As iPad sightings become commonplace, and as the habits of early adopters are scrutinized for clues about the influence tablet technology will have on consumer choices, the news industry is wondering -- desperately and obsessively -- whether tablets will save newspapers and magazines, or just pound a few more nails into the coffin.
In many ways, the mobile tablet format is ideal for the distribution of newspaper and magazine content -- and initial studies show a robust appetite for news among those who have already purchased the devices. However, history and other evidence suggest that once the novelty wears off, traditional media will need to work a lot harder to retain those early adopters and to interest a broader consumer base.
Among the opportunities presented by tablets is the chance for publishers to correct the mistakes they made when migrating to the Web in the '90s, on a platform that should feel more familiar to them than PCs ever have. A tablet is totally mobile, tactile, intimate and -- for many users -- intuitive. In short, it lends itself to being carried around and used more like a newspaper than a desktop computer. The big difference is the interactivity the digital platform can offer. Having spent over a decade being schooled in what it means to "design for the medium," print publications should see this new technology as a challenge to design mobile apps and Web sites that feel native and innovative, not repurposed. (See "The Ins and Outs of iPad Apps," page 46.)
Further, tablet publishing seems to offer a rare do-over on the revenue side, reintroducing the concept of paying for digital content. Having been acclimated by the iTunes store and by other paid apps, some consumers seem willing to pay for the convenience of tablet content. (See "Pay to Play," page 34.) In December, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that 21 percent of Internet users said they'd paid to download apps for their cell phones or tablets, and 18 percent said they'd purchased digital newspaper, magazine or journal content.
A December survey of more than 1,600 iPad users by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri reported that accessing news content was the most popular use of the device, with nearly 80 percent saying they spent at least 30 minutes per day consuming news on the iPad. When participants were asked what would influence them to purchase digital content, "a price lower than the price of a print subscription" was the most popular answer.
The Reynolds survey also found that the more heavily a person uses an iPad for news consumption, the less time he or she will spend with printed newspapers. In fact, 58 percent of participants who had print newspaper subscriptions and spent at least an hour per day accessing news on their iPads said they were very likely to cancel their print subscriptions in the next six months. This is one of the data points used to suggest that tablets will kill newspaper subscriptions. But how many of those subscriptions would have died anyway? The fact that many people are willing to pay for content on any digital platform may offer a glimmer of hope.
Here's the sobering news: Today's tablet users are probably giving us a wildly optimistic view of what mainstream consumer behavior will be. As pervasive as they may seem, iPads have only reached a small, not very representative portion of the population. Of the 1,600 iPad users surveyed by the Reynolds Institute, more than half reported household incomes of more than $100,000 per year, 76 percent had at least a bachelor's degree and 80 percent were men. Nearly 60 percent said they subscribed to print newspapers. They're the top of the pyramid. (These statistics also explain why advertisers are currently paying premium rates to get in front of iPad users.)
And even these heavy news consumers may be losing some enthusiasm already. When Wired magazine's iPad app debuted in June 2010, the first issue sold more than 100,000 downloads at $4.99 apiece, creating all kinds of giddiness among print publishers. But in a late December blog post, Women's Wear Daily threw a bit of cold water on the hype by sharing data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations that showed a steady downhill slide for Wired and every other magazine that reports its iPad app sales.
While experts are projecting astronomical growth in iPad and other tablet sales for 2011, the success of newspaper and magazine content -- especially paid content -- on these devices will depend on how closely the next wave of users resembles the early adopters. It will also depend on publishers'
ability to continually engage their customers in a way that
And that, no surprise, depends more on content and user-centered design than the underlying technology. The same business model and consumer insight challenges that have plagued traditional media in the Internet age (see "Navigating the Future," Winter) will persist in the era of the tablet. Technology is offering a glimpse of what the digital future could look like, but it's going to take a lot of trailblazing to get there.