An answer to David Carr's question on "how to build an iTunes for newspapers."

Media criticism.
Jan. 12 2009 8:24 PM

Building an iTunes for Newspapers

Answering David Carr's excellent challenge.

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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.

Not every newspaper will benefit from a paid online version. Many local newspapers have become irrelevant as news sources and as advertising venues. But for newspapers that still deliver the goods—the Times, the Post, and the Journal at the front of the pack—a paid electronic version could add a third leg to the existing print and Web browser franchises. As long as the top newspapers are churning out electronic versions for Amazon's proprietary beige box, of which there are so few, they'd be insane not to repurpose them for the hundreds of millions of PC and smartphone screens out there.

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One of the Kindle's many problems is that it's a standalone device. These days, cloud computing encourages users to call upon their data from whatever device they switch on—home PC, travel PC, work PC, smartphone, or borrowed PC. For the Kindle 2.0 to acquire the power of its electronic rivals, it would have to become a PC, at which point you'd have to ask, Why am I carrying a Kindle and a PC?

Another point in favor of PCs is that they are generative devices, to put it in Jonathan Zittrain's lingo, open to the fiddling and invention of a billion minds. All this innovation makes the PC more valuable and more useful every day. Meanwhile, nongenerative devices like the Kindle stifle this sort of open hacking. They're like coffee makers or blenders that do a couple of things well but can't be modified to do incredible new things.

How would an iTunes for news market its products? Publishers could sell their editions directly to readers or license them to aggregators, much as the music labels license their tunes to iTunes and Amazon. The aggregators could bundle publications, giving you a financial incentive to subscribe to, say, the Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal all at once.

The subject of a whole other column would be how to maximize this new platform—let's call it News Box—for advertisers. One of my problems with the Times Reader is that it doesn't carry my favorite New York Times ads, such as the full pages from J&R. I'm sure that I'm violating the separation of church and state to confess that I regard certain kinds of advertising as more essential than some editorial.

Why should a customer pay for newspapers online when they can get them free via the Web? Well, why does anybody pay for a print newspaper when they can get it free via the Web? The first answer is that despite the wonderfulness of the Web, the print version still does many things better than its electronic cousin. If you read newsprint, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, I can't explain it to you.

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I'm not a fan of the PDF-like editions powered by NewspaperDirect.com, are you? I've got a couple of editorial ideas for what a paid online newspaper could do for me that a Web or print version can't. Send yours to slate.pressbox@gmail.com, and we'll write the sequel together. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Kindle in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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