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Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas

Posted: April 3, 2010 04:05 PM

Memo to Media -- iPad Won't Save News Industry

What's Your Reaction:

What, you think the iPad hitting stores on Easter Weekend is a mere coincidence?

Nope. The media gods have conspired. Sure, the venerable Wired magazine would be all over it. And of course Laptop mag would hype the inevitable if not wholly simplistic "iPAD v. NETBOOK" war. But there's a reason why the iPad and Steve Jobs were on the cover of not just Time magazine ("Inside Steve's Pad") but also Newsweek, with this breathless, omniscient headline: "What's So Great About The iPad? Everything. How Steve Jobs Will Revolutionize Reading, Watching, Computing, Gaming -- And Silicon Valley." The iPad has the Obama touch. As the noted media columnist Howard Kurtz pointed out: "When was the last time that Time and Newsweek went with the same cover subject whose name wasn't Obama?"

The iPad-mania didn't stop there. The ever-sardonic Stephen Colbert played his part, teasing his studio audience with an Oprahesque: "Everyone look under your chair! Cuz everyone here tonight....gets a picture of me holding my iPad." In the past three months alone, the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively, have written 80 stories and 23 stories containing the word "iPad."

For many of us in the mainstream media, the Messiah in the form of a tablet has arrived. The Resurrection will come with the help of a sleek, futuristic slate -- costing between $500 to $800 a pop (in a country still suffering from economic turmoil) with pre-order sales of some 250,000 (in a country of more than 300 million).

Or maybe not.

"What we're seeing is a desperate wish -- the last gasp of desperation. Editors and publishers and advertisers want to regain control of the media experience that the Internet took away from them. In their minds, this iPad is the magic pill that will make all of this Internet crap go away. Surely, it won't," Jeff Jarvis, the veteran journalist and author of What Would Google Do? told me in a phone interview. Upon reading that Time magazine is charging $5 a month for its iPad app, Jarvis tweeted Friday morning: "Mag iPad prices are delusional: In no form, even engraved in gold, is Time is worth $5/issue." Jarvis followed it up with this tweet, linking to a story in paidContent: "if Time's iPhone app is free & iPhone apps work on iPad, why would I pay $5 for an iPhone app? Naked newsmakers?"

Jarvis added: "What this is really about is control -- control of the experience. They want to regain the package. You bought the magazine. You read the news article. But the link -- the hyperlink, the way people consume media now -- broke that package apart, and there's no putting it back together."

The iPad-saving-the-media hype feeds an already running narrative, Jay Rosen, the influential media critic who writes the PressThink blog, told me.

"Before the iPad came into our sights, there was already a series of headlines and desperate passages: will ______save journalism? There's this search for the savior, and the belief that there is one," Rosen said.

To be fair, the salvation mentality is understandable. Uncertainty looms like a black cloud for media companies. The pricing model is up for grabs, the formatting is up for grabs, the relationship between advertising and editorial content is up for grabs. Lee Rainie, a former newspaper journalist and the founding director of Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, told me: "There's clearly a hope that with the right device, and the right format, that both revenue streams that have sustained newspapers and magazines for decades -- the subscription side, and the advertising side -- will be helped by this new tech gadget."

But as we've noted before in this blog, it's not just about the gadget, it's about the content. Or, more specifically, how the content adapts and evolves in our blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing times. Yes, the so-called legacy media companies (print, television, radio) create content -- informative, valuable content, many of it crucial to our democracy. But, for the most part, they fail to realize how their content fits in a larger news ecosystem, one that's being increasingly driven not just by the select few who create the news but the online masses who consume it. And then want to engage with it, question it or tweak it, pass it around, and make it their own.

"The Internet provides the means for communities to share what they know. At no cost. The marginal cost of sharing information is zero," Jarvis said. "We as journalists then have to ask how we add value to that."

We're living in a transition stage -- a very exciting time in which the "me" in "media" continually and more effectively flexes its muscles. The media's resurrection depends on its understanding of that reality. Not on the shiny new iPad.

Follow Jose on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joseiswriting