By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The Amazon Kindle and paid content

The Amazon Kindle is being marketed as the latest e-book, but I would imagine it will have a tough go of it on that basis. As Steven Levy observes in Newsweek, what could be a more perfect content-delivery system than the book? Instead, what I find intriguing is that it can be used as a portable, always-on virtual newspaper with — get this — paid subscriptions. If the Kindle succeeds, we may finally have a solution to the devastating revenue problem that newspaper and magazine publishers have created for themselves in giving away their content for free.

The Kindle strikes me as the purest realization to date of a vision I first heard articulated at a conference at Columbia University in the early 1990s. At that time, news executives fully understood that digital was the future. The idea was that content would be distributed on high-resolution digital tablets that would be so cheap they’d be given away. At night, you’d plug your tablet into the cable box on your television so that it could download newspapers, magazines and other content that you’d paid for. In the morning, you’d unplug it and take it with you. A wireless connection would allow for interactive advertising so that you could, say, make a reservation by clicking on a restaurant ad.

What we all missed, of course, was the rise of the Web, which made closed systems like that envisioned at Columbia impossible. Content quickly became free and ubiquitous. And you know the rest of the story. Yet even at a time when the idea of paying for content online is at a low ebb (the New York Times has gone entirely free, and the Wall Street Journal will soon follow suit), there remain considerable doubts that online advertising alone will ever fully support the public-service journalism we need. Just yesterday, the Times ran an intriguing op-ed by Discover columnist Jared Lanier, who argued that advertising will never add up to enough to pay the bills.

Enter the Kindle. Unlike the device we talked about at Columbia some 15 years ago, it’s not so cheap that publishers will give them away (indeed, it’s $400), and the e-ink resolution, though better than that of a typical computer screen, isn’t nearly as nice as a glossy magazine’s — a Kindle reportedly gives you 150 dots per inch, whereas even a cheap ink-jet printer will give you 600. But there are some features that are really appealing for news executives and consumers alike. For instance:

  • It’s small, portable and light, about the size of a thin paperback book. Yes, it easily passes the classic test: you can take it to the bathroom with you.
  • You don’t have to plug it in to a computer, and, because it’s connected to a cellular network, you don’t have to find a WiFi hot spot, either.
  • You can subscribe to newspapers such as the Times, the Journal and the Washington Post for considerably less than it would cost to get the print editions. The Kindle automatically downloads the entire paper, which means you are untethered from the Web. (Here is the list. The Boston Globe isn’t there, at least not yet.)

From the little bit that I’ve seen of the Kindle online, the newspapers look rather ugly. Obviously the Kindle will have to become enough of a success for newspaper designers to come up with something specifically optimized for a paperback-size vertical screen. Color would be nice, too.

The Kindle is hardly the only experiment in paid online content. The Times has something called TimesReader, which costs $15 per month and which, according to Jack Shafer, is much easier on the eyes than the Web site. (No Mac version, so I haven’t been able to test it.) But TimesReader requires you to lug your laptop around, which makes the Kindle a much more portable solution.

I do have doubts about the Kindle. It’s easy to imagine a Kindle-killer — a similar device that lets you browse the free Web via a WiFi connection and download content so that you can read it even when you’re disconnected. (We can already catch a glimmer of such devices with Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch, though I don’t want to read on a screen that small.) The free-content paradigm is powerful, and may prove too difficult to overcome.

But the Kindle does offer a possible alternative to the free, Web-based regime that has been such a boon to consumers and a bane to publishers. I hope the Kindle is at least enough of a success so that we can arrive at some judgments over the next few years.

Update: Peter Kafka of Silicon Alley Insider thinks I’m full of it, writing, “The existence of the plan has made at least gulled at least [sic! sic! sic!] one blogger, MediaNation’s Dan Kennedy, into imagining that the Kindle will help save the newspaper industry.”

Kafka notes that the Kindle has a built-in Web browser, which means you could read newspapers for free. But he fails to acknowledge that the paid versions of those papers might make for a much better reading experience, especially since you can download them ahead of time.

Update II: Actually, I’m not sure the Kindle does include a Web browser. I can’t find anything here. I would also note that Amazon touts “free built-in access” to Wikipedia, which suggests that there is no generalized browser. Otherwise, why make a big deal about Wikipedia?

Update III: It does, but not a very good one. From Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch:

In addition to being a book reader, the Kindle has some experimental features. One is a limited Web browser customized for the device with some preselected bookmarks including (in case you want to buy a digital camera instead of a book, which you can do just fine from the main Kindle shopping page), Wikipedia, Google, BBC News, Yahoo Finance, Weather Underground, and the Yellow Pages.

You can also enter any URL, including Bloglines (but not Google Reader, which requires Javascript and which the Kindle browser does not support). So here is a Kindle hack: you can check out your RSS feeds for the New York Times or the full feed of blogs like TechCrunch for free using the browser, rather than choose to pay a subscription to get them downloaded to the Kindle. I don’t have high hopes for the Kindle’s ability to bring back subscription revenues for publishers of any kind.

We’ll have to wait and see.

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  1. Anonymous

    Kindle?Halfway interesting. “Kindle” pronounced in American is the same as “Kindel” in German. “Kindel” means “child.”Whatever. I guess it will be interesting to see how well this new Amazon technology is accepted. Seven or eight years ago, some book store chains (which also had Internet sales web sites) were experimenting with technology that would allow them to print out hardcopies of individual books on-site (at their stores) and bind them for their customers; I hadn’t heard that that technology went anywhere.Of course, for those of us who are computer freaks, there is always Project Gutenberg. Texts, which are out of copyright somewhere are often available for free over the Internet, and in more than a few languages. Want to read Also Sprach Zarathustra in German? You don’t have to go to Schoenhoff’s in Cambridge to pick up a copy (although the store would be nice to give business to.–raj

  2. Anonymous

    I’ve used the beta version of TimesReader. Terrific way to display newspaper content. I wish future versions of Kindle would use it.

  3. Ben Compaine

    The mostly overlooked point, by Newsweek’s Levy, WSJ yesterday and even Prof. Kennedy is that Kindle-like devices give publishers and consumers more choice. Marketers speak about market segments. SOME newspaper readers have given up on the printed paper for the free but less portable and scanable Web version. Other consumers want to stick with paper. The Kindle—and the price will come down dramatically over the next two years and beyond– is for another market segment: those who have stuck with paper but are annoyed at the cost and those who have switched to the Web but realize they miss much and can’t read when it’s most convenient (bus, plane, toilet). To the extent that an e-reader, freed from the PC but simulating much of the paper experience, can provide a new revenue stream for publishers, it can only help. The key to digital is that it adds choice beyond the analog model. It is not an either/or world anymore. Whether music, video, text, graphics, digital means mixing and matching distribution and formats modes. Unlike plastic or paper, the choice for consumers is greater and the opportunities for publishers keep getting better—though more complex.

  4. Aaron Read

    (yawn)I can read my favorite paper for free via its website using my Samsung i760 over 3G cellphone internet connection or any available WiFi nearby.Not to mention I can make calls, send text messages, surf the rest of the web, send/receive emails from my work account, write a document in Word, Excel or PowerPoint, listen to music, take pictures and about two dozen other things. All with a full QWERTY keyboard (and I mean “full”, not that hideously-small-key Blackberry style) in a device no larger than an iPod…and for less cost than a Kindle.Sorry Dan, I want to see newspapers succeed as much as the next man but there is zero “gotta have it” sizzle here.The only way this’ll succeed is if all the top twenty dailies band together to aggressively distribute the Kindle to achieve high market penetration and then they all agree to stop publishing in paper; go exclusively to the Kindle. But as the Digital TV rollout has shown…there are HUGE problems and disadvantages with that “forced migration” approach. OTOH, the Digital AM/FM (HD Radio) rollout also shows how dreadfully slow a voluntary migration is.

  5. R. Scott Buchanan

    My father is north of 80 now, and his eyesight isn’t what once it was. If the Kindle could provide him with really huge text so that he can carry around reading material without physical strain, then he’d probably go for it. I doubt he’s alone. But so far all we’ve seen documented are six pre-selected font sizes from which to pick, and no clear description of how big the maximum is.Heck, just being able to read in bed for people who normally are tied to a magnifier would be an interesting market to target, and I can’t see why, technologically, it should be hard to accomplish. 6×6″ may be a tad small for that, but surely that isn’t the upper bound of the e-ink technology. After all, we’re living in the future! 🙂

  6. Anonymous

    No one currently reads the paid pdf versions of newspapers on the web at their desks or laptops.Look at the stats. Really. Less than half of one percent of overall subscription numbers is considered GOOD usage. Usually it is about 2/10s of 1 percent of overall paid subscription numbers. Really.So, let me get this straight:Currently, as a user I can FOR FREE read on my nice mobile device (in this case Motorola Q) free newspaper websites with a decent presentation — with updates and all the great things that come with interactive WEB sites. (in COLOR even)So, exactly what the heck is the attraction of paying $400 for ANOTHER device that then I have to PAY to read the PDF version of the paper (that has never appealed to me to START with?) in Black and White, to boot!?!?Yeah, keep believing this is what will “turn the industry around.”Total BS.

  7. Howard Owens

    How will the paid version make it a better experience?Not only can you get the Times site for free, more importantly, you can get their RSS feed for free.Also, the Kindle misses a couple of the key distinctions of the digital world that I think will be hard for users to give: Namely, the ability of one device to do it all — text, video, e-mail, calendar, phone … I’d rather carry that around with me; and, the lack of interactivity .. how can I comment on a news story on the Kindle? Advantage Web.There is also a barrier to switching that doesn’t exist on the iPod (this is not the iPod for books). With music, we all had vast amounts of digital content … it was easy to bulk up our iPods with content at no additional cost … not so with the Kindle.Also, there is a difference how people consume books vs. music … making it some what advantageous to stick to analog.

  8. Bill Toscano

    Great stuff, Dan. I have been reading a good deal about other aspects of the Kindle, and you bring a different perspective.To the original anonymous poster: The “print on demand” option is available at some bookstores.Northshire Press in Manchester, Vt., — in my opinion the best bookstore in new England — just added a machine. We are gonna geek out and go check it out

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Why do so many of us assume that people won’t pay money for a better experience? You can read the Times online for free every day, yet some people are paying $15 a month for TimesReader because they think it’s better. (Anyone know how many?)There are two reasons why a paid subscription via Kindle might be superior to accessing the same content for free via Kindle’s Web browser.1. The entire paper is downloaded and saved to the Kindle’s memory. (Sorry, I haven’t checked to see whether it’s hard drive or flash.) Theoretically, this could provide for a smoother experience, unless the cellular network the Kindle uses is so fast and perfect that it’s virtually invisible.2. Better formatting than is available for free. I leave that to the designers. But, clearly, Jack Shafer and others believe Times Reader is much easier to look at than the Web site. Why wouldn’t it be possible to do that with the Kindle, too?I must admit, I’m probably not a good prospective customer for the Kindle. I think the book aspect of it is kind of ludicrous. As for a newspaper subscription, I’m happy with a combination of print and Web.But to dismiss the idea out of hand is to ignore the advantages that some people might find in such a device. And I don’t think anyone has ever won a bet by believing that Jeff Bezos is stupid.And, sorry, I am not going to read content on my cell phone. I recently read John Updike’s “Hub Bids Kid Adieu” on an iPod touch at my local Apple store. The only thing I found satisfying about it was that I lived to tell the tale.

  10. Will Seberger

    I’m really sorry to hear that we’re still in the ‘put the genie back in the bottle’ stage of redefining the role of journalism in the modern marketplace.FACT: I can read nearly any newspaper I want (at the very least, the clear and vast majority of it) for FREE from any Web-enabled appliance. In fact, I have a smartphone that allows me to look at Web sites with relative ease (not an iPhone), and many news sites even take mobile browsers into account when coding their pages.Why on God’s green Earth would I pay to read a newspaper on an LCD screen, when I can already read a newspaper on an LCD screen for free? On my laptop and my phone (both devices are with me nearly 24 hours per day), the photos will even come through in color.As a professional print journalist, I can say that the biggest problem facing the print journalism industry is the schlock that’s dumped into the paper every day, and the knee-jerk changes in corporate direction that come from the blind-leading-the-blind board meetings.Any effort put into trying to figure out how to get readers to pay for Web-based news content exactly as it appears in print is a complete and utter waste of time.Step one: Improve content.Step two: Offer Web content that actually adds to the newspaper’s content quality.Step three: Figure out how to distribute with no apparent cost to the reader, while still maintaining profitability in the ads office.When there’s a product on the market worth buying, people (be they readers, advertisers or some combination of the two) will buy it.Until that point, undoubtedly many in the industry will go on believing that the problems facing the industry lie out of the newsroom/shareholder/publisher’s control while still putting teeth under the pillow in expectation of the Tooth Fairy’s arrival.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Figure out how to distribute with no apparent cost to the reader, while still maintaining profitability in the ads office.Sounds like the old Steve Martin routine about how to make a million dollars without paying any taxes. First, make a million dollars!

  12. Anonymous

    Note to Anonymous@4:22 PM: have to PAY to read the PDF version of the paper (that has never appealed to me to START with?) in Black and White, to boot!?!?I’m not sure what your referring to regarding b&w. We have been subscribing to the e-edition in PDF format of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel for well over a year, and have been receiving full editions in living color. Download the entire file on Saturday night and read it at our leisure.Maybe your source is transmitting only in b&w, but I can assure you that even the daily Spiegel website (for free at is not. (NB: the site is mostly in German, but they do have English articles there under the “English” tab near the top.)–raj

  13. Jon Delfin

    While I’m waiting for the next (and cheaper) generation, I hope to find out two things: 1. Will they expand the offerings to include older titles (last year’s best-sellers that are now in paperback, for instance) at a lower price point? 2. If I’ve already bought a hard-copy book from Amazon, do I get a break on buying it again electronically?

  14. Eivind Thomsen

    Dan Kennedy said “Figure out how to distribute with no apparent cost to the reader, while still maintaining profitability in the ads office.” – Look to Europe where free daily newspapers are becoming the most read daily newspapers in many countries. Look to France and Spain – where the Schibsted papers 20 Minutes (France) and 20 Minutos (Spain) both are the most read dailies in their markets with more than 2 million daily readers each. The business models are there, the advertisers are more than willing to pay for that reach – and the quality of the papers makes millions want to go and pick up the papers.

  15. Peter Porcupine

    You are all missing one important aspect of dead tree newspaper subscription and buying.Some people WANT the ads. Some people buy the Sunday paper only because it HAS more ads. Will a Kindle give you a grocery store coupon or a 20% off on Linens and Things?Likewise – I read my local daily both on-line and dead tree. MANY stories which appear in the dead tree are not in the virtual version – sometimes, it was an AP story, or a columnist who can’t be reporoduced without an extra fee, or so on. Obituaries, engagements, wedding anniversaries and birth notices receive especially scant notice on the web – will they be on a Kindle?What Kindle is offering is already readily available in the truncated web version of papers – but not the score or color from the Barnstable-Falmouth Thanksgiving Day classic.It seems like a solution without a problem.

  16. Anonymous

    Well maybeYou are all missing one important aspect of dead tree newspaper subscription and buying. Some people WANT the ads. Some people buy the Sunday paper only because it HAS more ads. (emphasis added)They might want the ads, but do they want to pay for them? The latter is the issue.I refer to the Globe as “the incredibly shrinking Globe” in large part because the number of pages in the A section has shrunk considerably over the last 10 years. And it recently occurred to me–there were no ads, or very few. Given somewhat free CraigsList Internet ads and relatively cheap targetted direct mail advertising by stores, advertisers are probably eschewing broad advertisers such as the Globe. This may explain to some extent the Globe’s regionally targetted sections. Actually Munich’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung does exactly the same thing. with regional sectionsAnother little story. When I was a kid in Cincinnati in the 1960s, I delivered a weekly “advertiser” to people in my neighborhood. It was free; had a couple of local stories (such as the Wellesley Townsman). The publisher didn’t give me enough copies for the entire route. After I ran out of copies, obviously I didn’t have any option but to–stop. What is interesting is that people would actually call up the publisher to complain. I told him the problem–not enough copies. Did I get any more copies? No. I was told to make sure that the people who complained received copies. It was hilarious.–raj

  17. Will Seberger

    @Dan Kennedy:”Sounds like the old Steve Martin routine about how to make a million dollars without paying any taxes. First, make a million dollars!”Not so much. We’re talking about distributing a product that doesn’t have to cost the readers any money up front to obtain.As other readers have posted, there are a great many successful “free” papers out there in the US and abroad.I’ll reiterate that Internet connectivity has put people in a state of mind where they believe that information is free.Indeed, the market has agreed that newspaper information is free. Nearly every paper I can think of has a Web site allowing free reading.Since we’re quoting from the 70’s, I’ll come back with Roger Daltrey: “Music must change.”Create a paper with vastly superior photos and stories. Drop it off to every mailbox in a community. In the event you’re looking at a large city that would prevent such a plan, pick certain zips/neighborhoods/etc. (and allow others to opt-in) for direct, doorstop delivery and put bins in the places where door-to-door isn’t possible.Make it look good and put some good stories in it, and advertisers will buy in.Another thing to keep in mind here, is just as newspapers haven’t really figured out how the Internet fits in their model, advertisers haven’t yet figured out how to successfully advertise on the Internet.Sure, the ‘tubes reach more people, but there is little known demography about each of the viewers, and they might not even be in the advertiser’s area.For a long time to come, people will continue to advertise in print format. They can either do it by direct mail pieces, or by putting ads in papers and magazines.Give them a reason to go back to print magazines and newspapers.Many, many of the glossy lifestyle magazines have gone this route. No more managing subscriptions. No more subscription sales reps. Almost by default, their readership has gone up, distro costs have gone down and ad rates have gone up, as has insertions.Supplement all that with a great website, and bingo.So, no. As much as I like Steve Martin, I’m not at all suggesting a cop-out answer to this problem.

  18. Dan Kennedy

    Will: “Create a paper with vastly superior photos and stories” is very Steve Martin-esque. I’m sure editors across the country will read your words, slap themselves on the head and shout, “Finally, I know what the problem is! We suck! We just need to stop sucking!”I’m an alumnus of the Boston Phoenix, an alternative paper that made a successful transition from paid to free. So I understand the benefits of free circulation. But the Phoenix is a weekly with a small staff.I’m not aware of a large daily with a comprehensive journalistic mission that is available for free. Maybe it can be done — but if it could, you’d think someone would try it.There’s also something to be said for a newspaper’s having more than one revenue stream. Free circulation gives advertisers an incredible amount of power — more power than they ought to have.

  19. Will Seberger

    I think in many cases, the editors’ hands are tied. Diminishing returns with a corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value dictates that stories are bought in bulk from the wires and syndicates, and that fewer funds can be directed towards the in-depth reporting that used to be one of the hallmarks of good journalism and good newspapers.No head-slapping intended, or likely even needed.Again in line with maximizing shareholder value, the corporations jerk around from ‘solution’ to ‘solution’ in an effort to try and raise revenue. Whether it’s Web video or more Britney, it’s typically a case of ‘chasing the shiny object’ syndrome. I think the reason this hasn’t been tried en masse is that there is a great difficulty in changing a business model industry-wide.I would love to sit down with the Murdochs and Zells of the world to ask precisely the question you’ve asked: why isn’t anyone doing it? And do so not because I think I know more (I don’t), but because I’d be really, really interested to hear the answers.I lived and worked in DC for a while, and was quite impressed with the Metro, a free 32 page digest of the Post. It was what really got me thinking about the possibility of a free publication that had a sound and thorough journalistic mission.MinnPost is also doing some interesting things, although they are, in my understanding, operating as a 501c3 rather than a private for-profit or publicly owned business.The last point that I’ll address is your argument that freebies give too much power to the advertisers. I contend that the current atmosphere of corporate ownership, JOAs, buck-chasing and lowest-common-denominator journalism is also putting too much power into the hands of those least interested in finding truths and holding the powerful accountable.I don’t pretend that there is any one magic solution for the future of the industry. I think that at this time it is critically important that we come together and really start looking at ways to secure our future.Journalism is the cornerstone of a free society, and it’s also what feeds my family. Therefore, I’m doubly interested in working towards a solution that will keep things rolling in the future.I have enjoyed talking with you and your other posters, and do apologize if I have hijacked your thread or offended anyone. My intentions were certainly not to do either.Should you or anyone else here wish to continue a conversation, please feel free to email me at .

  20. Dan Kennedy

    Will: You’ve been right on point and you even used your name. Come back any time.

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