Why iPad won't, repeat won't, save newspapers

Is iPad really digital saviour of newspapers? Don't bet on it
By Roy Greenslade/London Evening Standard
Thousands of people lined up in London last week to acquire an iPad. Apple tends to create such devoted fans and I'm happy to declare that I share their enthusiasm, but only up to a point. I like to think I have a sense of proportion because I'm neither a geek nor do I believe that Steve Jobs, the company's hugely talented co-founder, walks on water.

That sense of proportion also means that I am totally unconvinced by media visionaries who seem to believe that Jobs will prove to be the saviour of the newspaper industry by bringing us the iPad.

There are five reasons for their belief. First, though people do appear to be reluctant to pay to obtain online news through straightforward subscriptions, the iPad - being so much like a mobile phone - will encourage people to stump up. Second, paying for applications to download material is a more natural act than subscribing for access to a website on a desktop or laptop computer.

Third, the portability of the iPad makes reading text material much more like the newspaper experience. And fourth, the 9.7-inch screen is big enough to make it easy and pleasurable to consume lengthy amounts of text and, just as importantly, high quality advertising content.

Then there is a very different fifth reason for the fervour - the iPad blessing administered by Rupert Murdoch. He said in a speech a month or so ago: "It may well be the saving of the newspaper industry."

As we in the journalism business know well, when the chairman of News Corporation speaks, the media world not only listens, it treats every sentence with reverence. No Apple PR could have come close to securing the kind of positive press reaction that greeted Murdoch's statement.

Publishers and editors, stressed by years of declining newsprint sales and worried by the difficulty of creating a sustainable online business model, lined up to nod in agreement. At last, rescue was at hand. If Rupert says it will work, then it must.

At this point, it is as well to remind ourselves that Murdoch was not talking about newsprint being saved, but the newspaper business itself. The vision is of iPads - or, in fairness, other e-readers from competitors - becoming the reading, listening and seeing device of choice for the coming generation of adults.

That will lead to that moment when printing becomes uneconomic, terminating the need for presses, newsprint, ink and trucking. Content will become so much cheaper to distribute through e-readers. And, of course, it comes with all the benefits of online journalism, such as interactive journalistic participation.

It's fair to say that this vision existed long before the advent of the iPad because plenty of digital gurus argued years ago that computers were the future of news publishing. But Apple's new innovation has convinced Murdoch, and many other mainstream publishers, that they might have found a way to make commercial sense of the inevitable move from print to screen.

In the US, where the iPad has been available since April, app take-ups have supposedly taken news organisations by surprise. Reuters news agency claims that its readers are spending three times as long inside their new iPad app than on its website. Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times also report high usage of their apps that allow people to navigate maps, play games and read books. Magazines are said to be pleased with the response too. American GQ, for example, is said to have sold 57,000 apps since it was launched in December 2009 and expects the iPad to boost that number substantially.

So why am I so sceptical about the iPad being the newspapers' saviour? For a start, the numbers don't stack up. As Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis has pointed out, though 10 million people pay for a daily newspaper, at a rough estimate of £30 a month, "there will not be 10 million people spending £30 a month on the iPad any time soon."

Then there's the mistaken notion of what "the iPad experience" really means. There is no doubt that people will enjoy using the tablet, but not necessarily for reading news.

In essence, the iPad changes nothing. Publishers are fooling themselves if they think it circumvents the current problem of persuading people to pay for something they have grown used to getting without paying. Why should anyone except a fanatical Times reader cough up £9.99 a month for access through its app when they can browse the net for nothing on the same iPad?

We are back to the same conundrum we have faced for the past five years or so. How can we find a cast-iron way to fund the journalism we believe so essential to the public?

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