Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for March 18th, 2007

It’s easy like Sunday morning

Posted by metaphorical on 18 March 2007

I said yesterday that newspapers were in crisis. Readership is declining in vitality and numbers—aging and dying off.

Digglahhh reminds me that I should point that a lot hangs in the balance—television can’t be counted on to do the serious, expensive, time-consuming investigations that provide a real check on government and industry. The blogosphere is still largely dependent on newspapers and magazines to do the research and reporting that can then be amplified, both in depth and volume.

But young readers can read a lot of news for free on-line. In cities, they even get free newspapers-lite at subways, coffee shops, and kiosks.

What will get young readers reading—and, critically, paying for—a real newspaper? I’m hopeful that Apple has figured that out.

About 8 years ago, I used one of the early Palm Pilots. It was black-and-white, with no memory card. The screen was only about 30 characters across. My favorite feature was a program you could download called AvantGo. Dozens of news sources reformatted their articles for AvantGo. You subscribed to various feeds—this was long before RSS—and then each morning downloaded the new articles.

I subscribed to the NY Times tech section, parts of News.com and Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages (and its wine columnist), and Hollywood’s Daily Variety. Once downloaded, you could read articles anywhere, even on the subway. And as it turns out, the screen was about as wide as a newspaper’s column, so it was easy and comfortable to read them.

For all its value, though, AvantGo was still a pain in the ass. The scheduled downloads couldn’t be counted on, even if you remembered to dock your device overnight. You had to be careful not to exceed your Palm Pilot’s available memory. And one-handed scrolling on the Palm Pilot wasn’t entirely trivial.

Enter Apple, in the form of the iPhone, expected this June. RSS does exist now. The iPhone will download newspaper articles not just when docked, but all the time—even at slow 2G cellular data speeds, they’ll trickle in all day. Scrolling and going from one article to the next should be as effortless as navigating playlists on an iPod. The iPhone will hold an unlimited number of articles, even if some are multimedia files. Compared to the Palm Pilot’s, the screen will be the size of an aircraft carrier. And it will be color.

I can picture a 25-year-old (such as Digglahhh) spending, say, $50 or $60 of his hard-earned first paycheck, annually, on the NY Times. That’s a far cry from the $514.80 that a full paper-based subscription costs. But physical paper and physical delivery are huge expenses that are avoided with an on-line subscription. We’re told they exceed the cost, and all profit comes from advertising revenue. AvantGo had no advertising, but it also ran on a 30×6 black-and-white screen.

For now, Digglahhh’s $60/year is found money. The Times wasn’t getting a dime from him, and probaby never would. At a certain point, the Times will need to count on on-line subscriptions. That day isn’t here, but it’s coming. That’s why I said yesterday that the window of opportunity for creating on-line subscriptions is probably only about five years wide. Would Digglahhh pay $5/month for complete access to the Times’s archive, and whatever subscriber-only features it has? Hopefully he’ll notice this post and answer for himself. But I’m guessing a lot of his peers will say yes, once the iPhone creates the perfect interface.

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