No bang, just fizzle: Why Apple’s iPad flopped as a news platform

Photo (cc) 2011 by Global X.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Of all the good technological innovations that were supposedly going to rescue the news business from the bad technological innovations that had laid it low, perhaps none was more highly touted than Apple’s iPad.

Portable, beautiful, and cheaper than a laptop (though not cheap), the iPad would re-create the closed media environment that had prevailed before the rise of the internet. Instead of the web, you’d have apps. Instead of free access, you’d have subscriptions. Instead of frenetic multitasking, you’ve have the relative calm of one-task-at-a-time concentration. It was Steve Jobs’ final creation — the fulfillment of his dreams, according to Walter Isaacson, his biographer. Among those who let their enthusiasm get the better of them was David Carr, The New York Times’ late media columnist, who wrote several weeks before the device’s 2010 debut: “I haven’t been this excited about buying something since I was 8 years old and sent away for the tiny seahorses I saw advertised in the back of a comic book.”

Unfortunately, the iPad has proved to be a huge disappointment for news publishers. The reason, according to Shira Ovide of Bloomberg Businessweek, is that though people like their iPads, they love their smartphones. Sales of the iPad peaked at 71 million in 2013 and slid to about 44 million last year. Meanwhile, about 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2017. Against that backdrop, iPad sales are barely a rounding error.

Ovide attributes the iPad’s disappointing performance to the utter failure of Apple’s iBooks to challenge the Amazon Kindle and its library of electronic books. No doubt there’s something to that. I’m sure that the lack of real technological advancement has held back sales, too. I have a third-generation iPad from 2012. Although I’d like a newer, faster model, the improvement would probably not be worth the cost. New phones, on the other hand, generally offer real advances, and we’ve all gotten into the habit of upgrading every two or three years.

How has this affected the news business? We are, of course, consuming lots of news on our phones. But the iPad and other tablets were supposed to offer something different — a “lean back” experience that would mimic reading a newspaper or a magazine.

As Ovide notes, the early days of the iPad saw ambitious experiments like Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily. Moreover, our two leading national papers, the Times and The Washington Post, went all in. The Times offered an attractive iPad-only edition that was a pleasure to use. The Post several years ago unveiled a “national digital edition,” a low-cost, magazine-like product that was updated just twice a day — at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. — for people who wanted to sit down and read rather than bouncing around their phone looking for something to occupy themselves for a few minutes.

Unfortunately, the Times’ iPad edition is no more. Last year it released a universal iOS app for both the iPhone and the iPad that looks and works much better on a phone than on a tablet. The Post’s national digital edition still exists. These days, though, there is far more emphasis on mobile than on leaning back.

“In hindsight, it was a waste, and Jobs led them all on a costly detour,” Ovide writes. “The iPad is important, but it never became the ubiquitous, world-changing computer that Jobs pitched in 2010. Instead, the smartphone — including Apple’s own iPhone — changed the world.”

I should point out that there was skepticism at the time regarding the iPad’s world-changing properties. David Carr himself qualified his enthusiasm by appending this to his seahorse analogy: “Come to think of it, the purchase didn’t really meet my expectations, but with the whole new year thing, a boy can dream, right?” I also expressed reservations about the iPad ahead of its release, writing in The Guardian:

The problem is that the iSlate [as many of us thought the device would be called], rather than making our technological lives simpler, instead amounts to one more object — one more thing — that we have to lug around. It won’t replace our smartphone. And the virtual keyboard ensures that it won’t replace our laptop, either. Do we really need a third internet device to carry with us wherever we go?

Even though I later broke down and bought one, I think that assessment has held up rather well. So here’s another prediction: Technology will not save the news business. In fact, no one thing will save it — but many things might. The iPad is a fine platform on which to consume media. But it was always unrealistic to think that it would save us from the long, hard slog of developing new economic underpinnings for the journalism on which democracy depends.

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Why newspaper apps still matter

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The Washington Post’s new iOS app.

Remember when the iPad was going to save the news business? How did that work out? But if the redemptive qualities of tablets turned out to be overblown, they are nevertheless a compelling platform for consuming all kinds of text and multimedia material, including news.

This morning I spent way too much time with The Washington Post’s new iOS app, which is detailed at the Nieman Journalism lab by Shan Wang. It is beautiful, with large pictures and highly readable type. I was already a fan of what the Post is now calling “Washington Post Classic.” But this is better.

So do I have a complaint? Of course. The Classic app is more complete; it includes local news (no, I have no connection to the Washington area, but it’s nice to be able to look in on occasion), whereas the new app is aimed at “national, international audiences.”

And both apps rely more on viral content than the print edition, a sluggish version of which is included in Classic.

Quibbles aside, this is a great step forward, and evidence of the breakthroughs that are possible with technology billionaire Jeff Bezos in charge. In fact, the new app is a version of one that was released last fall for the Amazon Fire. So it’s also heartening to see that Bezos isn’t leveraging his ownership of the Post entirely to Amazon’s advantage.

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The Boston Globe’s new app.

Another paper with a billionaire owner has taken a different approach. Several months ago John Henry’s Boston Globe mothballed its iOS replica edition — that is, an edition based on images of the print paper — and replaced it with an app that is still print-centric but faster and easier to use. It was developed by miLibris, a French company.

The first few iterations were buggy, but it’s gotten better. In general, I’m not a fan of looking at the print edition on a screen. But I find that the Globe’s website is slow enough on my aging iPad that I often turn to the app just so I can zoom through the paper more quickly, even if I’m missing out on video and other Web extras.

One big bug that still needs to be squashed: When you try to tweet a story, the app generates a link that goes not to the story but, rather, to the Apple Store so that you can download the app. Which, of course, you already have.

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The Boston Herald’s app.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Boston Herald has a pretty nice iOS app, developed by DoApp of Minneapolis. It’s based on tiles, so it’s fast and simple to use. It’s so superior to the Herald’s creaky website that I wish there were a Web version.

Do apps for individual news organizations even matter? We are, after all, entering the age of Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles.

My provisional answer is that the news organizations should both experiment with and push back against the drive toward distributed content. It’s fine for news executives to cut deals with the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg. But it would be a huge mistake if, in the process, they let their own platforms wither.

Also published at WGBH News.

Kindle edition of “The Wired City” now available

I got some great news on Thursday: The Kindle edition of “The Wired City” is now available at Amazon.com. I do virtually all my book-reading on my iPad using Kindle software, even if I have a hard copy — so I know how important it is to make “The Wired City” available electronically. Thank you for your patience.

This morning’s BostonGlobe.com report

The next few weeks should be interesting as the folks at the Boston Globe work out the bugs at BostonGlobe.com.

Starting last night, the site stopped working on my almost-four-year-old MacBook using Chrome and Safari. (Might be just my set-up, though I did reboot.) On the other hand, it still works fine with Firefox, for which I’ve recently been developing a new appreciation, as it seems to be the most stable of the three major Mac browsers. No problems on my iPhone or on Mrs. Media Nation’s iPad, either.

I’m glad to see Dan Wasserman’s editorial cartoon made it to the site today, and I hope syndicated cartoons will be included on days that Wasserman isn’t drawing. The comics are online today, too. Maybe they were yesterday, but I couldn’t find them.

Other observations: clean as the site is, the organizational scheme is a bit bewildering, with many different options. I feel as though I’m missing stuff. The “Today’s Paper” option doesn’t seem to be quite that. It would be nice to have a clearly delineated separate section of everything that’s in that day’s print edition.

Also, how about combining all the little “Names” tidbits into one column? Other “g” shorts could be combined, too. I don’t want to keep clicking to read 90-word items. It’s one of my main peeves about GlobeReader, too, and I’ll bet I’m not alone.

Subscriber-based BostonGlobe.com debuts

Readers turning to Boston.com this morning and clicking on “Today’s Globe” found something new — an invitation to register for the new BostonGlobe.com, a paid site that will be getting a free trial for the rest of September. After that, it will cost $3.99 a week, which makes it among the more ambitious attempts to persuade online news consumers to pay for content.

I was among a number of media observers who were given a sneak preview last month by Globe publisher Chris Mayer and editor Marty Baron. I’ve got a longer take on the new site up at the Nieman Journalism Lab, focusing mainly on the site’s use of HTML5, which enables the Globe to offer a standalone app for the iPad and iPhone and avoid paying Apple its 30 percent cut.

Also, Nieman’s Joshua Benton offers four observations and asks lots of questions. Jeff Sonderman has a rundown at Poynter. Staci D. Kramer covers the launch for paidContent. And there’s plenty of coverage at BostonGlobe.com itself, starting here.

Access to BostonGlobe.com is included with any type of print subscription, including Sundays-only. Since the Sunday-paper-plus-GlobeReader has been our solution of choice for a while now, this is nothing but a plus here in Media Nation.

The New Yorker’s underwhelming iPad app

Given the New York Times’ rather rhapsodic take on the New Yorker’s iPad app, I was surprised by how underwhelming it turned out to be when I finally gave it a test. I installed it on Mrs. Media Nation’s first-generation iPad, loaded in the current issue — and found it to be almost identical to the PDF-like version that the New Yorker makes available to its print subscribers, a.k.a. the “digital edition.”

There was one key difference, and I’ll grant you it’s an important one: the digital edition requires you to move the pages around on your computer screen, making them bigger and smaller and switching around among columns, maneuvers that have long made most of us despise PDFs. The iPad version, by contrast, automatically formats to the screen. That’s a big improvement.

Other than that, though, I found the app to be rather flat and uninspiring. Yes, the Times review emphasized that it was designed for people who just want to read rather than be dazzled. But there’s a middle ground between a plain reproduction of a magazine and a distracting multimedia extravaganza. I’d have liked to see the New Yorker aim for that middle ground.

That said, it was a nice way to read Ryan Lizza’s excellent profile of Michele Bachmann — especially since the mailman hasn’t seen fit to deliver our print edition yet.

Happy birthday, Marshall McLuhan

Today is the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian scholar who forever changed the way we think about media and their effects on the human psyche.

Last week I sat down for a conversation with Len Edgerly, host of “The Kindle Chronicles,” on what McLuhan would think about the Kindle, the iPad, and what effects e-readers would have on our perception of text, reading and linearity. The interview grew out of my recent review of Douglas Coupland’s McLuhan biography for Nieman Reports.

Len and I had great fun, and I hope you’ll have a chance to give it a listen.

An alternative metaphor for reading the news

Times Skimmer. Click on image to see for yourself.

I don’t remember when Times Skimmer was first unveiled by the New York Times, but I do remember being unimpressed. Recently, though, I took another look, and it struck me as new and improved. It’s a different way of experiencing the newspaper, and I think it’s got some real promise.

As with Times Reader, a subscription-only e-reader product, the free (for now) Times Skimmer is laid out in horizontal pages that you can flip through quite efficiently. Skimmer, which compiles the Times’ RSS feeds, is more up-to-date than Reader (though the latter does have a “Latest News” section) and gives you a more-complete snippet of each story, making it unnecessary to page through every story to see what the sometimes-cryptic headlines are all about.

Reader’s advantages over Skimmer are three-fold: (1) you can download the entire paper and take it with you, so you don’t have to be connected to the Internet in order to read it; (2) Reader is typographically more pleasing, as Skimmer simply taps in to NYTimes.com when you click on a story; and (3) with Reader you’ve got that day’s Times as opposed to a collection of RSS feeds — a distinction that matters to some of us elderly news junkies.

So what do you get from Skimmer? A different way of looking at NYTimes.com that rationalizes the overstuffed, jumbled website. I’ve found several stories using Skimmer that I would have missed if I’d been reading the website or Reader. Among them: this excellent feature from the Lens blog on the last photographs taken by Times photographer Joao Silva, gravely injured in Afghanistan.

One annoying omission from Skimmer is the Times’ book news, including the all-important Sunday Book Review. There are RSS feeds both for books in general and the Book Review in particular, so it wouldn’t be hard to add — which makes me think the omission was deliberate. Based on my incomplete reading, it seems that some book news pops up in the arts feed, but only a few highlights. Unfortunately, there’s no way for us mere users to add feeds to Skimmer.

Skimmer and Reader are the inspiration behind the Times’ Chrome app, which became available last week. As with Reader, you can download it and take it with you; as with Skimmer, it’s a compilation of RSS feeds. I’ve played with it a bit, and though it’s promising, it’s not quite ready for prime time.

Reader, Skimmer and the Chrome app, with their simple, horizontal layouts, all seem to have been devised with tablet computers in mind, although Reader won’t run on an iPad and never will unless the Times moves away from its reliance on Adobe Flash. (There’s also a separate Times app for the iPad, which I have not had a chance to test-drive.)

As such, they represent an interesting alternative to the website metaphor we’ve all grown accustomed to over the past 15 years.

Amazon’s move is a boon for digital newspapers

The future of digital newspapers just got a lot more interesting.

The New York Times reports that Amazon has decided to let newspaper and magazine publishers have a 70 percent cut of Kindle revenues, a substantial increase over the current 30 percent. In order to qualify, though, those publishers will have to agree to let Amazon sell subscriptions to anyone who has a device with Kindle software installed on it. (Unlike books, you had to have Amazon’s Kindle hardware device in order to download newspapers and magazines.)

When that happens, you’ll be able to read the Kindle editions of your favorite newspapers and magazines on an iPad, a smartphone or the forthcoming Google tablets.

Given the halting nature of newspaper and magazine rollouts for the iPad (stemming in large measure from a dispute between Apple and publishers over who gets to see customer data), this is a boon on two levels. It gives non-Kindle tablet owners a viable workaround until Apple and the publishers can get their act together — and it provides Apple with a huge incentive to make that happen, along with some rare leverage for the publishers.

Meanwhile, John Ellis points to an analysis showing that paid online distribution may have a future: at Rupert Murdoch’s Times of London, online readership is down but revenues are way up since the Times erected a pay wall earlier this year.

Earlier: “The resurrection will be slightly delayed.”

Reflecting on the latest circulation figures

In Japan, advertising accounts for just 35 percent of newspaper revenue. In Britain, it’s 50 percent. And in the United States, ads have traditionally amounted to a whopping 87 percent of newspaper income. That’s why it can truly be said that, in the U.S., newspapers have always given away the news, charging only for paper and delivery.

These days we pay for computers and broadband access while getting the news for free — same as it ever was. That is among the most important explanations for why news organizations are going to have a difficult time persuading more than a handful of readers to pay for online access. I wish them well. But the challenge is enormous.

One thing some readers will continue to pay for is the convenience of print. (Spare me your nostalgia for the romance of print. Print persists for one reason: it’s still more ergonomically friendly than any electronic version. Someday that will change.)

After yesterday’s newspaper circulation figures were released, showing a continued but slowing decline in print sales industry-wide, Boston Globe publisher Chris Mayer issued a memo — a copy of which was obtained by Media Nation — attributing the Globe’s continued slide to last year’s decision to raise the price to as much as the market would bear. (Here is the Boston Herald’s take.)

The idea is that there’s a sweet spot. Up to a point, you can raise prices and make more money, even if the total number of print readers declines. Somewhere, though, there’s a top to the curve, and the challenge is to find the top and not raise prices so much that revenues start to fall. The result, unfortunately, is that you end up with a niche product for an elite readership. But it’s either that or die.

And here’s a good piece of news. There’s also a sizable subset of readers who will pay for electronic editions like Times Reader and GlobeReader, which are cheaper than print but more convenient than newspaper websites that keep you chained to your desk. Given that iPad editions have barely kicked into gear, that’s a promising sign.

The full text of Mayer’s memo follows.

Dear Colleagues,

Earlier today the Audit Bureau of Circulations issued their Fas-Fax report for the six months ending September 30th. The Globe has shown year-over-year declines in line with our expectations, as a result of our circulation and pricing strategy instituted last summer.

The good news is the rate of circulation decline has slowed as we cycle through the impact of the price increases. One indicator is the comparison between September’s report and March’s report. Viewed this way, the declines are 2.8% for Sunday and 4.2% for daily. These are encouraging trends for our business and in line with others in our industry.

The past few months has also seen continued excellence in our reporting and positive contributions to the community. Our Spotlight Team investigation of patronage in the state’s probation department; our sensitive series of stories on bullying; the amazing coverage of the Amy Bishop case; coverage of the earthquake and aftermath in Haiti and its impact in Boston; and our current coverage of the political races are just a few examples of the important journalism we’re delivering.

The Globe’s circulation, now at 368,000 on Sunday and 223,000 daily, still makes us the largest newspaper in New England by a wide margin. The year-over-year decreases of about 15.7% on Sunday and 12.0% daily were expected and budgeted.  To offer some context, we raised prices last summer in most areas by 30% to 50% to grow circulation revenue and stabilize the business.

Of course, circulation numbers are not the end of the story. Print and online media work in concert with one another to build audience. It should be noted then that in terms of readership, during an average week, the Sunday Globe, the daily Globe and Boston.com together will reach 51% of all adults in the metro Boston area.  It will also be reported in Monday’s Fas-Fax that Boston.com’s local audience grew by 2.9 %.

The recently announced two-brand digital strategy is now officially under way and we are developing launch plans for our new subscription-based Web site BostonGlobe.com, and the next generation Boston.com. And, watch forperiodic launches of digital products in the upcoming months.

So, as we look ahead we will continue to execute on our strategy, building on the strong foundation of quality journalism, original content, broad audience reach, higher reader engagement, advertising effectiveness, and strong connection with the community that is reflected by, and results in, our more than 50% of the market.

We can all share a sense of optimism and purpose as we focus on our future success.

— Chris

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.