mobile is bound by formats that favor usability over graphic design, resulting in little differentiation between publications. There is multimedia capability beyond photography, but it is limited by small screens and large downloads. • Online offers endless multimedia, presented as a lean-back experience suited not only for reading but for watching and listening. Graphic design helps to differentiate, only to a point. Interfaces cluttered with advertising tend to make one online newspaper look like every other. • Tablet presents an opportunity to use graphic design as a primary differentiator, supported by rich media. As a result, publishers can once again create distinctive environments for content and advertising. In doing so, they get their mojo back. Bottom line: Graphic design is once again a selling point.
Input • Print is physical — a full-body experience. Your head moves as you scan a broadsheet page, and your hands, arms and shoulders are required for turning pages. Compared to other formats, reading a newspaper is a workout. • Mobile is virtual, mostly dependent on finger-typing on tiny keyboards and finger-wiping on tiny screens. Your eyes stay focused on one place — all the news that's fit to squint! • Online is virtual, requiring a keyboard and mouse to effect changes on a screen. You're nearly always stationary, and generally seated. It is the most passive experience of the three, nearly television-like. • Tablet is both physical and virtual, with multiple inputs: hand gestures via the screen and physical movements via the accelerometer. A digital magnetic compass identifies which direction you're facing and the assisted GPS (on 3G models only) provides location-awareness through a combination of known WiFi hotspots, satellites and cellular towers. Eventually, a camera will translate imagery into information using augmented reality. Bottom line: Someday the tablet will provide not only news and entertainment, but intuitive ways to integrate that content with your everyday life.
Starting points for newspapers
With all of those factors considered, newspapers must start somewhere, in order to transition readers to this new medium and establish behavior patterns. Scott Walker of The Birmingham News has the right idea. On his personal website, Scott provides step-by-step instructions for refitting an old-school newspaper vending machine with an inexpensive computer and screen. The post is nearly three years old, but deserves a fresh look with the WiFi-dependent iPad on its way.
Until persistent internet connections become standard, another possibility is to leave breaking news on the website where it can be easily updated, as not to disappoint early adopters who summon a tablet newspaper only to find outdated content. Meanwhile, content with less time-sensitivity and greater multimedia potential shift to the world of apps. The weekly Arts section is a prime candidate, perhaps becoming a daily section with rich media that surpasses what is available in print. Op-Ed is another opportunity, as it invites interaction through community-building tools. Sports, too — maybe it's best to leave the scores on the web but tell the stories beyond those scores on the iPad and other tablets.
Another opportunity: news you can use. Like a newspaper, the iPad becomes a tool. Help me find a new house by showing me property values, school information and other content that makes my iPad essential for real estate tours. Provide a restaurant guide with suggestions on where to go and what to eat, focusing on a different neighborhood every week and marrying menus, maps and multimedia. How about a digital scorecard that I can take to the ballgame, with video commentary from the newspaper's columnists and statistics for every player? While we're at it, let's sell highly targeted advertising and generate immediate revenue from the iPad. Once those inflows begin, it will be easier to justify the investment required to transform the daily newspaper into a tablet experience.
In the beginning, consider the iPad to be an opportunity for brand extension — a way to leverage the credibility, locality and reader loyalty of a newspaper to introduce new types of content. Newspapers shouldn't become magazines, as seductive as that may be. They should play up their differences. I don't expect Newsweek to tell me that my local school taxes are rising, and I don't expect the local newspaper to enlighten me on international affairs. Even the 17,871-circulation New Castle News, outside of Pittsburgh, is starting to think iPad. "We're excited about the possibilities," said editor Tim Kolodziej, confident that his 17-person staff can serve the unique needs of his community better than the Pittsburgh-area metros. "Small is the new big."
There is an indispensibilty to newspapers that was lost when a generation turned its attention from paper to pixels. Now comes the opportunity to win it back, and make newspapers more valuable — and profitable — than ever.