Why Journalism Organizations Should Reconsider Their Crush on Apple’s iPad


In the weeks since Apple announced the iPad tablet computer, the news industry and the people who watch it have been talking breathlessly about the device’s potential to help restore happier financial times to struggling journalism organizations, particularly newspapers and magazines. Perhaps the best example is a NY Times story entitled “With Apple Tablet, Print Media Hope for a Payday,” with this quote (from an anonymous source, of course):

Steve (Jobs) believes in old media companies and wants them to do well,” said a person who has seen the device and is familiar with Apple’s marketing plan for it, but who did not want to be named because talking about it might alienate him from the company. “He believes democracy is hinged on a free press and that depends on there being a professional press.”

This is laugh-out-loud stuff, for all kinds of reasons, not least the hilarious notion that Steve Jobs believes in a free press. This is the CEO of a company that practically defines the words “secretive” and “paranoid” — a company that took bloggers to court for daring to report on what sources from inside Apple have told them about upcoming products; the threat to business journalism from that case, which thankfully Apple lost, was real and scary.

Steve Jobs believes in old media, all right, as long as he can absolutely dictate the terms under which old media sells (or, to be more precise, rents) its material through the Apple orifice called the iTunes Store. The music industry discovered to its dismay that Apple’s one-price-fits-all model — not to mention Apple’s control over customer information (including addresses and credit-card numbers) — was good mainly for Apple. (To be fair, the Times story did note, amid the fawning over the iPad’s media potential, that Jobs is, as the story said, a bully.)

The App Store, through which Apple requires iPhone application developers to sell their offerings, has its own restrictions. Apple doesn’t regulate prices, though it still disintermediates developers from their customers. The bigger issue is that Apple insists on approving every app that can be sold through the store, in an approval process that is always opaque and sometimes capricious.

In recent days, Apple took its control-freakery to a new level. It unilaterally banned some iPhone apps that, in Apple’s view, were too risque for its customers, including several that depicted skimpily dressed women. The company’s excuse was that some customers found the material “objectionable,” and of course Apple wanted to make its customers comfortable and happy.

Never mind that Apple still sells pretty much the same kinds of items through big publishers like Time Warner and Playboy. That’s mere hypocrisy, however blatant.

News organizations often produce material that people find objectionable. Photographs and videos of dead people in war zones and disaster aftermaths are vital to understand the scope of such events, and they are deeply upsetting to view. Publishers and broadcasters and, more recently, digital-media providers have put them out anyway. They have every right to do so, and often an journalistic obligation.

Apple, in the role of distributor, has every right to decide what people can sell via its online store. This is not the issue.

Now, journalism organizations obviously don’t have to create apps for the iPad or iPhone. They can make their material available via Web browsers.

But Apple won’t let Flash run on the iPhone or, it says, the iPad. While HTML5 will solve some of these issues, that new standard is early in its evolution. Meanwhile, it’s clear, news organizations believe (with some experience selling apps for the iPhone) that the user experience will be better with an app, not to mention the possibility of charging money for what they produce (though they’ll be giving Apple a cut of every transaction).

Ultimately, I believe, the most important issue is whether news organizations should get in bed with a company that makes unilateral and non-transparent decisions like the ones Apple has been making about content in all kinds of ways. I say they should think hard about it, and answer either in the negative or insist on iron-clad contracts with Apple that prohibit the hardware company from any kind of interference with the journalism, ever. (As Dave Winer asked in a Twitter posting today, “Thought experiment: What happens to the Engadget app when they run a leaked Apple announcement?” (UPDATE: And Wired quotes the Washington Post (a piece from Monday Note) with another worrisome scenario.)

Understand, this is not about whether tablet computers are a good thing. They are. They will be a wonderful addition to the way we consumer and create media (more so the former, I’d guess), and I have no doubt that the iPad, like other Apple products, will set a new standard for ease of use and, in some ways, utility. (I’m a happy user of a Mac computer, for which Apple doesn’t restrict application developers’ ability to write software.)

But I watch with amazement as newspaper people drool over the iPad as some kind of industry savior. They’re putting far too much trust in a company that doesn’t deserve it.

18 thoughts on “Why Journalism Organizations Should Reconsider Their Crush on Apple’s iPad”

  1. I am still baffled at how the media is in love with all things Apple. Apple does have great marketing and good PR people that know how to plant stories.

  2. Not sure the record companies ever had info on their customers but that’s beside the point I suppose.
    Apple has built an amazing ecosystem. Not sure there is (or will be) anything even comparable. The media sure isn’t going to build it themselves. So, other than Apple, where do you propose they go? All outlets have their downside, even in the brick/mortar world. Right now, and probably for quite some time, Apple is where the customers are.

    1. True, but the music companies — for which I have zero sympathy in every other way — were stupid to give up so much when they made their deals with Apple.

      1. Why were the music companies stupid to give up so much? Record companies are selling recordings, are they not? Was there an alternative to selling recordings through iTunes? Wasn’t it true that millions of young people were stealing music through Napster? What was the alternative?

  3. Dan –

    On this point specifically:

    >> …not to mention the possibility of charging money for what they produce (though they’ll be giving Apple a cut of every transaction).

    So, what is to stop newspapers from creating great HTML5 Web sites targeted at the iPad, and then putting registration or a subscription model around them? No approval process, no 30% to Apple. Since they can do that, we have to assume it is the millions of customers with credit-cards-on-file in the iTunes store that makes the trade off (apparently) worth it.

    1. Nothing, in theory, prevents that. And if I were working on a news site now I’d be focusing almost exclusively on HTML5.

      You’re undoubtedly right that they probably think the tradeoff you suggest is worth it. But it’s a shortsighted view.

  4. Content is now a commodity, but people are still paying a lot for mobile content. People are also still paying for music and movie content. Why people are not paying for some type of written content?

    It’s because it’s a fast one way consumption combined with an expiration rate that is given for free on the web right now. Books are not given for free, you still need to pay to get that content because books requires usually a considerable amount of work combined with talent that you can’t find in a cereal box. To be valuable, content just simply needs to be hot and/or needed real time and/or controlled by the content providers and/or rare.

    The iPad is trying to play on the hotness factor, on the mobile and real time factor and on the controlled factor. I don’t like the close model of Apple, but it’s a proven successful model.

    The advertising pie is controlled by a few on the Web. The hotness is difficult to achieve on the web for writing content providers. The web is a new medium who can combines almost every old medium at the same time. Interactive and rich content is the future of content. Good old news article will always stays, but it will be supported by all types of content.

    That’s why they think it can save them. It will be a long way to go.

  5. But Apple won’t let Flash run on the iPhone or, it says, the iPad. While HTML5 will solve some of these issues, that new standard is early in its evolution.

    The notion that I think you’re trying to advance is that it’s going to be hard for media organizations to create rich media experiences on the web without Flash, but that just isn’t the case.

    The ePub format that Apple is supporting on the iPad uses nothing but xml, javascript, css, and other plain vanilla web stuff, and there’s no reason the exact same content couldn’t be delivered through a web browser with or without Flash or HTML5. And the whole point is that Safari does support HTML5.

    The real danger is that newspapers will be shortsighted, just as before, and will put all their eggs in Apple’s basket without even trying to deliver a product worth paying for over the regular old web.

    The Real Big Problem is that media organizations seem to only understand something when a big brand name or some other powerful entity shows it to them and makes it OK for them- kind of like how all the big corporate media type journalists starting using Twitter immediately after politicians started using it.

    News organizations have been sitting in front of a mountain of free or cheap technology they could have been using to put out a better product, or cut the cost of reporting in a foreign country, or what have you, but they haven’t done any of it. And then as soon as someone comes to them with a shiny new toy, it’s like “HERP DERP GUESS IT’S TIME TO INNOVATE NOW!”, and the whole spectacle is just depressing.

    Is it wrong that I’m rooting for a lot more newspapers to go bankrupt?

  6. Grrr… Dan, I think you need to relax a bit. Apple actually put themselves in a surprisingly difficult position by creating a family oriented product (iPhone) that had an app store where developers could write and submit software. The porn industry would obviously see this as a money making opportunity and Apple has a tough situation on their hands; how to protect the millions of kids and families who use the app store.

    I am not a prudish person, I am a fashion/modeling photographer who routinely shoots nudes and partially clothed women, but I was starting to have issues with the fact that my 8 year old was seeing as many as 5 out of ten top apps that were related to boobs or near-nude women. It was starting to take over and there is no way in the world that it would have slowed down. When you can create an “app” that is nothing more than a collection of photos, you can knock them out very very quickly.

    Apple is absolutely doing the right thing by cutting off the more risque apps from the app store. It is not a clean decision, it is not without issues, but it is the right thing to do.

    If you let your 8-year old kids watch the Disney channel and they aired commercials for “Girls Gone Wild” would you let them continue to watch the Disney Channel? No parent would.

    Bottom line, Apple created this product, Apple took the chance on it, Apple spent all of the money, Apple can do any damn thing they want with a product that they made. Don’t like it? Don’t buy it. But Don’t whine about it.

    1. Apple never had to create a store where it, and it alone, would decide what’s suitable for people to use. The issue is the closed nature of the platform.

      Apple could easily have had its curated store, with all kinds of restrictions I’d never argue with, had it also opened the platform so developers could write apps for people who wanted other kinds of services and content. If they could sell their apps outside the store, everyone would be better off, except for the company that wants to own and control every possible aspect of customers’ experience and take a financial cut of everything that moves within the platform.

      Their hypocrisy and control-freakery is all the more obvious given that you can use the iPhone browser (Safari only, of course…) to find material unsuitable for 8-year-olds. I suppose you want them to turn Safari into a G-rated access system, too?

  7. It’s being worked on … does not require an app. The whole “let’s build an app for our publication” is not the long term model because it’s not sustainable across multiple platforms, and we will have multiple platforms in this space (a great thing).

    Not as rich as our lala land in our head but it’s pretty nice to use. Plus, pay walls happen on the web today.

  8. Dan, if you are positing that newspapers and magazines are better off staying as traditional print media, I can only shake my head. Have you looked at the financial condition of most print media these days? They’re on life support. And what constitutes a significant chunk of their operating costs? Printing and physical distribution. If newspapers and magazines are to survive, something must change.

    You might hate Apple, and it appears that you want to villanize the the company. I’m not a fanboy, but ask yourself: who else can help print media make the transition to be viable? The truth is that Apple has a ready market via iTunes, and the potential to deliver that market with the iPad. Of course, over time, news media will seek other forms of distribution. But the fact is that nobody, not even Amazon, have the infrastructure and available captive market in place to make this happen on the scale that Apple can. This is not a matter of what company you like or don’t, or what piece of hardware you prefer. It’s just business.

    I’ve read a lot of sniping that Apple screwed the record companies. Bullfeathers. If not for Apple, piracy would have only been more rampant. Record companies were losing their shirts before iTunes came along. As for alternatives, did you really want PressPlay? Of course not. Apple and iTunes have succeeded because it was suddenly painless for consumers to buy music and other media. Instead of stealing, people WILLINGLY paid for their media instead. As a result, record companies and other media content owners have done better than they are willing to admit. If not for Apple, we would not be enjoying what we take for granted today.

    This appears to have been lost on you, Dan.

    Yes, I know that newspaper, magazine and book publishers have issues with Apple having the direct relationship with their customers and their credit cards. They bristle at the thought of being held at an arm’s length from demographic data or building a relationship with their readers. I get all that. My hunch is that this is all part of negotiations. And I have a feeling that in the end, this information will be shared with them, especially as competitors to the iPad come to the fore. But if you want to see electronic media publishing flourish, it has to start somewhere, and given their financial condition, quickly.

    Safe behind your blog and low-cost distribution system, you may forget how expensive it is to publish on paper. But as we are learning, the real asset of any newspaper, magazine or book publisher is no longer their printing press, but the content they create and/or own. If the publishers want to own their distribution, it’s up to them to build a better mousetrap. But truth be told, the media companies have had years to do this, and they have failed miserably. That Apple is poised to succeed might make you bristle, but it should also tell you that the company’s approach to the market is fundamentally sound.

    Dan, I challenge you to see beyond your obvious dislike for Steve Jobs and Apple, and look objectively at what the company can do to save media publishers from themselves.You might not like that. But to lose a newspaper like The New York Times, or a great magazine, because they could not adapt would be a fate far worse.

    1. Good grief. By what possible logic could you infer that I’m suggesting news organizations should keep doing what they’ve been doing? You could not possibly have read anything else I’ve been writing to believe that.

      I don’t hate Apple. I’m a customer, and think highly of much of what they’ve done (as I wrote above).

  9. I can’t defend Jobs on every front. But he has to be secretive to a point, because so many other corporations want to shoot him down. Apple is a Fortune 100 company, not a govt. agency.

    Think of Apple as the Toyota of computers, good customer service, good product, until something goes wrong. There isn’t a computer related company in the world that wouldn’t want to knock Apple off its pedastal. So freedom of the press at Apple is just not possible.

    1. Apple is the Lexus of computers, not the Toyota. But it isn’t just secretive to a point, it’s secretive to a fault. This is at least partly about PR as opposed to necessity; consider how far ahead of time it announced the iPhone (FCC rules essentially forced them into the open earlier than they’d have preferred) and how incredibly well that worked out for them.

  10. A journey down memory lane- Apple 1984 commercial depicting ‘big blue’ aka IBM. Apple wanted to picture IBM as the tryanny system, which was closed and brainwashing the mind. The orwellian company would be defeated by the individual although I found it funny that the individual was throwing a hammer aka like old Russia under Communism. Now it makes sense Apple just wanted to be the new ‘mind control’ thought police on the block.

    The fact that macs have been easy to use made them a first computer. The fact that they wouldn’t really let you play with the files and other items made them a computer to dump when you came of age. Now microsoft is similar so there is a gravitation toward linux and other systems.

    Overbearing control makes the market shift elsewhere. Companies have the right to market products- people can purchase or not.

Comments are closed.