Over the last month, I’ve been stuffing my iPad with books purchased online, long PDF files and other documents for later reading sessions. I’m waiting for the mind-blowing media applications, they’re still in the making. Several prototypes of French newspapers I have seen are quite promising. We have to be patient. This is just the start of the runway.
Compared to my computer, I realize I’m using the device in a different way. No mail (too clumsy), no writing, no twittering. Just reading stuff, the longer the better.
And I wonder: Can tablet computing be the missing link, the one that could rehabilitate (or rather introduce) long form reading in digital format — in a profitable way?
Let’s project ourselves two years from now. And let’s put the iPad aside for a while. It’s 2012. Tablets have become a cell-phone-like commodity, competition is strong. Aside of Apple, devices from Samsung or HTC running Android or god knows what operating systems are thriving. Standards for digital formats have emerged and e-books are heading toward a 25% market share in Europe and the United States. The digital publishing chain is running smoothly and efficiently with the following characteristics.
- The old production and distribution system that was eating 65% to 70% of the retail price is now down to a 30% fee taken by publishing platforms. They get this 30% for putting the publications on their virtual shelves and for collecting the money.
- These inventories are served by clever search and recommendation engines (not the Trabant-like system of the iTunes/iBooks store).
- To reflect decreasing distribution costs when compared to physical books, e-books retail prices are down by at least 30%.
- Authors also take advantage of the technological shift, they get higher royalties.
- New formats have emerged; the old dichotomy between hardcover, priced at $25, and paper back, at $10, is gone, replaced a by a more diversified pricing structure.
Hence the question: What will the impact be on journalism and on the bottom line of media companies?
Before attempting an answer, let’s reframe this in the dual context of the current business situation and of the newscycle. Managing a newsroom within today’s constraints is a difficult exercise. In daily newspapers, physical editorial space (i.e. column inches) is scarce, making long pieces a hard-sell to the editor-in-chief. The web is more welcoming, although we all know that beyond a 600 words story, reader attention tends to fade — especially for younger audiences.
As for the newscycle, it accelerates and becomes increasingly complex, requiring more expertise and, in theory, more editorial resources — should editors decide to go below the surface. Take the debt crisis in Europe, for instance. The general framework is pretty simple: thirty years-old traders in shark-frenzy mode, going against sixty years-old politicians. The sharks prey on the politicians who have failed to build decent economic leadership since the introduction of the euro system (coins and banknotes entered in circulation January 1st 2002). More