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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

My friend David Carr poses a worthy challenge in his New York Times column this morning: How can newspapers—now hemorrhaging advertisers and circulation—steal a little of that Apple magic and invent an iTunes for news that will help restore their economic standing?

Actually, a flawed iTunes for news already exists: It delivers content through Amazon's Kindle. The Kindle can download paid subscriptions to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and 12 other dailies via built-in EVDO reception. Newspaper subscriptions run between $5.99 and $13.99 a month.

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Like the iPod, the Kindle reader isn't the first device in its class. It was preceded by the Rocket eBook and the Franklin eBookMan in the late 1990s and in the middle of this decade was joined by the Sony Reader. What differentiates the $359 Kindle is that it's wireless, free from the PC. It also has Amazon's marketing power and the company's skill at aggregating content. Besides newspapers, the Kindle can access about 200,000 books in Amazon's catalog and about 20 magazines. It plays Audible audio-book files and MP3s.

All that said, the Kindle's design stinks. A Gizmodo review rightly likened it to a "medical device." But my biggest gripe is that it was born crippled. Oh, you can browse the Web and send e-mail with it, but you won't do either because the experience is crap. It's a chore and a bore to display non-Kindle file formats on it, the keyboard is inspired by the Vtech learning laptop for tots, its graphics cause eye strain, it doesn't do video, it makes you pay (!!!!) for blog delivery, it doesn't have a touch screen, no Wi-Fi, and did I mention it looks like the front end to a dialysis device?

What makes the Kindle stink for newspaper publishers is that it's designed to turn their customers into Amazon customers just as the iTunes store was designed to turn the music labels' customers into Apple customers, and did. The music labels rue the day they gave Apple the extraordinary leverage they did over their content, so newspapers should beware.

What the Kindle does best is play nice with Amazon, which explains why they crippled it. If it had more PC-like features, you'd start comparing it with the technology of a PC, where it loses, rather than the technology of a book, where it offers a light upgrade.

Before the Kindle has a chance to become the universal reader—TechCruch estimated in August that only about 240,000 Kindles had been shipped—newspaper publishers should take measures to make certain that they don't get Appled by Amazon. I'd have them create paid electronic versions under their control and leapfrog the scuzzy Kindle. Here's how:

Publishers have been promising customers lightweight tablet readers for decades—see this 1994 video for a Knight Ridder demo of the concept. All of that futurism is coming true as tiny, cheap PCs known as "netbooks" reached the market. Manufactured by Asus, Acer, HP, Samsung, MSI, Dell, and others, these full-fledged PCs start at $349, the same as a Kindle. While not optimized like the Kindle for tetherless downloading of publications, netbooks are more powerful and versatile than the Kindle, and their high-res color screens make the Kindle's gray-scale display look astigmatic. As both the price and form factor for netbooks decline, we start to approach a machine that does everything that a PC does and what a Kindle does for the price of a Kindle. This review of the Fujitsu Lifebook U820 tablet PC, which costs about $1,000, gives a sense of the current state of PC technology.

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 a technical standard for over-the-air delivery of books and publications. (If newspapers can't agree on a standard, a prospect that would not surprise me, one should create the standard and license it to its fellow newspapers.)

If I were in charge of designing a paid online publication, I'd start with the Times Reader, the electronic version of the New York Times that I raved about in 2006 and continue to use every day. In building the Times Reader, its makers thought outside the browser to create a platform that is 150 million times more readable than the standard Web page and 450 million times more attractive than a Kindle page. A Times Reader edition downloads in a couple of minutes and can be read offline. I'd go on with my praise, but my review adequately explains why you should try the Times Reader. You won't be disappointed. (The Times Reader goes for $14.95 a month. Times subscribers get the service for free.)

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.

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.

******

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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