News producers hope the iPad will alter the digital landscape | national Times
National Times, 28 January 2010 News producers hope the iPad will alter the digital landscape

Tech fans were on the edge of their seats as Thursday's anticipated news of Apple's new tablet device approached the desktop and the laptop. The iPad is expected to usher in a new era of consumption for media companies.

The New York Times made some organisational changes in advance of the Apple launch, although executives were coy about the motivations for the steps taken.

Magazine publishers are eyeing the potential profits from the portable iPad, which they hope will generate a digital ecosystem similar to the profitable one that serves the iPhone and iPod.

The New York Times even sent a representative to be part of the iPad launch.

The newspaper's Stephanie Clifford, writing on the launch day, addressed publishers' concerns and included words from an employee of Huge, a digital agency that does work for companies like NBC and Thomson Reuters.

Aaron Shapiro quashed expectations that the iPad would be a "panacea" for digital publishers.

"Consumers have an expectation that content is going to be free, and it's unlikely that a new form factor is going to motivate consumers to pay for publications and newspapers they get online for free."

"If history's any indication," he said, "it'll come from the next great startup, as opposed to a big media company trying to repurpose content."

Rupert Murdoch, who promised at the beginning of December that all his newspapers would start charging for access to online content, has gone some way toward addressing the legacy mindset issue.

In mid-January, News Corp changed its management structure for flagship Australian broadsheet, The Australian.

And while questions about the popularity of the iPad abound, there seems to be little question in the minds of newspaper readers that, once in place, paywalls will hit media companies hard.

Murdoch's Wall Street Journal notably enjoys a paying readership of around a million.

Not all newspapers with a paywall have struck gold in this manner, however.

Long Island local daily Newsday revealed that, three months after putting up the paywall, it had registered only 35 new subscriptions. Existing print subscribers, however, get an online subscription for free.

"Seems to me that papers that rely on AP copy and police blotters can take no hope from paywalls," tweets subeditor and news writer Paul Wiggins. "Ya gotta surprise people."

In New Zealand, on the positive gradient of the economic graph, business website NBR.co.nz has sustained damage in terms of page impressions (down 34 per cent off the site's peak), but it has also secured 7500 subscribers. Existing print subscribers do not automatically get an online subscription. Writing in the comments section of Lance Wigg's 29 November blog post, NBR publisher Barry Coleman estimated that the site had secured a subscription base of 7500. It was a slow start, he admitted.

"But the graph on the paying customers just keeps tracking up on a 45 deg angle. There was no explosion of subscribers. They just started to come on in a steady stream. And the number in the stream is eerily the same each week. It doesn't jump up and down, good week, bad week. [They] just keep turning up. And paying up."

"[Seems] revenue positive for NBR," tweets Wiggins.

News media are suffering because online advertising is not offsetting losses in print advertising. The large amount of excess inventory available for online advertising buyers, furthermore, means that the rate media companies can charge for space on their web pages is diminishing.

People are spending more time on social media, too. Facebook's user based recently topped 350 million.

Content is still king howeever, a new Online Publishers Assocation study reveals. The amount of time spent looking at content sites has risen from 3'42'' in 2003 to 6'58'' in 2009. But the amount of time spent on social media sites is also rising: from zero minutes in 2003 to 3'01'' in 2009. People are clicking through to news articles, according to IBM's head of digital marketing Martin Walsh. "Tweet over weekend said 15-20% of email received at Hotmail is now social media notifications," tweets Walsh.

It's this kind of "promiscuity" the word is from the lips of Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson that is killing newspapers, according to some. It's not just the fault of search giant and bogeyman Google, it's readers themselves who are browsing more widely from more locations than ever before.

It's just possible, with judicious development and an eye for the unique, that newspapers will be able to alleviate the stress that falling revenues are causing them. At least the debate has begun. Matthew da Silva is a freelance journalist matthewdasilva.com