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Next Big Thing?

March 30, 2010

Featured Article, Video

I’ve been a lifelong magazine addict. I blame my mother. Growing up in the hinterlands of southern Ohio, back in the day when our house was the last one one on the street in a sleepy suburb north of Cincinnati, my intellectually starved mother subscribed to a slew of magazines: Esquire and New York in their heyday, the New York Review of Books, Harpers, Horizon and others. I went into newspaper work because Esquire, in its pre-lad mag days, didn’t present an easy entry path to an unpublished, Tom Wolfian-wannabe essayist from Forest Park, the Planned Community.

These many decades later, the whole newspaper/magazine industry is perched on a fault line called the Web. Short of the New York Times, I don’t think any newspaper alive today can be sure to be alive five years from now in its current incarnation. Magazines, too. What will replace them since the need to have someone filtering the massive info-onslaught will never go away? Well, everyone is a-buzz about the iPad’s launch this next Saturday. That’s a start although only a start. We need some kind of income-generation beyond banner ads, perhaps a micro-payment system that nicks you for a fraction of a cent for every page you visit, so that at the end of the day, you’re billed a quarter for your visit to the Times or Charleston Gazette or the Poughkeepsie Parakeet. Information may want to be free, but someone needs to get paid to write it up and shape it into something sensible and worthwhile.

Meanwhile, what might the next newspaper or magazine actually look like short of the gloppy, confusing mess that most newspaper Web sites resemble? Time Inc., proposes the following look for Sports Illustrated in the ‘coming soon‘ video below of a magazine tablet. I want one of these for my magazines and my newspaper.

Jack Shaffer over at Slate isn’t so sure iTablets and their ilk are any magic bullet, though. He nails an issue any newspaper person who evangelizes new media experimentation has run into (yes, yes, I am speaking from personal experience). But my compatriot evangelistas will grok the following by Shafer:

… Even when established media companies attempt to innovate into a new media space, they end up hedging—not throwing enough energy into new media because they’re too invested in the legacy media. Hedging isn’t stupid. It makes sense to hedge as long as your legacy product remains profitable. But hedge too long and you miss making a profitable and timely transition to the new media form (example: the music business) …

But is even the gee-whiz factor of the iPad and the SI tablet enough to keep pace with how people take their news, articles and information nowadays? Maybe not, writes Shaffer:

In an interview, Pablo Boczkowski [author of the 2005 book Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers ] explains why the tabletized magazines may not take off. “A large fraction of the public doesn’t read the news online as they did in print,” he says. They’re more interested in browsing, searching, linking, and interacting than they are in long, sustained intakes of information. “Put differently,” he continues, “getting the news online is normally surfing, less often snorkeling, and very rarely scuba diving. Most people need a simple surfboard, rather than the complex—and costly—diving gear.”

The equation will change, of course, as Moore’s law makes the tablets cheaper. But as the price drops, the number of features offered will increase, and step-by-step they’ll start looking less like extraordinary, futuristic devices and more like conventional personal computers only smaller and more powerful. (That’s already happening with the iPhone and other smartphones.) Once the various tablet devices and smartphones collapse into super-ultralight PCs, the tablet-optimized publications will find themselves regarded by consumers as just another Web site, and the proprietors who thought they had a new, impregnable platform from which to sluice profits will be right back where they started—one site struggling against many.

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One Response to “Next Big Thing?”

  1. Gary Reynolds Says:

    Wow. Thanks for expanding my mind just a bit.