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Appetite for Destruction: why an "iTunes for News" is a bad idea

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You can learn a lot of the wrong lessons from Apple: You can attribute the success of the iPod to the fact that people like white plastic, and so you can dip your crappy doodad in a can of paint. You can say that the success of the iPhone is because people really like touch screens, and so you can make another terrible cell phone -- now with touch-screeny goodness. And, as journalists and journalism theorists by the dozen are saying recently, you can look at the success of the iTunes Store and say that it proves that "people will pay for content."

That was exactly what was said a good half-dozen times at Chicago's Journalism Town Hall, which saw 350 people cram into a conference room to discuss journalism's future, this weekend: Look to iTunes and follow its lead into a magical land of news articles paid by their devoted readers. It worked for Apple, right? Why not us?

Well, first off I'm hard pressed to believe that people love articles the way they love music. Don't get me wrong -- I believe in the power and importance of journalism (hell, I teach it). But how often do you go back and listen to a song you love? Compare that to how many times you re-read an article. You're not going to put a bunch of articles on shuffle any more than you might take a bunch of clippings, toss them into the air, and read them in the order they came down in. The analogy simply doesn't hold up. It's a false comparison.

But there's a bigger issue here than simply an incorrect analogy.

You know who hates iTunes? The major record labels. From the iTunes store's inception, they have chafed against the rules and requests that Apple has placed upon them. Some have threatened to leave (Universal famously did for a time in 2007). Others offered Digital Rights Management-free tracks to Amazon long before Apple got them, in the hopes of propping up Amazon's fledging service. They invested in streaming services, they created their own download services (their most ambitious, TotalMusic, closed this year). None of it, not even the good ideas (and I'm probably being charitable here), have worked. And, as a result, the labels find themselves in a very different place than they were before Apple came along. It's not a place they want to be.

iTunes threatened the established order: it proved that the labels were not as powerful as they claimed. Even more threatening, it demonstrated a road forward where major record labels will become even less important.

It seems a little silly then that big newspapers would look to iTunes: it's embracing your own destruction.

The big record labels' entire business was built around moving little plastic discs around the world, similar to how a newspaper's business was built around moving paper through a printing plant and on to you. That's about 60-70% of the cost of producing a newspaper: getting the ink on it and moving the damn thing around. Moving things from place to place--be it plastic discs or bundles of paper--is very difficult and expensive. It's the kind of business that rewards economies of scale and, as a result, allows for huge concentrations of power and money. It's the kind of business that creates five major record labels and a dozen or so major news companies (that's a generous number, actually, once you get past the first five or six you're down to small town paper chains). It's the kind of business that comes crashing down the quickest once its central complication--moving things from here to there--disappears. With the efficiencies of digital distribution, the established order is not simply threatened, it is broken.

And so it's understandable that those within the established order would grasp at ideas that would allow that central complication to continue: control the digital content, sell it to people that want it. Hence the many, many arguments put forth at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall in favor of the "razor blade model" (give someone a Kindle-like device for free, sell them the content to put on it), or the "cable TV model" (bundle a bunch of services together for a single price), and the good old "iTunes for news" model (selling articles a la carte--but hanging onto the sales side too).

None of those arguments are about saving journalism, they're about saving the established order. It's no surprise then who is advocating them, and also no surprise that those most critical of them at the Journalism Town Hall were those outside the journalism establishment, people like Chi-Town Daily News editor Geoff Doughrety whose local news upstart gets closer and closer to besting the Tribune's metro section.

Nobody doubts that there's a trouble in journalism right now. But the real threat isn't to journalism, it's to the business models that have long grown fat on the spoils of controlling the movement of things from place to place.

So we can talk about saving journalism, or we can talk about saving the established order, but we can't talk about both.