As the first few days of 2010 unfold, the media world is heatedly debating whether or not the forthcoming Apple iSlate will finally "save journalism."
David Carr calls it a "savior" that will "renew the romance between printed material and consumer." Derek Thompson says that print media still needs to solve the "pay wall perimeter" before the device saves anything. Matt Yglesias wonders what day-to-day inconvenience the iSlate is supposed to alleviate -- surely not because he's struggling so mightily with carrying magazines around that he needs a fancy pane of glass to do it.
And I have to think that many people are wondering how the Apple tablet will make the journalism better. Did the iPod "save music?" or did it make good music easier to carry around? If everyone wants to fund the New York Times as badly as they apparently want to fund the Black Eyed Peas's Great Works, I doubt that we'd even worry about whether or not a fancy pane of glass was going to "save journalism."
For my part, I think about the $800 price tag that Apple is likely to charge for iSlate and wonder, "Even if this saves journalism, who are we saving it for?"
One of the problems with the whole "how will we save journalism" conversation, is that it's largely remained a conversation that only media critics and gadget reviewers are having, and by and large, we're talking about a fairly affluent subset of the population. It's easy for them to express concern about "pay walls" -- their employers are going to cover the costs. Furthermore, this particular subset of people will be better positioned to purchase one of these Apple tablets the moment they roll off the production lines. Some of them will even have Apple tablets handed to them, by Apple, for free.
Meanwhile, we have a whole vast population of would-be journalism consumers that never make it into the conversation -- the working poor, for whom timely news remains a dire necessity. Back when I was struggling to make ends meet, I couldn't afford to buy a laptop. I couldn't afford a fancy phone. I certainly couldn't afford an $800 pane of glass that I couldn't carry on the subway with me for fear of it getting stolen. I could and did hustle and scrimp and save to get a cheap desktop computer which I could use if I had free time and access to the room I put it in. To get news, what I could do most easily was purchase a newspaper and read it at my convenience. So that is what I did.
As I have said before, we broadband addicts tend to kid ourselves, but in this day and age it is still far easier to carve out the time and space for a newspaper than it is for the web. And, to offer a slight variation on something I've previously said, the short-term "end of print" apocalypse will not be felt by people clutching pricey panes of glass, but by a forgotten class of people who need quality journalism as a stopgap against a whole range of societal ills.
I guess the going argument for the iSlate is that it could increase revenues to the extent that print media can afford to go on cutting down trees. In this scenario, the affluent tablet wielders will subsidize the journalism experience for everyone else. Like Fox Mulder, I WANT TO BELIEVE!
But I worry that if newspapers come to feel that their businesses are largely subsidized by one class of people, the journalism is going to transform itself to favor that group of people. This dumb New York Times piece, about how fancy bowling alleys for rich twits who don't know how to bowl are saving the economy, and which dumps all over working-class bowling league participants (allowing one fancy-pants bowling facility purveyor to literally describe that sort of bowling as "Stalinist" -- yes, Stalinist!) seems to me to be tailor-made for the iSlate.
At some point in the future, someone will find a way to psychically download Maureen Dowd's Pop-Politics Phantasmagoria directly into people's brainpans using iGossamer spun from Steve Jobs' living soul. And, yes, that will be COOL AS ALL GET OUT. David Pogue will sing a song about it, probably! But maybe we should save the "Savior of Journalism" mantle for whoever comes up with a way to get the work of well-remunerated journalists into the hands of the people who need it most. And maybe until that happens, we should consider journalism to be something still in need of saving.
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