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Does the iPad have what it takes to save the newspaper industry? Not yet.


Does the iPad have what it takes to save the newspaper industry? That’s what Matthew da Silva asked a number of leading experts in the fields of digital media and mobile technology. As he reports, while expert opinion on the iPad is so far mixed, one thing is certain: it’s up to news companies to capitalise on innovation by understanding their readers’ rapidly evolving lifestyles.

The ‘Jesus tablet’ has been microwaved and coated in chocolate and it continues to be praised by profit-conscious media executives intent on maximising income streams.

But does the iPad really have what it takes to slow the inexorable profit slide at newspapers and magazines?

“Nah. I don’t think so at all,” I was told by Geoffrey Handley from The Hyperfactory, a global ad agency that specialises in developing campaigns for mobile devices.

“Apple has been fairly revolutionary in making the noise about stuff but their devices haven’t – in my opinion – shaped our industry or anything,” he said about a week after the iPad’s release.

“What Steve Jobs has always been great at doing is building hype and building brand. So his app store was nothing different – sure it might have had better usability because that’s what he’s good at, he’s good at design, usability, making a lot of noise – but in terms of a turning point in reality, no.”

“A real game changer” – but who’s playing?

It seems that media executives are banking on the hype, however. News Corp chairman and chief executive Rupert Murdoch calls the iPad “a real game changer in the presentation of news” and anticipates younger readers subscribing in droves to his company’s masthead apps.

But reality can be perverse.

In its first month on sale, says News Corp, 8,500 people subscribed to The Australian’s iPad app. The newspaper has reported that “subscriber numbers had declined the following month” as competitors’ apps came on sale.

Expectations are high but even in the week following the iPad’s release, when the app had 4,500 subscribers at $5 a pop, some experts were dismissive.

“I don’t think that’s a terribly big figure,” Marcus O’Donnell, journalism program coordinator at the University of Wollongong, told me.

“When I bought my iPad, I immediately bought it purely for that reason, even though if there had been a multiple range of choices I may not have bought it,” said O’Donnell.

He calls it “a shocking app”.

“It’s almost totally devoid of pictures, which misreads what the iPad is all about,” he said. “The iPad is a sensual medium, it’s about ease of access, touching, visuality. And it’s also a very kind of pared-down version of [the web] – it’s not full content.”

From Sociology to ‘Motiology’: Studying mobile consumers

Ralph Simon, chairman emeritus and founder of Mobile Entertainment Forum and co-founder of Zomba Music Group, told me a week after the launch that he thought news companies have to concentrate more on doing something different, that they’re not doing elsewhere, in order to secure the numbers for their apps.

“I think that you have to come up with a more interesting kind of appeal or at least focus on that mobile user so that you are editorially doing something that is appropriate to that medium,” he said.

But Simon said he thinks it’s too early to make a call on how the iPad is performing.

“I think the impact of this, and particularly when you see other iPad-like devices coming out, is certainly going to accelerate the process,” he said.

Handley told me that he thinks that with a plethora of new devices emerging, media companies need to develop a different strategy for tablet devices.

“I think it’s more about taking into account your strategy from day one and understanding consumer behaviour as opposed to ‘Oh, there’s going to be this device, we need to just replicate what we’ve got on our web and stick it on here and then let’s stick a price tag’,” he said. “Why would anyone do that? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Simon agreed, pointing to what he called the economic and commercial elements of “motioeconomics”.

“What is definitely happening is we’re living in a much, much more mobile society and I look very much at this whole, new word that’s getting quite a lot of currency – the impact of mobile on people’s lives and lifestyles – it’s not the sociology of mobile lifestyles. It’s called ‘motiology’.”

“I think it’s about convenience and I think it’s about aesthetics, I really do,” said O’Donnell. “I don’t think you’re actually going to get anything on an iPad that you can’t deliver on the net. I think the experience of getting it on the iPad will be the deal-breaker for people. It’s a very easy, nice experience, reading on the iPad and having three columns and having a page. That sounds terribly old-fashioned, I know. But it is. And the apps that are doing that well, like The Times [of London] app and the [National Public Radio] app, are providing multimedia, they’re providing ease of navigation, and they’re doing it well in design terms.”

With change beckoning, the industry may be up for grabs

Robert Tercek, president of digital media at the Oprah Winfrey Network, told me that he thinks that big companies have a hard time making the necessary adjustments.

“Their skill set is managing the existing business, the traditional business, not adapting rapidly to new conditions. So that’s not something big companies are well adapted to, that sort of massive change that we’re experiencing right now. But the second thing is that traditional companies always have a difficult choice. They’ve gotta make a decision between going for the new thing and protecting their old traditional business. They almost always choose to defend. The choice they always make is to stick with what they know. I can’t really blame them because those are big businesses.”

Gotham Chopra, co-founder of Liquid Comic, talked about “a culture where attention spans are short”.

“I think where I’m coming from is that the art of storytelling, whether again it’s in the fictional space or the non-fictional space, needs to be continued to be nurtured. Expecting this new distribution platform to solve all the problems in the media world, I don’t think is necessarily a good idea.”

“In fact, it’s a time of great change,” Tercek told me. “It’s time to change and a terrific time for entrepreneurs. Traditional businesses have a very difficult time coping with massive change, change on a massive scale.”

“What’s happening now is that both ends of the equation, on the creative side and on the consumer side, are starting to fragment so much that big media’s grip is starting to loosen and that creates all kinds of niche opportunities for startup companies, for feisty start-ups,” continued Tercek. “So it’s a terrific time to get started. And sometimes those niches will turn out to be quite lucrative and thereby a small company can become a big one.”

Matthew da Silva writes feature stories to fulfil a dream after working in communications and technical writing roles for two decades. He grew up in Sydney, lived in Japan for nine years and now lives on the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland. He blogs daily at Happy Antipodean.

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