There are two answers, and both stretch way beyond touting yet another Apple product that may, or may not, revolutionise the media world – in this case a portable touch-screen computer that didn't exist when News International had finished building its new colour presses two years ago.
The first answer majors on simple maths and draws on some heavy figuring by Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis. How many national UK newspapers are sold each day? he asks. Say, 10m. And how many iPads – at £429 and up – will be bought in Britain over the next three years? Somewhere between 1m and 3.6m, depending on a myriad of unpredictable factors.
But how many of those purchasers will actually use their machines for news-reading purposes? And how many of them will then pay for that privilege in any case? Evans, straining every sinew, reckons total revenue, at best, would end up in the £200m to £250m range – and that's before Apple takes its 30%. Set that against the £1.2bn in revenue brought in by quality newspapers through 2008, or the £1.9bn raised by our mass-market tabloids, and what have you got? A trickle of cash that may help a little but won't truly change anything.
We're talking bits and bobs, not salvation. Add in similar calculations for iPhone life and the answer is still the same. The iThis and the iThat are useful, often fascinating, tools. But even if they'd been invented when Mr Murdoch found his green field in Broxbourne, he'd still have needed his giant presses, speeding lorries and full-colour units. There wasn't a big enough alternative revenue stream in prospect then and there still isn't today.
But any second answer goes beyond immediate profit and loss. It deals, crucially, in concepts. It wonders, for starters, what an iPad is.
Evans begins to round out a definition here: "The iPad is not just a news device – it is a multipurpose device." And increasing American testimony, once the rush of a million units bought in the first month begins to abate, supports that broader conclusion.
Alan Mutter, a respected new media consultant and blogger, found that the three most highly rated news apps came from France 24, the BBC and National Public Radio. In short, from broadcasters who could spice their offering with large (free) helpings of video and graphics. These broadcasting companies left newspaper apps from USA Today, the New York Times et al far behind on satisfaction scales (and news companies who charged for their apps, such as Time magazine, at $4.99 a week, were right out of the hunt).
Chuck Hollis, an influential marketing blogger, bought his first iPad the other day and found his wife and kids commandeering it immediately. Within hours his wife was sitting on the back porch with a long drink, playing with the photo app and sending long overdue pictures to friends. Within half a day his kids, home from school, were squabbling over who could have first turn.
Which chimes with one non-blogging New York family I quizzed. The wife lies in bed before sleeping (or breakfast) with iPad primed. The children take it to their rooms and squat with it on the floor. They use it for entertainment and diversion, for games, for socialising, for watching and browsing. They do not see it as a news medium. Least of all – following rather lumpen press logic – do they treat it as a sort of news magazine because it shows you a page the rough size of a magazine.
The iPad – plus heirs and successors, perhaps – isn't some surrogate digital newspaper waiting to rescue Fleet Street. It's different, with a different appeal. It will surely a find a money-coining slot in the digital spectrum. But salvation? That's something else (even before your wife goes upstairs to bed).