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The iPad will not save newspapers

Thumbnail image for ipadgiant.JPGLittle has made me as pessimistic about the fate of the media as the strange bubble of anticipation surrounding Apple's iPad tablet device. The thinking was that the media's woes could be traced back to an original sin: offering free news online, which created a norm of free online news. The iPad would be an opportunity to rectify that: Everyone would buy them and newspapers would make people pay for the content from day one.

Of course, that just seemed like evidence that the iPad was doomed: If you could get newspapers for free on your laptop but not on your tablet, who would want a tablet? And now that the iPad has been unveiled and (a) doesn't look like a gamechanger and (b) will have internet access, that fantasy is probably over.

I remain one of the few who think that government subsidies of some sort will be required to sustain the media. And as a study out of the University of Southern California argues, it won't be the first time:

“We think it’s important for people to understand that the government has been involved from the beginning, and that the subsidies were much larger in the past,” said Geoffrey Cowan, dean emeritus of the university’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

He and his co-author, David Westphal, the school’s executive in residence, said that in today’s dollars, government support for newspapers and magazines had fallen to less than $2 billion from more than $4 billion in 1970.

The federal government has discounted postage rates for publications since 1792, but in the Past 40 years, the discount has fallen to less than $300 million from almost $2 billion, adjusted for inflation.

Local, state and federal governments regularly buy notices in newspapers, about things like public hearings, regulations and budgets, which Mr. Westphal said were probably worth more than $1 billion a year. ... State and federal laws also give an array of tax breaks to publications, which the authors said were worth at least $900 million a year.

The new book "The Death and Life of American Journalism" makes the same argument at greater length. The question is how to structure the subsidies such that they're sufficiently indirect. Subsidizing postage didn't feel like subsidizing reporting, somehow. Maybe newspapers will be like churches, and get special tax treatment?

Photo credit: Ryan Anson/Getty.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 28, 2010; 12:08 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

Fox News should not qualify for tax-exempt status.

Posted by: adamiani | January 28, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

"I remain one of the few who think that government subsidies of some sort will be required to sustain the media."

Oy vey. I dont know that I've ever referred to one of Ezra Klein's opinions as stupid before, but this one sort of wanders into stupid territory. I think of this and picture the White House press corps asking their usually gotcha nonsense and other petty, argumentative, and utterly irrelevant questions and the idea that I should pay for this? Bollocks.

There is not now nor will there ever be a need for subsidizing media, my sense is there's too much media as it is, so some of the redundancy out there dying on the vine is ok.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | January 28, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Maybe newspapers will be like churches, and get special tax treatment?

Great idea!

If a subscription to the Washington Post entitles subscribers to park for free wherever they feel like it, I'll think seriously about re-subscribing.

Throw in a tarred and feathered Fred Hiatt, and you've got a deal.

Posted by: antontuffnell | January 28, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Subsidizing the news papers--which is really what we're talking about, not TV media--is sticky. Do you subsidize them all? How do you determine who gets subsidized? Can new papers start in order to be subsidized? If not, why not? Do you subsidize news weeklies? What if a given news weekly or paper has a pretty obvious political slant? Do these papers get to continue to offer editorial opinions, in addition to whichever way they tint the news? Do they have to stop taking ads altogether? Does a national paper like USA Today get subsidized?

Subsidizing the newspapers--which require such subsidies only because a majority of their former readers now consider them biased, irrelevant, inferior to other media, or just easily replaced--may sound reasonable in theory, but presents intractable problems in practice. Who gets what and how much for producing how much? How much does the government get to dictate the content or production of the papers? Shouldn't the government be able to tell the New York Times to cute pages by 10%, reduce the size of the paper, reduce the quality of the paper, go to an online only news source, etc? Cut the comics pages and want-ads--you're being subsidized to provide news!

As far as tax exempt status goes, how much will that save them? Corporations are based on profits, which are few and far between in the newspaper business these days.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 28, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

I think in the future we're going to see a news media landscape that looks a lot more like the one in the UK.

The Post is a great case-study. Yes, yes, I know: there's an impenetrable firewall between news and editorial, etc, etc... But I just can't bring myself to give money to a corporation that keeps such a disingenuous gang of cretins as Hiatt's gang.

I don't mind paying for my news and information, but I just can't bring myself to pay for the active undermining of the public discourse.

This has gotten so bad that I use Ad Block when I surf the Post--I turn it off when I read Ezra's stuff. How crazy is that?

We hear a lot of hand-wringing about the polarization of news consumers, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Post would do well to "modularize" itself, and break things up into more discrete units.

Posted by: antontuffnell | January 28, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

And as far as the iPad: "doesn't look like a gamechanger" . . . do you mean like what they said about the iPod on its release? Or do you mean like what they said about the iTunes store? Or what they said about the iPhone?

Maybe it's not, but I sure want one. And if I was one of those lucky souls who had "won life's lottery" and had the money for it, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. If you grant that the iPod--which just plays music like a Walkman, after all--and the iTunes store--which just sells music and video like Amazon.com or BestBuy--and the iPhone--which is just a cell phone--were not gamechangers, then, no, this is not a game changer.

But I'll bet it is, market wise. Just being a successful, profitable tablet device would make it a gamechanger, quite frankly. And this may not save the newspapers, but it might help out a few of them, at least. Newsweeklies moving to digital content might find it helps them survive. Dunno. It's as least as likely as billions in stimulus money, most going towards the purchasing of votes, somehow saving and creating jobs. I'll bet the iPad saves and creates more jobs than the Recovery Act, and, what's more, the numbers I'll produce to prove it will be at least as reliable. ;)

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 28, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

The iPad will be a game changer simply because of the form factor. It is a window into the internet that you can hold in one hand and read a reasonable difference, urban dwellers will find it indespensible. Think of it as a set of objects you might use.

1. It is a full size transit schedule
2. Equally it is a full size restaurant guide
3. It is a gazzeteer with built in GPS capability plus a built in compass. You can't get lost unless you try
4. It is an antique catalog for use at that estate or yard sale
5. It is a field book for birders, complete with sound capability
6. It is a Soduku puzzle book, or a crossword puzzle book
7. It is a portable chess set for either remote or pick up games
8. It is a Game Boy with a built in accelerometer for action games
9. It is a full size traditional dictionary
10. It is a translation machine, its voice capability allows anyone to speak into it and have that language translated into speech and/or text. Kind of handy in New York City. Or maybe Hong Kong
11. It is a sales catalog containing photos, videos and specs of every product in your company line
12. Not least it is a full page we browser, in landscape mode it would comfortably display almost any standard webpage.

All of this functionality is built in, it would just require an App to implement. Now in principle you could do a lot of that on your laptop but not in a way that would just allow you to hand your computer to your friend or customer and have them see for themselves.

People who think of this as just another laptop or netbook are not getting it at all. The iPad takes what is an incredibly cool individual toy, that is your iTouch or iPhone, whose use is in many ways just crippled by the size of the screen, and turns it into a full-size social toy.

Can you post to a blog with an iPhone? Sure. Is it fun and easy? No it is a pain the the ass, the screen, cramped to begin with, is half taken up by a tiny essentially one finger keyboard.

Ezra you may look at the iPad and just see another netbook, your niece is going to look at it and see a portable, full size Facebook Wall. While your grandmother might see it as the ultimate Photo Album, while your busker friend might see it as the ultimate sheet music repository.

Its not a computer, its an App Machine, and that is what is going to change the game.

Posted by: BruceWebb | January 28, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Kevin is right that the pooh-pooh-ing of the iPad sounds really familiar and will be similarly misguided. I will stick with my personal rule of never buying an apple product until the 3rd version comes out, but like BruceWebb says, they got the form factor (and like the interface) right.

It's missing a camera and HDMI out, but that will arrive after people figure out what to do with it.

It looks like they're stuck with the unfortunate name, though.

Posted by: constans | January 28, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

The best way to structure a subsidy would be to 1) pass something like the Newspaper Preservation Act, thus facilitating a restructuring of newspapers as not-for-profits, and 2) distribute subsidies (either from an income tax increase or a high-speed internet access tax) according to popularity , i.e. ratings(thus preventing the possibility of government censorship), to those corporations that agree to restructure according to (1) (thus avoiding tax-payers subsidizing shareholders) and to provide all content for free online. Re: (2), the pay system could be modeled on the one discussed in Terry Fisher's work on copyright.

Posted by: RyanD1 | January 28, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

What BruceWebb said, plus it will be all of those things easily. It won't be difficult to switch to the transit map in the middle of playing your Soduku, it won't be hard to pick an album to listen to while looking up directions in Google Maps or browsing the web. It's less likely to lock up or quit when switching between applications. My best is that it'll even be a phone for Vonage customers (with wireless access, at least) and maybe a Skype phone (again, probably limited to wireless only). Yes, it needs a camera. HDMI out probably wouldn't be bad, and may even be possible via a docking station from a 3rd party, but . . .

This is Apple. The thing that just looks like an oversized iPod touch is almost sure to prove to be something much, much more.

I can't tell you how much I want one. Low-end version would be fine. If a modest-well-to-do and heretofore unknown uncle kicks the bucket and leaves me $500, I'll be getting one.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 28, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

In principle I agree that the public has an interest in maintaining something like the infrastructure of newspapers - the bureaus covering government, investigative staff, etc. But I can see many pitfalls in offering government help to the existing big institutions. Not only would the news business suddenly have an enormous conflict of interest when it came to protecting those subsidies, it could end up giving making places like the NYT and Washington Post into self-interested, power-playing political entities even more than they are now.

Japan is a very good example of where this approach has gone very wrong. For decades the government has given newspapers subsidized postage, antitrust exemption, and privileged access to government agencies (the prime minister gives two "informal" press conferences a day only to mainstream press). That would be fine, except there are only around 4 huge national newspapers that dominate the news narrative with very little room for new competition thanks to the subsidies. These papers and their partisan managers have used their papers to either support or destroy various governments over the years, and it's contributed greatly to Japan's political mess.

Since the US is at the point of just starting to think about a public subsidy, they would do well to avoid an approach of propping up existing institutions for its own sake.

Posted by: adamukun | January 29, 2010 3:14 AM | Report abuse

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