Praying to Steve Jobs Will the iPad Save the Publishing Industry?

Many in the publishing industry hope that the new iPad from Apple will save newspapers and magazines. But the sense of euphoria is far from universal. Many question what the tablet means for the future of journalism.

REUTERS

By , and Thomas Schulz


Mathias Döpfner was in high spirits. On the weekend, Döpfner, the head of the powerful German publishing house Axel Springer, had taken his son to the Apple Store in Miami and bought an iPad. Now he was a guest on the "Charlie Rose Show" and was letting his euphoria run wild.

Döpfner even had a recommendation for publishers around the world: "Sit down once a day and pray to thank Steve Jobs that he is saving the publishing industry." His company's iPad, according to Döpfner, is "what we were all waiting for." He looked serious.

It sounded as if an ancient prophecy had finally come true -- as if Steve Jobs were the media industry's eagerly anticipated messiah. And as if the iPad finally offered a reason to shout Hallelujah after years of permanent grumbling.

It was a bizarre scene. Not content to merely sing the praises of a new technical device, Döpfner was also beatifying Jobs as something of a new über-publisher.

Whether Döpfner is on target with his euphoria will become clear in the coming weeks and months. On Friday, Apple will launch the supposed miracle device in Germany, and from day one, a number of German publishing companies, including SPIEGEL, will offer their journalistic products on the iPad.

Wait-and-See

The industry has enormous expectations for the device. Most of all, it hopes that readers will be willing to pay a suitable price for journalism read on the iPad, in contrast to online sites. But readers are unlikely to notice much of the new media revolution at first. The publishing industry is being exceedingly cautious and is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Their wariness makes sense. Even if the success of the iPad seems assured, the jury is still out on whether it will also spell success for publishers.

Many are taking their time. The German weekly magazine Stern, for example, is only expected to come out with a Pad version later this summer -- it will allow readers to enlarge photos by tapping the screen, access a few videos and solve crossword puzzles on the go. The Burda publishing group is not offering anything at the moment. The tabloid newspaper Bild, which belongs to Döpner's publishing house, does not expect to offer a multimedia application until the technology is sufficiently mature, and whether the influential national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) will be ready in time for the iPad's German launch is questionable. It hardly seems as though a revolution is underway.

The iPad has already been on the market for almost two months in the United States, and the only thing publishing companies there have learned is that it is has not exactly been a sure-fire success.

Daily newspapers have had a particularly rough time of it. The Wall Street Journal was showered with negative comments on its new iPad edition. Of more than 8,700 evaluators in the App Store, 6,000 gave the paper's application the lowest possible rating. "It's a total rip-off. I'd rather read the print version, which I can get for free at work," one buyer fumed in the App Store's customer reviews section.

Readers, who are already incensed when they have to pay for anything digital, are also upset about a confusing payment system. The iPad subscription is currently more expensive than the Journal's print subscription. And online subscribers who only pay for the web edition are furious that they have to pay extra for iPad use.

Not Particularly Refreshing

But at least the Journal, unlike the New York Times and USA Today, disclosed the number of active users of its iPad edition in early May: 64,000. This sounds respectable enough at first glance, and yet it is a relatively small number compared with the paper's print circulation of two million copies, particularly as every print subscriber has been getting iPad access for free until now.

The WSJ has done a relatively good job with its iPad app, which allows readers to view the entire paper and quickly move back and forth between stories and sections. By comparison, the New York Times doesn't even offer the entire contents of its daily edition, just selected stories, and the layout is not particularly refreshing.

So far, many magazines have offered iPad editions that are little more than parts of the print edition displayed on the screen, without even taking advantage of the device's visual and interactive possibilities. The iPad editions of two of the Condé Nast publishing company's glossy lifestyle magazines, GQ and Vanity Fair, seem plainer than the print versions. Here, once again, user reactions show that publishers are unlikely to attract substantial new groups of readers with the iPad. "GQ really screwed up," one buyer laments, adding: "It looks like they just made a PDF. There's no interactivity, nothing at all."

German publishing executives are also getting a sense that readers have become very demanding. "As a user, I have to wonder why I need an app if I can just go online," says Ulrich Hegge, head of Burda's Media Innovation Lab.

Look and Feel of a Touchscreen

Part of the reason for all the hesitation is that many publishing executives and journalists, as enthusiastic as they are about the new Apple device, are having trouble developing concepts to bring together the various media worlds: online journalism, magazine feel, the dramaturgy of computer games, video effects and the look and feel of a touchscreen.

Many publishers have long held the erroneous view that the iPad in itself represents the solution for all of the print media's problems. Only gradually are they realizing that it will not be enough to simply pour the usual content that is normally printed in newspapers and magazines into the iPad, through some sort of electronic funnel, as it were -- and expect everything to turn out for the best.

In fact, it is now clear that more and different ingredients are necessary. But what exactly should this "more and different" consist of? Or could it be that precisely the opposite is needed, and will the all-too-convenient magic of multimedia merely end up exhausting readers?

Lukas Kircher, the managing director and principal founder of a newspaper and online design firm, is currently serving as a consultant to several iPad projects of German newspapers, including Bild. He is one of the most important representatives of his trade. "It is a huge mistake to believe that we already have the content, and that the iPad is just another distribution channel," he says. In fact, he adds, readers will expect a "much stronger visual form of narration" on the iPad.

According to Kircher, iPad users will expect something from journalism that they have found predominantly in computer games until now: the ability to examine an event, relive it and almost experience it directly themselves. "The 20-page essay won't replace that," says Kircher. "At the same time, however, a new way of telling stories will emerge." According to Kircher, the reader will expect, to a far greater extent than in the past, to be cleverly seduced into acquiring information and knowledge. Kircher believes that we should not be searching for the model in today's online journalism, but in computer games and e-learning programs, and that these are presumably the most important motivating factors for many people to buy such a device -- and not, for example, the apps of daily newspapers.

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