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.