By Jeff Jarvis
Portable reading devices were described as offering "a glimmer of hope for the embattled industry" in these pages last week. Having spent the past two months reading two newspapers - the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal - primarily on my Amazon Kindle, I'd say that glimmer is dim.
The problems with the Kindle could be - and no doubt will be - solved. The reader works wonderfully for books. But it also tries to turn a newspaper into a book, starting us on the first page of the first story and nudging us through its awkward user interface to proceed a page-turn at a time through the entire product, as we used to on paper. The digital among us, however, no longer read news in this way. Online, we search and link and flit and explore. We are in control of the experience, not some editor somewhere.
Online, news has been freed from its packaging. Indeed, that is a key architectural underpinning of the web itself: content is separated from presentation. The same text and media can be fed into a web page, or into an iPhone app or an RSS feed. Substance parts company with style. All of which makes me wonder whether we will ever see the iPod moment for newspapers.
News Corp, Hearst and other publishers are reportedly working with manufacturers to develop flat electronic substitutes for their beloved paper. Their assumption is that we are pining for a familiar, nostalgic presentation of content. They hope that when electronic news reminds us of print news - that is, when editors can once more package the world for us - we'll again be loyal to and perhaps pay for their work and brands.
Sorry, but I think the opposite is occurring. We care less about the form of news and more about the information it imparts. That is the key strategic problem for editors and publishers hoping to charge us online: once news is known, it is knowledge that can be spread through conversation, which means it can no longer be controlled behind a pay wall. News is spread in the speed of a tweet. The half-life of a scoop's value is lessened but the value of links grows.
These economics were driven home to me as I read the Journal on my Kindle. Since my days on an expense account, I've subscribed to the Journal online, paying more than $100 a year. For the last two months, I was paying an additional $9.99 a month for it on the Kindle. But in that time, I saw just how few Journal stories I read or needed to read after I'd gone through the New York Times and my RSS and Twitter feeds, which send me to a dozen sources. It's links that most often get me to read articles.
In the emotional frenzy to find a way to make us pay for news again online, the Journal is reportedly mulling the idea of micropayments, in the hope that this will attract a new audience unwilling to subscribe but wanting to get that unique Journal story - folks such as me who come in via links and search. I see unintended consequences ahead. I may end up paying cents for stories instead of dollars for a subscription. Indeed, when the Journal raised its Kindle price to $14.99, I hit my limit. I cancelled.
I will still read news on gadgets, of course. The New York Times has a brilliant iPhone app that is constantly updated and ad-subsidised and free (as I wish the Kindle were). The Times also has a new version of its PC reader that more closely mimics the experience of reading the paper; it's appealing.
But in news, neither the device nor the form matters nearly as much as the information and its timing. This requires that publishers unleash their news on every device possible. But no single gadget will be their saviour. None will bring back the good old days - if they were that - of news and the world delivered in neat little packages we paid for.