Is the IPad Publishing's Savior? Pro and Con

Debating the Efficacy of Apple's Latest for Mags and Papers

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Greg Winter
Greg Winter
Ilya Vedrashko
Ilya Vedrashko
This week's iPad launch brought publishing's future back to many media minds; we asked two agency thinkers to argue the pros and cons of the device's potential for reviving a sagging industry. Arguing pro is Hill Holiday's Greg Winter; con is Hill Holiday's Ilya Vedrashko.

Pro: It might take time and some tweaks along the way, but yes, the iPad is going to save the publishing industry.

1. Do or die time
Magazines and newspapers have been giving their product away for far too long. Over the past few years we've seen newsrooms shrink and magazines and newspapers disappear. And it's not necessarily because of declining numbers. More people than ever before are reading news, they just don't pay for it. Consumers get news content online for free. Good journalism should and will cost something. Or it will disappear. And we need good journalism -- it's part of our democracy (but that's a completely different story). Also, there are tens of thousands of publishing and news jobs at stake today, and there's nothing like the survival instinct to spur innovation and action.

2. A new business model
In the same way that Apple helped to create a fair and reasonable pricing and distribution structure for the sale of music, they will help figure out how printed content can be sold. With very small distribution costs (eliminating printing and shipping), the iPad offers a new way for publishers to deliver their content to consumers at greatly reduced costs. The New York Times' metered payment model planned for 2011, announced last week, was no coincidence.

3. Consumer behavior can, will and does change
The way that consumers purchase and interact with music and video has radically changed over the past few years. ITunes revolutionized music and saved the industry from virtual collapse. It also made Napster obsolete. YouTube and Hulu provide viewers with the opportunity to watch content when, where and how they want. It may be a shift for consumers to pay for and download the Wall Street Journal or an issue of Sports Illustrated to the iPad, but it's completely realistic.

4. Targeted advertising
Here is an outstanding business angle. The iPad offers the opportunity for a metered payment model for newspaper and magazine content. Would a reader pay 25 cents for a Paul Krugman column? It's not a stretch. It also offers the opportunity for targeted content based on reader profiles and locations. The built-in GPS capability allows for location-specific advertising messages and offers. All politics is local. And maybe all advertising messages will be on the iPad.

5. Enhanced experience
Today, there are basically two ways that we read a newspaper or magazine article. We can read a printed newspaper or magazine hardcopy or we can lean forward into a laptop or desktop and scan. Laptop reading is an active and often clumsy experience if one is laying on the sofa or in bed. At 1.5 lbs, the iPad offers the potential for a more laid-back, passive and natural reading and viewing experience. The actual content -- book, newspaper or magazine -- can be delivered in an enhanced and more visually compelling way. For example, a book on botany can be visually constrained by the cost of printing a specific number of high-quality pictures. This constraint virtually disappears with an iPad.

6. It's Apple
If anyone can figure this out, it's Apple. Apple has attracted some of the world's top engineers and creative technologists. They have a track record of solving content distribution and payment model problems (iTunes) and creating leap-frog innovations in existing categories (iPhone). With sleek and simple design and the ultimate in usability, Apple can create an entirely new way for people to consume "print" media. We have seen consumer behavior transform very quickly, in a short period of time. And it's about to happen again.

Con: The iPad is a life-raft at best and isn't going to save the publishing industry.

For a long time, lifesavers in Russia used to be adorned with a cheerful slogan that could be roughly translated as "saving the drowning man is nobody's business but his own."

This sums up about how I feel about the argument that iPad will single-handedly save traditional periodicals. It's not enough for the publishers to be thrown a life raft; they will also have to figure out how to last for days without water and how to avoid getting eaten by the sharks (or by each other, for that matter). The iPad, with all of the undeniable advantages that Greg mentions, is just a raft. The rest is nobody's business but the publishers'.

Conventional wisdom has it that the 125 million credit-card carrying iTunes customers who are used to paying money for small bits of content -- music, videos, games, apps and, soon, e-books -- are an equally willing customer base for newspaper and magazine content delivered electronically. I don't think they are. I don't think people will be willing to pay for newspaper articles the same way they pay for everything else in the iTunes Store for two reasons.

One is that unlike music, videos or even apps, there is no existing price anchor for individual articles. With music, if a CD album costs $15, one fifteenth of it should cost about a buck, and it does, and the sales go briskly. If the second season of "Californication" costs about $20 for DVDs on Amazon and $20 for iTunes downloads, then the only the choice consumers have to make is which format fits their lifestyle better.

No such system of reference exists for buying mainstream newspaper content piecemeal. If an entire newspaper costs 50 cents on the newsstand and has 100 articles in it, what is a single article worth to you? Half a cent? Ten cents? A dollar? So each time you want to buy a newspaper article on iTunes, you will have to make this mental calculation.

The other problem with getting people to pay for individual articles is that, unlike music, books, videos, games or even imaginary animals on Farmville, articles have little perceived replay value. You pay a buck for the latest Lady Gaga hit to enjoy it over and over. How often do you expect you will need to refer back to the latest op-ed piece to justify its price?

And if publishers are hoping to find in the iPad a channel to sell new subscriptions, then the story of the music industry should serve as a cautionary tale. The iTunes Store hasn't really eliminated illegal downloading -- even by the most optimistic estimates, there are still as many pirates as there are upright citizens. What really happened, though, is those people who used to pay for and hoard CDs are now paying for and hoarding MP3s, with CD sales predictably on a steep downward slope. Likewise, the most enthusiastic paying subscribers to the iPad version of the New York Times will be the ones who are now getting the actual paper plopped on their front steps every morning.

The real solution to publishers' woes lies in rethinking the nature of their now largely commoditized product. I don't know what the successful formula will look like. Maybe what will get people to pay is a curated stream of all important articles on a single topic, regardless of their source. Maybe it will be something else. But whatever it is, it's up to the publishers to figure out, not Apple.

Greg Winter is vice president and director of corporate communications at Hill Holliday. He has more than 13 years of communications and public relations experience at agencies including Waggener Edstrom, Ketchum and Porter Novelli.
Ilya Vedrashko, VP of media design at Hill Holliday, studies the relationships people build with different traditional and emerging media. He went to grad school at MIT's comparative media studies program, where he wrote a thesis on advertising in video games. Mr. Vedrashko has also worked at the Convergence Culture Consortium, and he started the Advertising Lab blog.
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