It's hard to remember the days before the Internet. But it's been just shy of two decades since news organizations traded picas for pixels in their first forays into the land of the Web. And since they fell flat on their faces.
Internet gurus spun tales of new markets, audience growth and enhanced storytelling. And publishers did everything they could to screw it up. They fought it. Hard. And then they acquiesced meagerly. They refused to post content online before it came out in print. And when they did, they copied and pasted from the print document. And they did it for free.
Nearly 20 years later, publishers are learning. Many news sites are robust enterprises, with up-to-the-minute posts, interactive elements and payment models hinting at a sustainable future. But they're playing a desperate game of catch-up, struggling to persuade readers to pay for a product they've consumed for free since its advent.
While news sites fought for survival, somewhere in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs did what he did best. He created something that changed the world: The iPad ushered in the era of tablets in April 2010. He made it powerful and pretty and told people they wanted it. And, after a period of skepticism, they said, "OK." Android competitors such as Samsung and Motorola jumped on board and rolled out their own versions.
Now media moguls are salivating. This is it. The golden ticket. A second chance.
Tablet ownership nearly doubled over the 2011 holiday boom, with 19 percent of U.S. adults owning a tablet in January 2012. Combine that with people who own an e-reader, and publishers are reaching nearly a third of the population.
But even though publishers are still cleaning up the mess they made in the Internet's early days, some news organizations are proving to have short memories.
"Newspapers did the same thing with tablets as they did with the Web and with mobile," says Alan Mutter, a media consultant and former editor known for his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur. "They simply took the stuff they prepared to print in the newspaper and ported it over to this new platform."
Tablet applications are often PDF versions of that day's paper uploaded the night before. Others are RSS feeds taking the exact same content from the Web site and placing it on the tablet's smaller touch screen. The Internet grind of mindless reposting without repurposing for a new platform is seeping into the tablet realm.
Publishers list scores of reasons for not charging full speed ahead. They're watching the market. They lack the resources. Readers won't pay. Some of the reasons are legitimate. Smaller staffs and financial woes demand smart, thoughtful approaches. But these concerns won't stop new-media companies from taking the lead.
"The tablet versions of the newspaper look even more decrepit and out of touch than if they just left it in the box on the corner," Mutter says. "They've had two years to do something exciting and innovative on this incredibly interesting and fast-growing platform, and they haven't done it."
Some are doing more. The Daily, the first iPad-only news app, often gets nods for its ability to incorporate interactive elements and maximize the perks of the platform. Esquire Magazine is jazzing things up with celebrity video hits, such as George Clooney's appearance in the January 2012 edition. Some newspapers such as the Boston Globe are pushing the relatively unexplored HTML 5 boundary.
"In the end, you really want a different kind of storytelling process to occur on a tablet," says Larry Kramer, adjunct professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, former president of CBS Digital Media and founder of MarketWatch. "You want an easily integrated experience that involves video, audio, text and interactivity all in one place."
Advertising fears, flat presentations, lack of integration--all these problems are temporary, Kramer says. "The tablet is the best medium for the convergence of all forms of media," he says.
"Newspapers that are simply regurgitating their content from print for their app are missing the opportunity that the iPad provides," says tablet visionary Roger Fidler, director for digital publishing at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. "The iPad is not a supersized smartphone. It may be the future of newspapers in that it ultimately could become the dominant medium and generate the largest percentage of revenue."
Jobs' creation is a sexy consumption device. Pew Research Center data in October 2011 found tablet users were an exclusive bunch. About half are college educated. More than half make more than $75,000 a year. And best of all? Nearly half said they subscribed to print newspapers or magazines. Editors, welcome to the Promised Land.
Tablets are a product of the 24-hour news cycle. They're portable and wireless. They're light enough to stash in a purse or briefcase and fast enough to power up quickly on the subway. With the capacity to seamlessly integrate text, photos, video and any other media form coming our way, they're perfect for the increasingly fragmented attention spans of today.
"There will always be improvements in technology, but it's hard to beat a lightweight, portable and highly legible, multimedia-driven delivery vehicle," American Society of News Editors President Ken Paulson says. "It's a newspaper amplified."
Tablet users might not be representative of the population, but they're a sweet spot of well-educated and affluent readers. The jury is still out on whether they're willing to play ball when news organizations start charging for content on a new platform, but the industry remains hopeful.
"Consumers are more likely to embrace that because it feels like a new toy and not just paying for the same old thing," says Paulson, whose term as ASNE chief ends in early April. "This is a chance to market your existing content in a new way, and that doesn't come along very often."
It's also the chance to build a new audience. Yes, publishers drool at the potential for profits, but they must do much more, says Doug Bennett, president of the interactive division of Freedom Communications, which owns the Orange County Register. Editors should stop settling for audience migration (taking the same, aging newspaper audience and moving it to a tablet) and start focusing on audience acquisition (maintaining print readership while focusing the tablet on previously untapped markets).
Newspaper readers and their Web site visitors get one year older every year, and legacy outlets are failing to bring in new ones, Mutter says. Those who read newspapers online, from the demographic point of view, look exactly like, and often are, the people who buy the print paper. The tablet is an opportunity to engage readers who have shunned print products and their digital replicas.
Different platforms have different strengths. And different strengths draw in different audiences, says Regina McCombs, Poynter Institute faculty member in multimedia and mobile. A mobile user is looking for utility and speed. Smartphones are perfect for a quick search or Twitter update. The tablet is about the experience. Integration and multimedia capabilities provide the opportunity to delve deeper into the layers of a story. Feeds, PDFs and shared content ignore the concept that people go to different devices for different reasons.
The Orange County Register usually has about 155 stories in the newspaper, compared with 55 on the tablet app, Bennett says. About a quarter of the content on the app is tablet specific. The rest, which comes from print, is edited to make it more tablet friendly, thanks to photos, video and other graphics. Bennett says the goal is to have 40 percent original content aimed at the medium's primary audience of 35- to 45-year-olds, followed by the secondary readership, ages 25-35.
"The Peel is our attempt at saying, 'Look, let's stop the madness and focus the effort on audience acquisition,'" Bennett says. "Let's see if we as a brand can actually create content around this new audience or a demographic we haven't served well."
The Peel is run by a separate team of six members who come from TV and entertainment, not news, and have a mind for video and interactive, Bennett says. Since this is a separate group, the paper did not want team members ostracized as "those people." Instead, the team works in a pod of cubicles directly in the newsroom and joins in at morning budget meetings.
The idea is not to overhaul a brand, but instead to maximize its impact, Newsweek iPad Editor Melissa Lafsky says. Existing subscribers have their option of print, digital, mobile or tablet. But the potential of tablets comes from taking that existing brand, infusing it with tablet-specific qualities such as easy navigation and beautiful graphics, and aiming it at an audience previously outside of the subscription net.
The tablet is a gadget for news addicts, says Paulson, who is also president of the First Amendment Center in Nashville. Users have the up-to-the-second news content they crave in an engaging form replete with graphics and audio. The success of the tablet lies in its ability to connect. To interact. To bring images and words to life with a simple flick, swipe or prod. It radiates cool.
Tablets also push editors to break out of the standard storytelling mode and to try something new. For example, instead of reading a story or infographic on how a spark plug works, Popular Mechanics readers can play a game on the magazine's tablet app in which they control the spark plug in an attempt to keep an engine running. Sure, they're playing a game, but they're learning. And that's the point, says Deputy Editor Jerry Beilinson. The magazine's success has always come from its ability to mix the "how to" aspect with a "gee whiz!" factor, Beilinson says. The tablet experience elevates that to a whole new level.
The touch screen is a much more natural process for consuming information than a keyboard and mouse, Financial Times Online Managing Director Rob Grimshaw says. The way people learn about the world is through touching it and seeing what happens, Grimshaw says. It's why little kids poke and nudge so much. They want to see how things react. It's the same with a tablet.
"We're a generation used to working with keyboards and mice and saying it feels natural," Grimshaw says. "But the reality is that it's a strange way to interact with something, when you press a key here and it does something to a screen over there."
Tablets are intuitive. Even the best Web site requires some navigation and, occasionally, a search engine. But a good tablet app walks the reader through like a good newspaper does. And that's not something to take for granted, Paulson says.
"The typical Web site navigation of a bunch of menus that allow you to drill down into various kinds of vertical silos of content is not always the most rewarding experience," Grimshaw says. "On the tablet, you immediately move into this world where it becomes very straightforward. You just swipe and flip from one page to another. The whole experience of consuming the content is enormously pleasurable."
Evidence indicates tablet owners tend to migrate to their devices in the morning and evening, both on weekdays and on the weekend. Web sites see their heaviest traffic during the day, while people browse at work. Mobile is dominated by the need for quick information while on the go. But tablets elicit longer, more engaged sessions. Recent data from the Reynolds Journalism Institute's surveys show tablet owners are more likely to use their product at home in a relaxed setting, like an easy chair, Fidler says. A tablet's portability allows people to use them on a subway ride, but its charm lies in the ability to go deeper.
Moving away from feeds and into tablet-specific content creates possibilities for layers. If readers have two minutes, they can skim the front and get a quick update. But if they want to know more, the option needs to be there.
"It's going to need a variety of ways of presenting a story," Kramer says. "When a story breaks, I'd like to get as much as I can in the time I have. The platform needs to have the layered ability to consume a story and go as deep as you want to go."
That mixture is what makes the tablet so appealing, Lafsky says. The layout and magazine feel are preserved and amplified. And readers have shown that they're willing to read long-form journalism on tablets. Then throw in the interconnectivity of the Web. Links, video and multimedia make for a dynamic reading experience.
Tablets appear to present a perfect marriage for news outlets and readers: a new platform with potential for a sustainable payment model and the means to attract a new audience that's geared toward a user's urge to interact and explore.
But its success relies on publishers' ability to take advantage of the medium. It's all about doing justice to the channel, Poynter's McCombs says. PDFs, a stagnant snapshot of yesterday's news, do nothing to engage the vitality of the platform.
"As a first step, if that's all you're going to do, that's something," she says. "But a PDF essentially is not serving your audience very well."
As with most things, it comes down to resources. Newsrooms and content centers are smaller. Editors often don't have the staffs to put the necessary effort into original, platform-specific content. When 85 percent of revenue is still coming from print, it makes devoting time and resources to an emerging product a tough sell. But without new initiatives, readers and advertisers could see the brand as antiquated, Bennett says. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy if the focus stays on print, he says.
"The days of putting all your content in a database and just spitting it onto any platform and thinking that's going to get you a new audience, that's over," he says. "The reality is, too many times in traditional media, that's still the primary way they think of putting content out. Create once and distribute everywhere."
In the land between PDFs and original content are RSS feeds and content management systems. Many media outlets, including the New York Times, have taken this transitional approach as a way to heighten the interactivity of the platform while still not having to pour in the time and staff required to produce new material.
"We're still in the early stages," says Fiona Spruill, New York Times emerging platforms editor. "We don't have a ton of flexibility to say we're going to be able to blow this out on the iPad. To be honest, I'm not sure that's something I want or need right now."
It's a matter of priorities, Spruill says. Story-by-story decisions and original content will come. But first, the Times wants to work on improving the app and experimenting with the medium as a whole.
Feeds allow a live presentation of content, the Financial Times' Grimshaw says. The tablet is constantly up-to-date, an essential quality in a news environment becoming more and more burdened by timestamps and who tweeted what first. Efficiency reigns. Editors can scale up output without taking on large amounts of editorial input.
"However, we're starting to notice that people's reading patterns are very different on a tablet than on the desktop," Grimshaw says. "It raises the question of whether it's actually right to be publishing the same thing, the same way, the same time on a tablet as desktop. The answer is
The Washington Post, like everyone else, started off reliant on feeds to power its original flagship app experience in 2010. But the Post realized pretty quickly that that wasn't good enough, says Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor for strategic projects. Instead, the company moved aggressively toward a curated experience for its new Post Politics app, just as it has for every other platform. The result is less reliance on automation. Instead of moving content from the Web site, the Politics app has its own designer and producer updating the content.
"Everything in tablets changes day to day," Garcia-Ruiz says. "We have to be ready to succeed with the technology we have today, but we also have to prepare for technology a year from now."
While many companies take an umbrella approach to mobile, lumping their smartphone and tablet production into one category run on similar standards, others cite the tablet's unique interactivity as a reason to branch out.
It took years for publishers to grasp that they shouldn't be making the same decisions on the Web as they were in print. But that sentiment seems to take as long to sink in when it comes to smartphones and tablets.
"If we make the same decisions on all four platforms, probably three of those are going to be wrong," McCombs says. "Just like you can't port the newspaper directly onto the Web, I don't think you can port the Web right into the tablet."
Now that news outlets have this new platform to play with, they're exploring which avenue is best for driving sales and gaining users. Initial tablet programs took the success of mobile apps and ran with it. Apps allow a news organization to reinforce the strength of its brand and package it with an easy purchasing system.
"Apps made it much easier to get what you want conveniently without having to search for it," Fidler says. "They reestablished the value of a package of information. Publishers can now begin to sell subscriptions to that package that has a branded identity."
But instead of the interconnectivity available in a browser setting, apps resemble the early days of the Internet and closed circuit Web sites. If a user wants her news from NPR, she has to go to the iTunes store, download the app and make a conscious decision to tap that icon every time. Whereas casual Web browsing on a desktop could land her at NPR's site in a seemingly endless variety of ways.
"If you read the magazine on the app, you're reading a specific piece of product," Newsweek's Lafsky says. "You're not reading a Web page that will send you to a totally different site. Sometimes it will take you to a link or a video clip, but then you're still right back there in the issue."
News editors hope to "trap" audiences in their app, instead of letting them wander in and out of a browser. And many have the brand power to do so--a critical advantage legacy media sites hold over emerging outlets, Mutter says.
But it's one that won't be around for long, especially as publishers like the Financial Times and the Boston Globe start to play with HTML 5. An updated version of the common coding structure for Web sites, HTML 5 allows news sites to build their tablet product in the open browser setting of the Web instead of a closed-off app.
"When you're publishing in a digital environment, whether within an app or the browser, the option for people to switch between different bits of content is always there," Grimshaw says. "It doesn't take more than five seconds to come out of one app and go to another. I don't see you putting handcuffs on people just because you've got them within your app."
Apps can fall prey to the dreaded "back screen" syndrome. If they don't make the cut for prime realty on the homepage of a smartphone or tablet, it's too easy for readers to forget the app is there.
Apps are likely a transitional model that will be around for a few years, McCombs says. In many ways, they are an interruption in the evolution of the Web and its flow from closed to open environments.
"We're all obsessed with apps at the moment," Grimshaw says. "I suspect there will be a growing realization that, actually, they have many drawbacks. We'd rather get back to the free and easy interconnected environment of the open Web."
HTML 5 sites maintain the look and feel of an app but don't have to be coded like an app, McCombs says. The Financial Times launched its HTML 5 Web browser in June 2010 in lieu of an app and continues to be hard-charging in its development. The FT has seen a sharp rise in mobile traffic since, with tablet users growing 71 percent, even though the FT app is no longer available to new subscribers in the Apple store.
"The world outside iTunes and the App Store isn't as cold and hostile as people think it is," he says.
Apple spun a powerful narrative around its products and retail system, creating a mythology that its way is the only way. Publishers do have practical reasons to consider, such as in-house technical expertise and the ability to do business directly with customers. Apple offered a gift-wrapped, straight out of the box transaction option, and building a custom transaction platform isn't easy, Grimshaw says. But news outlets should have confidence in their ability to operate independently if they can get all the necessary bits of technology in place.
"The publishers should be much more confident about their own capability and the power of their own brand," Grimshaw says. "The Financial Times is not lost in the wilderness because it's not in iTunes or another app store."
That's not to say that HTML 5 is the be-all, end-all solution. In fact, it's probably still a year or two out from a more robust form in which it can match what native apps do today, Fidler says. And, its browser-based experience currently prevents people from accessing material when they're not connected to the Internet, which means not being able to enjoy content when on a flight or away from a Wi-Fi hotspot.
"The thing about HTML 5 that disturbs me is the attitude that 'I want the magic wand that will take everything I put in print and automatically convert it for Web, smartphones, tablets without adding any additional staff, without having to do anything other than what I've done,' " Fidler says. "That's a big mistake, in my view."
While editors and consumers get giddy over the convenience, ease and enjoyment tablets provide, publishers and head honchos are crunching numbers trying to find their path to profits.
Reports from the Reynolds Journalism Institute and Pew suggest a majority of people aren't much interested in paying for content on tablets. About one in five people in a 2011 Pew poll said they're inclined to throw down $5 once on an app, but a $10 a month subscription is a whole other deal. And, if media outlets ever want to see numbers in the black, then the model has to be a regular subscription fee, Paulson says. Companies are testing a range of fees, such as $3.99 a week for the Wall Street Journal, $9.99 a month for the Daily Oklahoman and $59 a year for The New Yorker.
"I hope that publishers have learned that giving away their product for free isn't the wisest thing to do," Fidler says. "I'm surprised more publishers haven't implemented subscription-based apps on the iPad or tablets right from the beginning. The longer you make it available for free, the harder it's going to be to get people to pay."
Newspapers and magazines are experimenting with multiple permutations of that subscription model, whether linking it with digital and print subscriptions or letting it stand on its own. Regardless of whether they move through an app, subscriptions or something else, 85 percent of users have never paid for news on their tablets--an overwhelmingly dismal number--according to the same 2011 Pew study.
But before companies such as the New York Times can start fretting about subscriptions, they have to show they can generate money from advertisers. The Times waited almost a year after launching its iPad app to introduce subscriptions. This intermediary period allowed users to understand the value of the app before they were asked to pay in March 2011, says Alex Hardiman, director of mobile products.
Tablets bring advertisements to life in a way not previously possible in other media, Kramer says. While many publications are still playing around with banner ads and ads repurposed from the print product, others are pushing the medium in new ways. The Times essentially built an app within an app for its Ralph Lauren ad, which streamed a live fashion show. The Orange County Register had a swimsuit ad where users could spin the model 360 degrees and view the suit from every angle. The ability to manipulate and control ads like this is a major step forward from Web sites, Kramer says.
There's also a potential to complete transactions with the app--a benefit for both the news organization and the advertiser, Fidler says. If consumers 't have to leave the app, they're more likely to continue interacting even after they've purchased a product.
While these opportunities will bring advertisers on board, there's also a learning curve. Just as media companies are trying to figure out how to use the tablet and what content to push on it, so are advertisers.
"The traditional forms of media still are doing better as advertising vehicles because the advertisers know how to use them," Kramer says. "Advertisers are looking at the same question of how do I build a relationship with the same person on these multiple different platforms."
Like media companies, advertisers put a higher percentage of money on tried and true measures they know will work. Just like newsrooms, they've had to cut back on what they spend. So instead of experimenting with new platforms, they're sticking with traditional advertising. "They've been reluctant to bet the house on new technologies," Kramer says.
Although mobile traffic is growing, on average it accounted for only 0.9 percent of the digital revenue stream, according to Pew research released in March.
But publishers face a tough decision. Advertisers continue to view mobile as a digital channel. They would like to be able to do on smartphones and tablets what they do on desktops, combining sophisticated targeting and tracking with rich media and interactivity. The catch: on tablets you can have one or the other, but not both, Grimshaw says.
Advertisements require a live connection with the browser to deliver the copy, plus the tracking and targeting that go with it. Mobile platforms have either intermittent connection or sometimes no connection at all. Ad servers can't cope with that very well. Advertisers have to choose between
having a well-crafted, gorgeous ad that doesn’t collect demographic information, or a very simple, static image with targeting included.
"Either way, you're only delivering half of the experience for the ad," Grimshaw says. "The result is that there's an increasing demand for mobile advertisers, but publishers as a whole aren't able to deliver what advertisers want on that device."
The Financial Times has gone the way of tracking and targeting, because, ultimately, that's what's of value to the advertisers. They want feedback on how many click-throughs they have and assurance that they've reached the right audience.
"Beautiful and glossy is fantastic," Grimshaw says, "but if you simply don't know how many people have seen it and whether or not they liked it, what's the point?"
The iPad has been on the market for only two years, and tablet developers are still pushing the boundaries of this new platform. This transition time is like cable in its first five years, Kramer says. The tablet is doing cool and exciting new things, but it hasn't quite found its niche, nor has it reached its full potential. This is just the beginning.
"When it's able to ingest user-generated contributions but produce all forms of content and put them together, those are the skill sets that will drive the best of tablet products. That's when it becomes a big-time deal. Right now, it's a convenience," Kramer says.
But it's a convenience with an audience. Tablets have already had a profound impact on the news industry, and they are only in the hands of less than a fifth of the population. By the end of the year, about 120 million iPads are expected to be at use in the marketplace, mostly in the U.S., Fidler says. After a couple of years, that number is likely to be 300 million to 400 million, he says.
"With those kind of numbers, even if the newspaper gets a small percentage of people who own these, their circulation on the iPad or tablets within the next five years could be greater than it is in print," Fidler says.
Says Lafsky, "It's no secret the consumption of media is moving further and further into the digital realm, so it's our job as media producers to deliver the highest quality product in the format in which consumers want to consume it. The people have spoken."
For now, legacy media outlets must decide whether to jump in full-force to the tablet world and wind up failing, and failing hard, early on, or whether they wait to see what works, but risk being left behind, banished to the last page of apps on a tablet, or left undownloaded in the Apple store.
"We're determined as an organization that we should not stand still, even as we keep hold of our cherished values and integrity and the independence of what we do," Grimshaw says. "We're also prepared to experiment, because if we don't, we'll be left for dead. We have to move with the audience. That's the priority."
Despite the pressure to go forward and do the next big thing before anyone else, Lafsky says it's not a grim "adapt or die" scenario. Instead, it's a chance to look at a new tool set and figure out how to take advantage of an opportunity.
Despite an initial lack of innovation and foresight, publishers haven't forfeited their chance with tablets just yet, Mutter says. But they should act quickly. He believes the next year will be a defining time for the platform and a chance for legacy outlets to seize this opportunity--along with the chance for profits and audience growth they can’t afford to ignore.
Quality of information is still the key, Beilinson says. Tablets have the potential to make a difference because they are finding ways to deliver that information in an easily accessible, exciting way.
"We have these great opportunities and challenges, but the important thing is actually the storytelling, the journalism and the information we're bringing forward," Beilinson says. "That can take many forms."
The success of tablets affects not just the viability of media outlets, but the quality of life and democracy for America, ASNE President Paulson says. New media can roll out eye-popping apps with high entertainment value, but the duty of educating citizens and disseminating news still rests with news outlets. And that's a responsibility not to be taken lightly at a time when many newsgathering operations have shrunk.
"The watchdog role costs money, and we have to find a way to fund journalism of substance," Paulson says. "Tablets give me hope."