Jack Shafer seems to be locked into the same mental cul-de-sac as David Carr when it comes to the future of news consumption. In his Slate column responding to what he calls Carr’s “excellent” challenge to invent the “iTunes for news,” Shafer argues that publishers should invent their own standard and bypass potential Apple-like aggregators (the role Amazon has taken for its Kindle reader):
Just as the iPhone and other smartphones obliterated the PDA category, mobile PCs and smartphones used as electronic readers could render the Kindle obsolete overnight if publishers joined forces to create technical standard for over-the-air delivery of books and publications.
That’s my bold in the quote, because that phrase encapsulates the error in Shafer’s thinking. It is the same error that electronic publishers made in the early ’90s when they thought they could “repurpose” existing media on shiny CD-ROMs. It’s the same error that the early experimenters in motion pictures made when they pointed their cameras at the stage to record plays.
The future of news does not lie in “over-the-air delivery of books” and existing publications (newspapers, magazines). Books, newspapers and magazines work quite beautifully on paper. But they cannot be transposed into digital form as is. That’s why all the kludge-y attempts to provide a newspaper look-and-feel on screen (including one by the New York Times that Shafer inexplicably adores) are such disastrous failures, and will never become widely used products.
It is hugely unlikely that news and information as presently delivered in newspapers and magazines will be consumed as newspapers (or magazines) simply repackaged for download onto some device. Why? Because there already is a “technical standard” for “over-the-air delivery” of such news and information: it’s called the Web. And if netbooks become popular devices for consuming such news and information, as Shafer credibly argues, users will use them freely to assemble their news and information from the Web. If newspapers try to sequester their content into pay-only downloads, people will simply ignore their products. (Books are a somewhat different can of worms, but I’ll leave that for another post.)
Yet that is what Shafer is urging them to do. In his dreamworld, the newspaper and magazine publishers will secede from the Web and start charging users to read their products on netbook PCs via some proprietary interface. I’m not making this up:
By eschewing the Web browser, the Times Reader also sent the same message the nonbrowser interface for the iTunes sends: This isn’t the Web, dude. This isn’t free. You’re going to have to pay.
In 2009, it’s simply ludicrous to imagine that any such scheme could prosper. (The iTunes comparison doesn’t hold because music is a fundamentally different product from news and information.) But if you are clinging to the pipe-dream that news publishers can maintain their old profit margins, you have to convince yourself that this sort of approach could work. It’s a shame to think that some news companies will squander their dwindling resources on such desperation moves, when what they ought to be doing is accepting reality.
In reality, the old business model is disintegrating, and the public and the journalism profession need the business to figure out how to fund in-depth reporting and investigative journalism in the new digital world. The more energy the news industry wastes trying to repackage the dead old form in new, ill-fitting digital clothes, the fewer resources it will have to tackle the real challenge.