Can the iTablet rescue print media?

Matt Bowman · January 26, 2010 · Short URL:

Mainstream Media is hoping Steve Jobs can pull an iTunes for Newspapers and save a dying industry.

 In the early 2000s, just as the music industry was laying its neck on the chopping block of piracy, in swooped Steve Jobs with iTunes, rescuing the labels from certain death and offering a new monetization scheme. The industry would have to make due with smaller revenues and a hefty tithe to Apple, but Cupertino would protect it from consumer mob lynching, keeping it fed and sheltered.

Today, Jobs crouches once again upon the parapet as executioners lead Big Media to the stump. The New York Times revenues dropped precipitously over the last two years; hoards of newspapers across the country closed up shop in 2009; consumers continue their exodus from mainstream media, and advertisers have drastically pulled monetary support for their one-time darlings.

Can the iTablet do for media what iTunes did for music? In a highly anticipated event on Wednesday, Jobs will unveil what he (might have) called “the most important thing I have ever done.” 

The most reliable rumors indicate the device will run all the applications available on the iPhone and iPod Touch, maintain persistent wireless connection over a 3G cellphone network and Wi-FI, and have a 10” color screen. Among many applications, the device will present a new way to read news, books and magazines, marrying that experience to Apple’s slick and fun style, at the same time providing an incentive for consumers to pay media companies for content. But the most interesting rumors in the media world are about the media world itself.

The LA Times reports that the New York Times has been in Cupertino for the last several weeks meeting with Apple. The New York Times reports that the New York Times (for real) has developed a version of its newspaper for the Tablet, but its informant won’t say what type of deal has been struck (talk about tight-lipped sources). The Wall Street Journal reports that Conde Nast and Harper Collins and, yes, the WSJ’s owner News Corp. are developing apps for the device.  The media world seems to know that the media world is in on Mr. Jobs' rescue plan.

That plan will need to be a bit more sophisticated this time around, because the problems plaguing the media industry are more complex than those the music world faced a decade ago. The revenue model for music was straight-forward: sell individual albums directly to consumers, but news media depends on ongoing subscriptions and advertising relationships, fostered over time. Those relationships will now be mediated by Apple.

 A big part of the media business is automatic subscription renewals charged to credit cards. However, when a magazine publisher sells its app in the iTunes store, it doesn’t get credit card information—that stays with Apple. That shift in billing could hurt the media companies.

Apple will also be the gate keeper of reader demographics, which publishers use to attract advertisers. Apple will likely bring a level of standardization and transparency to demographic reports that could hurt (rightfully so) media barons’ ability to spin their own numbers.

Still, it’s better to take a few bruises than end up with your head in a basket, and Big Media knows it. Tomorrow, Jobs makes his dramatic entrance onto the execution platform, and the media companies will wield their own swords in the climactic rescue scene. Whether Jobs can secure a happily-ever-after ending for the industry remains to be seen.

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