“Audience First” and Other Lessons in Disruptive Innovation

When I arrived at the Lawrence Journal-World earlier this month, the first thing I told the staff was that we needed to think "audience first." Not just digital first; we had to consider every possible way that our audiences wanted to receive information from us–the Web, mobile, social, print, feeds, e-mail, whatever—and deliver news, info and advertising through those channels in a high-quality, revenue-producing form. After a few weeks, the excellent Journal-World staff is probably already getting sick of me preaching "audience-first." But now comes a new preacher with the same message, and more.

Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton M. Christensen is revered by innovative and entrepreneurial business thinkers for his legendary book, The Innovator's Dilemma, which explores how existing businesses almost invariably are vulnerable to being blindsided by upstart competitors that disrupt and upend their industries. (You may have noticed something like that happening in the news business lately, no?) It's probably the single most influential and important business book of the past 15 years. All of us who've taught entrepreneurship and innovation have used it as a basic text.

Now Christensen and a couple of colleagues have turned their attention to the news business, with an important, fascinating piece in the new issue of Nieman Reports entitled "Breaking News: Mastering the Art of Disruptive Innovation in Journalism." It's a must read—maybe the most insightful, important article on the future of the news business since Clay Shirky's legendary "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" in 2009.

Christensen's treatise is long and a bit business school-like. But it's worth sitting down with and absorbing if you care about the future of news and the business models that must support it. Not only does he make a strong argument about "audience first"—and what to do about it—but he explores real-world examples of how news organizations and others are restructuring and rethinking what they do to foster innovation and ensure their future. This is exactly the kind of restructuring and rethinking we're embarking on in Lawrence to become truly "audience first" and find a model for a successful local news organization. Christensen's article is like reading the recipe.

Go read the the whole thing. But I'll leave you with the conclusion, which sums it up well:

The reason that innovation often seems to be so difficult for established newsrooms is that, though they employ highly capable people, they are working within organizational structures whose processes and priorities weren't designed for the task at hand. 

Creating an innovative newsroom environment means looking within the existing value network and beyond traditional business models to discover new experiences for audiences, then realigning your resources, processes and priorities to embrace these disruptions. 

While there is no one panacea to replace the traditional business models that news organizations relied upon for half a century, these recommendations taken in aggregate provide a framework for an emergent strategy to take hold. Innovation requires courageous leadership, a clearly articulated vision, and the strength to stay the course.

Postscript: The great Andrew Sullivan, who blogs for the Daily Beast, which just announced that it will cease publication of the print version of Newsweek at the end of this year, has some very interesting thoughts on the need to hasten the transition from print to digital.

Read It and Weep

I wonder sometimes if the people who run news organizations actually look at their own Web sites.

I mean, look at them the way readers do. Use them to find out what's going on, to get the news, to search for needed information. I ask because a lot of big-name news Web sites occasionally seem designed to frustrate readers as much as possible.

I'm not just talking about bad design, endless lists of small-type headlines or site searches that simply don't work, often in comical ways. Those are all sins, of course, and they're chronic. Brad Colbrow added a few more in an excellent post last week, including missing links, incredibly jumbled templates and photo thumbnails that click through to…photo thumbnails. There are other good gripes in the comments on his post.

I'll add a few myself: Pages that load incredibly slowly and/or erratically—you know, so that when you click on the link you want, items jumping around on the still-building page cause you to accidentally click something else. Or how about those maddening 30-second pre-roll ads, not just on videos, but even on slideshows, for crying out loud (I'll bet the stats triumphantly show the item was clicked, but fail to note that many readers are long gone three seconds into the commercial.) Or how about faulty Flash-laden ads or content packages that unfailingly crash the visitor's browser?

There's a good one in Colbrow's post that drives me nuts: random links to vaguely related stories or galleries, inserted into body text every couple of grafs to break up story flow (magazine sites, never the brightest examples of digital thinking, are principal offenders here). How did anybody think this was a good idea? I saw one today that's a really unfortunate howler:

(That's from a Time story that ran on Yahoo, but Yahoo added the oddly juxtaposed link, which wasn't in Time's original.)

These things aren't just embarrassing. They all make news sites harder to read and harder to want to come back to. Readers are smart. They know when they're seeing sloppy work, and with unlimited choices in the digital world, they'll take their eyeballs elsewhere.

News sites don't seem to understand that user interface and user experience are critically important online. Instead, they're rife with this sort of sloppy stuff. That's why I wonder whether the people who run news sites read them regularly. Then they'd notice these things that drives readers away and exert a little more quality control.


Is the Alacarticle the Answer to Selling Content Online?

Could it be that publishers are looking at the notion of charging for online content all wrong?

To date, just about all the talk and experiments with paid content have involved selling online subscriptions or, on the iPad, individual issues. Makes sense, since that's how publishers historically have sold their print versions. Or, actually, it doesn't make sense, because many of us believe that online customers who can find equivalent free content elsewhere will simply ignore the publishers' subscription/single-copy offers.

We need more empirical evidence to prove or disprove these theories and settle this religious debate, but so far, only a handful of specialized sites have made online subscriptions work, the jury is still out on The New York Times' much-watched Web subscription effort and single-copy magazine sales on the iPad started strong and then sputtered in most cases.

But maybe there's another model: selling content by the article.

Last week, Fortune magazine published a big takeout on Apple—and held it off the magazine's Web site. Instead, it made Inside Apple available as a downloadable file for Amazon's Kindle, at 99 cents a pop. 

By all accounts, it sold like hotcakes, even reaching the Top 10 in Amazon's Kindle bestseller list. Behold: the a la carte article. Let's call it the alacarticle.

The alacarticle may not be the ultimate answer to legacy media's online revenue woes—no one solution is. But Fortune's experience, while a limited sample, of course, seems to indicate that readers will pay by the story, under the right conditions.

For years, some publishers have babbled hopefully about "micropayments," a term none of them really seemed to be able to define. Theoretically, I think, it meant that any article could be sold for a few pennies, but the publishers could never quite figure out how to actually collect those pennies (long-established online payment systems like, oh, PayPal, Amazon and iTunes being just a tad too futuristic for these publishers to grasp, apparently). 

For all the talk about the micropayment idea, the problem is that, even with the long tail, there's not a big market for the vast majority of articles, and too much free competition. Advertising is still a much better bet for mass-market online publishing revenue, as it always has been in print.

But there may be a market for certain, high-interest, high-value articles, as Fortune is demonstrating. If the (excellent) argument against online subscriptions is that readers can usually find pretty much the same news and information elsewhere, for free, then maybe Fortune's alacarticle experiment shows that there may still be specific stories or packages that could be held off the Web and made available as Kindle or iBook downloads, or apps.

The number of potential stories that fit this model is small—they probably have to be major and exclusive—and there's a calculable tradeoff in lost traffic and associated ad sales. But the Fortune experiment points to a new way of selling content that lets customers buy just a story they want, rather than a broad subscription they may not care for. Other examples are appearing as well: Long-form journalism site Byliner is also selling content by the story for Kindle and iPad, incidentally. And ProPublica's "Wall Street Money Machine" investigation was just made available as a 99-cent Kindle download.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because there's a parallel in the recent evolution of the music industry, which found its favorite form of distribution, the album, unbundled by iTunes so that customers could buy just the songs they wanted, individually. The music industry is still grumbling about this, but selling songs a la carte is preferable to not selling albums at all. Maybe that's also true of selling alacarticles, as opposed to subscriptions. It's giving the customers what they want, at a price they're willing to pay. What a concept.




The Instant iPad App

For publishers, iPad apps are all the rage these days. Everybody's developing whizbang apps to take advantage of Apple's popular tablet—even though, when you get right down to it, most of the apps aren't huge improvements over the publications' existing Web sites, which are just a touch away on an iPad screen. Still every newspaper and magazine wants to have its own iPad app, so they're spending zillions to develop them, business models be damned.

But do you really need to build your own app? It turns out there are other tools out there that can create good-looking apps, from publisher's feeds, at minimal cost. Three of the best-known ones are Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, which create slick, high-quality iPad publications from various combinations of users' Twitter and RSS feeds. Good stuff, and I'm surprised we haven't seen publishers license private-label versions of these platforms to create cheap, easy iPad apps for themselves.

And now WordPress has made creating a news app—or at least an iPad-compatible blog—even easier. Got an iPad? Got a WordPress blog? Check out your blog in Safari on the iPad, and prepare to be amazed. (If you don't have a WordPress blog handy, here's a good hyperlocal one, by my friend Dan Woog, from whom I first heard about this trick. Sorry, I can't help you if you don't have an iPad!)

Very quietly, WordPress has rolled out a nice iPad "Onswipe" theme for all 18 million of its blogs, automatically making them iPad-friendly. You get a nice title page, an iPad-like layout of posts, and the ability to swipe across the screen to change pages—all requisite features of any good iPad app, all automatic for any WordPress blog. The popular blogging platform has had a similarly good-looking, simplified mobile version for smartphones for a while now. No muss, no fuss—instant compatibility with the latest in mobile computing.

The point is, you don't need a team of developers to create a good-looking iPad app or iPad-friendly site for your publication. Why waste the money building a custom app? WordPress, like Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, is proving that a simple, universal iPad-in-a-box solution may be a much better way to bring publications quickly and easily into the tablet age. 


My New Front Page—And Tina Brown’s

I've been noticing something about my news consumption over the past few months: While I've all but given up print newspapers over the past few years, rarely look at newspaper Web site home pages and consume a huge amount of my news via RSS feeds and Twitter, one site has emerged as my go-to "front page" for a smart overview of what's going on in the world: Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog.

Apparently I'm not alone: Sullivan's blog has been the biggest traffic draw on The Atlantic's Web site, accounting for fully a quarter of its traffic—and now Tina Brown has stolen Sullivan to be an anchor for her every-more-interesting Daily Beast/Newsweek hybrid.

Sullivan's blog, like any well-put-together, old-school front page, is an engaging smorgasbord of news (plus commentary) that provides readers with a guide to a wide range of topics. No, Sullivan doesn't create original copy, in the traditional sense. There's no original reporting going on here. Rather, The Dish is a well-curated, continually updated snapshot of the world, through the eyes of a polymath with a broad range of serious interests and his own set of personal hobbyhorses—which is pretty good description of just about any good front-page editor.

Sullivan and his small staff span the globe and the Web to bring readers dozens of short posts a day pointing to the best reporting and commentary on world events (the blog's coverage of the Egyptian uprising, from multiple angles, was superb, for instance), economics, society, culture and even humor. More often than not, the links are couched in a bit of commentary on the subject or the link's author. It's all good reading, and meat of each item is just a click away, on its originating site.

This is Web curation at its best, starring Sullivan as omnivorous, authoritative editor. Is it idiosyncratic at times? Sure—but all good front pages are. But it's also wildly readable, and an excellent way to keep up with a wide variety of important and/or interesting topics, with the ability to dive deeper at the click of a link.

This approach isn't necessarily as objective or "newsy" as a traditional front page, because of its heavy use of commentary. But it's bursting with personality, passion and wit, in ways many most front pages have long been missing. It's both informative and entertaining, and that makes it a must read—even if I don't always agree with Sullivan's opinions. 

The Daily Dish (like Jim Romenesko's indispensable Poynter journalism roundup) is why some of us get so excited about the Web's ability to remix a wide variety of news and commentary sources into aggregated, curated collections. They provide invaluable guides to the firehose of news and information we're all facing, picking out the best stuff and pointing us to it. That seems pretty obvious, but sites like Sullivan's and Romenesko's do it so well that they stand out. It's like having a smart friend constantly roaming the Web and sending you interesting links.

Tina Brown apparently recognizes the importance of this approach—and Sullivan's enormous following—and has annexed The Daily Dish for the Beast/Newsweek combo. Guess I'll have to redirect my bookmarks and RSS feeds to Sullivan's new digs. Like a great front page, it's become an essential part of my daily navigation of the flood of news.


Stop Pasting Print Publications onto the iPad!

They're doing it again.

One of the biggest longstanding criticisms of newspaper and magazine efforts on the Web has been that many of them seem too much like print publications pasted onto a computer screen. Text-heavy, constricted by old-fashioned layout conventions, generally unimaginative—these sites have failed miserably to take advantage of the advantages and differences offered by the new medium: interactivity, video, community, search, what have you. 

And now comes a new digital medium, the iPad, and…yep, they're doing it again.

Some of the biggest names in publishing have made a big splash with the introduction of Apple's new tablet by releasing iPad apps for their publications. Alas, too many of them have fallen into that same old trap, trying to replicate a print experience on the iPad's screen. 

The iPad turns out to be a great device for casually consuming all sorts of media—text, video, audio—and it's already seeing some creative multimedia informational (you know, media) apps from non-media sources, such as Major League Baseball's excellent At Bat 2010, Elements Collections' dazzling The Elements: A Visual Application and Atomic Antelope's wondrous Alice for the iPad children's book. These are apps that truly use the power of the iPad to present information in new, imaginative and attractive ways.

Not so the apps from the likes of The New York Times, Wall Street JournalUSA Today, Time and Men's Health. They're back to pasting newspapers and magazines onto the iPad's crisp, glossy screen, and in the end, these apps are distinctly inferior to these publishers' own Web sites. That's a real problem, especially because many publishers see the iPad as some sort of a savior for their business, a platform for which they can charge readers. Good luck with that, given the products so far.

The Journal, for instance, thinks it can charge $17 a month for access to its app, after an initial free trial. Are they kidding? I wouldn't use this piece of crap for free (I'm a big Journal fan, but I couldn't delete it from my iPad fast enough). It's hard to navigate, it's only updated once a day, it's full of bugs and it offers little in the way of interactivity. Ditto the New York Times Editors Choice app, which is free for now but is reputed to be a cornerstone of the paper's plans to charge for online access. The Times app is a painfully cutdown version of the paper, with truncated stories, missing sections and hopelessly retro newspaper-like navigation. Fail. It's not the Times' design that's great about the Times: It's the journalism. Why sacrifice that to pretty fonts and layout?

USA Today's app is a bit better, but again, it's missing comments or any other kind of interactivity, and even underscores its pasted-on-the-screen design by lamely imitating the serrated top edge of newsprint. Puh-leeze. (And USA Today plans to charge for its app, too.) The Time and Men's Health apps—like Sports Illustrated's mythical and highly overrated tablet demo—are way too much like magazines pasted on a screen. Boring. Oh, and they want you to pay $4.99 an issue. Not gonna happen.

Bottom line: All of these publications' Web sites are all far better than their apps—and on an iPad, hello, the Web is just a screen-touch away. Not surprisingly, these apps get fairly low user ratings in the iTunes app store. Customers know when they're getting shoddy products.

To be sure, there are some interesting, if still unspectacular, iPad efforts from some traditional publishers. Entertainment Weekly's app focuses on the magazine's popular weekly "Must List" of media recommendations—and attaches direct links to purchase the videos, music and books it touts. Craven, but useful. The Guardian's Eyewitness app is devoted solely to photography, presenting one great hi-res photo a day from around the world. Not flashy (and it really needs some community and interactivity), but simple and very good-looking. 

Marvel comics' app brilliantly moves comic books onto the iPad screen—pasting them there, yes, but with a clever navigation scheme that allows readers to flip smoothly from scene to scene. Very cool. And Epicurious, Conde Nast's Bon Appetit- and Gourmet-based cooking app, presents clear navigation and a deep database of recipes. That's very handy as we begin to understand that the iPad is a really great device for casual computing around the house—indeed, Epicurious + iPad finally fulfills the longtime promise that a PC in the kitchen would be a great recipe reference. 

We're still very early in the game for publishing on the iPad, of course—the device has only been on the market for two weeks. It'll be a while yet before software developers really get the hang of it and create apps that take full advantage of the new power and user experience the tablet computer (and its coming competitors) represents. But publishers looking to the iPad as a miracle cure for their business problems are going to have to do a whole lot better than just pasting their publications onto the tablet's screen. That didn't work on the Web, and it sure doesn't work on the iPad.

Padding the Coverage

Let's get the disclaimers and disclosures out of the way first:

I'm a total Apple fanboy. I've owned and used Macs and iPhones for as long as they've been made. I still own a couple of Newtons. I used to cover the company. Years ago, I worked on some cool joint Apple-Washington Post products that unfortunately never made it out of the lab. I own a very small amount of Apple stock.

And yes, I'm writing this on an iPad.

Having said all that, I think the media hype over the iPad is completely ridiculous.

That's not a review of the iPad, which at first blush is a wonderful device. It's a review of the media, which covers—and fawns over—Apple like it does no other company. 

The iPad and Steve Jobs are on the covers of Time and Newsweek—and the stories are breathless, even by newsmagazine standards. The New York Times ran a (mixed) review of the iPad on Page One this week—has the Times ever reviewed anything on A1? Seemingly every other media outlet and tech blog is running breathless updates, reviews and commentary on all things iPad. (Yes, this blog has participated in the hype, as well.)

I don't recall any other product launch getting this sort of press—except, maybe, the iPhone. But just about every Apple product introduction is greeted with this sort of media frenzy. Incremental upgrades in the company's laptops are deemed worthy of coverage that must be the envy of Apple's competitors. 

Quick quiz: When was the last time you saw coverage of the latest Thinkpad or Sony Vaio release? Never happens. Do you remember the coverage of Microsoft's efforts at a tablet computer (a proto-iPad) several years ago? I didn't think so. Do you remember voluminous takeouts a couple years ago when Asus, Dell, HP and others pioneered the netbook category, which was arguably as significant a development in portable computing as the iPad? Nope, didn't happen. But we're marinating in the iPad.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Nearly two decades ago, Apple held a press conference to announce that it was announcing the Newton—more than a year before the actual product launch—and drew huge crowds of reporters to the event, generating a tsunami of anticipation and hype that probably had as much to do with the Newton's flawed handwriting recognition software in sinking the pioneering handheld computer. It just couldn't live up to those sorts of expectations. And of course, the launch of the Macintosh in 1984 is still remembered as a technology/pop-culture milestone, built around the legendary "1984" TV commercial.

What is it about Apple that attracts this sort of coverage? Or what is it about the media that gives Apple this sort of inflated attention? For sure, the company makes great, innovative products. But so do other companies. Steve Jobs is a fascinating, charismatic personality, and his legendary "reality distortion field" presentation style (the iPad is "truly magical and revolutionary," he tells us) seems to be very effective. But the sort of adjectives Jobs throws around would be greeted with skepticism and guffaws coming from any other CEO.

At the same time, Apple is an incredibly secretive company, which you'd think would tamp down the hype around its product launches. Suggestions that Apple carefully orchestrates this kind of frenzy miss the mark–if anything, its strategy is to shut up and let speculation and rumor fill the information vacuum the cone of silence leaves behind. 

On the media's side, that silence, and mystique, probably goads reporters and commentators guess more wildly and get more excited about the forbidden fruit. In addition, an inordinate number of journalists are Apple fanboys and fangirls themselves—or at least longtime users of the company's products—so they're arguably predisposed to be favorably interested in what the company has coming next. 

And with the iPad, there may be another distortional factor: journalists hoping that the iPad will save their industry, and amping up their coverage accordingly. The good news on that: As I've said before, the iPad could transform the way we consume all sorts of media. The bad news: It's still not clear how it really helps current media business models. For all the excitement about selling expensive media apps on the iPad, there's not going to be much of a market for them as long as the Web versions of those publications are available one screen touch away. Sorry.

Look, everybody—especially journalists—loves a good story. A device like the iPad, which raises the bar of what's possible with technology and how we use it, is a good story. But I'm just not sure it warrants the sort of crazed press it's getting. We'll find out in the weeks and months and years to come if the iPad is everything its overexcited coverage says it is.

And then Apple will come up with something new (probably an iterative upgrade to this first version) and the hype machine will power up again. It sure would be nice, though, to see some more skepticism and reserve on the part of those covering the company.

Now I'm going off to play with my iPad.

PS: More hype: I was on CNN's Reliable Sources talking with Howie Kurtz and Dan "Fake Steve Jobs" Lyon about the iPad coverage—and natch, you can download and watch the show on an iPad.

And Verily, Steve Jobs Came Down from the Mountaintop With a Tablet, and It Was Good (But Version 2 Will be Better)

After all the fevered buildup, we now know the actual details of Apple's iPad tablet. Probably not surprisingly, it doesn't quite live up to all of the pre-release hype and speculation (including my own). But it still appears to be a remarkable device that, in its first generation, has the potential to change a few corners of the media world. And that's just the beginning.

Out of the box, the iPad is a very interesting reading device. Lying flat on a desk or table, it can mimic a lot of the readability and convenience of print (and adds a lot of bells and whistles). It makes the Kindle look like an antique. It's light and easily portable. The iPhone, despite its small screen, isn't a bad reading device, and the iPad greatly expands on that. Does it portend a whole new business model for newspapers and magazines? Not at first glance. But you'll be able to buy books on it, and maybe that will extend to periodicals in same way. For sure, advertising will look a whole lot better on it.

The iPad seems to have real potential as a portable movie and TV viewer, with a screen much larger than most current portable devices and a form factor much more comfortable than watching a movie on a laptop. It's easy to imagine curling up with a movie on the iPad.

Of course, the iPad runs most iPhone apps, on a bigger screen, and that's a real positive, given the massive iPhone app ecosystem. The development of iPad-specific apps that take advantage of the larger screen will make it even more valuable. It also looks like a pretty good laptop substitute–indeed, perhaps the best description of the iPad at this point is that it's the world's slickest netbook computer.

Not visible yet, at least in this version: more integration with large-screen video and movie devices, easy connectivity to projectors, printers and other peripherals, and a built-in camera that could make it a great portable video-conferencing and Skype device. Others have pointed out additional shortcomings.

But hey, this is Version 1. Just a couple of years ago, the original iPhone had its own limitations, and over time it added a rich set of features and capabilities—apps, for instance, didn't come along for the first year or so, and a video camera and good GPS were second-generation upgrades. So we'll have to see how the iPad evolves. It looks like a very nice product now, at surprisingly reasonable price points. Version 2.0 could be a real killer.

Do I want one? (Everybody asks!) Are you kidding? I've already got my name on the waiting list. I can't wait to get my hands on it. And every media company should feel the same way–and be thinking about how to develop new kinds of products for this very interesting new type of device.

Apple’s Tabula Rasa

As the new year rolls in, the talk of the tech world is Apple's allegedly upcoming tablet computer. The New York Times has even dubbed 2010 as "the year of the tablet."

Sites and publications that cover Apple and the tech industry are abuzz with the usual frenetic levels of speculation that always precede the secretive company's future product releases. Nobody really knows anything, but the guesses have taken on a life of their own, creating a froth of hype that Apple itself probably couldn't achieve if was being forthcoming. 

The consensus of speculation seems to be that the tablet will be called the iSlate, it will be a cross between an iPhone and a laptop, it will have a nine- or 10-inch high-resolution color screen, it will have Wi-Fi and cell network access to the Internet, it will cost somewhere between several hundred dollars and $1,000, and it will be announced later this month and be available in the spring. Or maybe not. Everybody's guessing.

There's a lot of chatter about the tablet in media-industry circles, as well. The idea of a portable device for reading newspapers and magazines has been kicking around for nearly two decades, dating back to concepts promulgated by erstwhile Knight Ridder new media/tablet guru Roger Fidler (who's still chasing his dream). In all those years, the mythical tablet has been a sort of holy grail for publishers, the electronic version of papyrus and newsprint. That dream has been renewed lately by the ability to crudely publish newspapers and magazines on Amazon's Kindle, as well as by a much-hyped demo of an electronic version of Sports Illustrated that frankly doesn't advance much beyond what Fidler and others among us were demo-ing in the early '90s. (Can we get over the electronic page-turning metaphor, replete with sound effects? Please?) 

And now, or very soon, comes Apple's tablet. Publishers look at it and see that text reader they've always dreamed of. TV and movie execs look at it and see a portable video device. Gamers and software developers see it as a new kind of lightweight computer.

But I believe all of these views are way too limited. With a nod toward the parable of the five blind men evaluating an elephant, it's important not to look at the forthcoming tablet through the prism of individual media types. Most of those speculating about Apple's tablet aren't thinking big enough. They're concentrating on narrow possibilities—it could be a book reader! It could play movies!—without seeing the much bigger picture of what Apple may be on the verge of creating. To its users, it will be: All Of The Above. And that's huge.

Indeed, I believe the Apple tablet has the potential to strikingly transform large swaths of the media business, from newspapers to television to movies, pretty much all at once. Reading the tea leaves of all the rumors, and making guesses based on following the company closely for 25 years as a reporter, fan and (full disclosure: very small) shareholder, I think there's a significant chance that Apple may swing for the fences with its new device—and the services that surround it. 

Apple's tablet has the potential to change the way we consume and pay for media—many different types of media—as substantially as the company revolutionized the computing business with the original Macintosh, the music business with the iPod and iTunes and telephony and handheld computing with the iPhone. Probably more so, in fact.

It's also important to think of the Apple tablet as more than just the device. It may be part of a larger technological/media system that will also include a greatly expanded iTunes store and perhaps even a greatly enhanced version of Apple's long-simmering AppleTV product.

With that in mind, let's speculate on how the tablet could impact different types of media:

  • Newspapers: Roger Fidler's tablet finally comes to life, with all the attendant multimedia and interactivity possibilities. Big deal—the Web has done that for years. What the tablet will add is location-awareness, giving publishers and advertisers the ability to tune their messages to where the user is. This is the ultimate in personalized news. We've already seen glimpses of this on the iPhone, Android and other smartphones (which are surprisingly good as text-based newsreaders). Imagine the same thing with a big screen. There might even be a subscription model for the best, most unique content, since there are already signs that smartphone users will pay for the convenience of certain kinds of quality niche content or apps. (But hey, newspapers: No simply pasting print content on a tablet screen, OK? Take advantage of the medium.)
  • Magazines: The flashy Sports Illustrated demo is frustrating because it's so superficial. A portable magazine reader is important only if it greatly exploits the ability for interactivity that will finally make magazines (if they're smart) tap into the vital special-interest communities that are their subscriber bases. I don't just want to watch video that goes with Sports Illustrated stories—I want to be able to instantly discuss those stories with other SI readers. Incidentally, the Apple tablet will make the magazine's industry's belated efforts to create its own magazine-reading device completely superfluous.
  • Books: It's assumed by just about everybody that the Kindle is pretty much roadkill the moment that Apple's tablet hits the market. Instead of a single-function, black-and-white book reader, the iSlate would provide readers with full-color displays, access to an expanded iTunes store for book downloads—and the ability use the device for countless other functions. Sure, it will be more expensive than the Kindle (at first). But it will provide much more value. If you're going to carry a book reader, wouldn't you rather it be one that does tons of other things? (Especially if the reader can provide gorgeous color multimedia and interactivity—portable online book discussion groups?—at the same time.)
  • Television: This is where things start to get really interesting. The tablet could finally bring the long-dreamed-of "TV everywhere" concept to life, with a portable device that provides a la carte access to all sorts of video content—from YouTube, TV networks, studios, etc. Apple already is reported to be in talks with broadcast networks to provide access to their content on the tablet on a subscription basis; extend that to cable networks, plus the existing iTunes and Hulu video-on-demand services, and users will be able to watch pretty much whatever they want whenever they want. But wait, there's more: That viewing wouldn't be limited to the small screen of the tablet. Combined with a much-expanded version of the TiVo-like AppleTV platform, the tablet could act as a controller and source for watching that same video on the big screen at home. You could switch seamlessly between large and small screens. And the business models for this—subscription, pay-per-view–could upend the advertising-based model for broadcast TV. The possibilities here are fascinating.
  • Movies: Along the same lines, the tablet plus AppleTV could be a marvelous bridge between portable movie-viewing (on a much better screen than watching movies on an iPod or iPhone, which is surprisingly popular) and home viewing. Netflix and others are hurtling toward ubiquitous digital delivery of movies; Apple could beat them to it by providing the devices that are the missing link.
  • Communications: The tablet will work on cellphone networks, but who wants to carry a phone that big? Wrong question. Telephony would be merely a sideshow on the tablet. More importantly, always-on access to communications via cell networks and Wi-Fi, plus a user-facing camera, could make the tablet a powerful video-communications tool: Skype in your hands or, to hearken back a few decades, the ultimate PicturePhone
  • Apps and Gaming: The secret weapon of the iPhone has been its tens of thousands of apps, which give the device countless additional uses—any iPhone user will gladly demonstrate for you the latest app that has made his or her life easier (or at least cooler). Here again, the iTunes store is the enabler, and it's reasonable—especially if the iSlate uses a variant of the iPhone operating system—to expect that the apps ecosystem will transfer to the new device, enhanced by the larger screen size and other enhanced features. The portable gaming possibilities alone are enormous. So are the possibilities for interesting and innovative social applications. (Video Twitter, anyone?)

That's quite a laundry list for a single device, but that's where Apple appears to be headed. Oh, and the tablet will be a computer, too. Why carry a laptop when the iSlate is lighter, has a full-sized virtual keyboard, maybe some sort of video-out capability and the ability to handle Word, Excel and PowerPoint files (plus whatever the apps bring to it)? I just wish they'd add a slide-in dock for an iPhone, so I could carry a single lightweight device.

The scenario I've laid out here is just as speculative as any of the other guessing out there about what Apple's up to. I'm certainly not alone: Daring Fireball's John Gruber makes a similarly sweeping prediction:

If you’re thinking The Tablet is just a big iPhone, or just Apple’s take on the e-reader, or just a media player, or just anything, I say you’re thinking too small—the equivalent of thinking that the iPhone was going to be just a click wheel iPod that made phone calls. I think The Tablet is nothing short of Apple’s reconception of personal computing. 

These are grand expectations. Truth is, nobody really knows what Apple is up to except Steve Jobs and a handful of other insiders. And certainly a handful of naysayers are suggesting that nobody really wants to lug around a tablet computer, and thus it could be a Newton-like bust (although the Newton, in retrospect, seems remarkably prescient). Indeed, Apple, full of hubris and swagger after the enormous success of the iPod and iPhone, could well blow it with an overpriced, unfocused product. 

But like Gruber, I'm betting on Apple to break ground, yet again, with its tablet, and in a big, big way. It could bring together so many threads of innovation that have been developing for the past few years. I truly believe that we could be on the verge of an important turning point for the way we get and use all sorts of media. I can't wait to see what Apple comes up with. It could change everything.

Dead Magazine Walking

Every so often you stumble over a statistic that takes your breath away. Here's one:

Newsweek's paid newsstand circulation averages just under 67,000 copies a week.

WTF? Only 67,000 people take money out of their pocket each week to buy a copy of a national magazine in a nation of more than 300 million people? That really doesn't sound good. And it gets worse when you take the math a couple steps farther.

Let's see if we can estimate how many different places Newsweek can be purchased. Newsstand sales aren't restricted to newsstands; they include all places magazines are sold, including supermarkets, bookstores, etc. So let's do some math:
  • There are slightly more than 35,000 supermarkets in the U.S. Most of them probably offer Newsweek in their checkout lines.
  • There are about 50,000 drug stores in the U.S. Let's say half of them sell magazines.
  • There are 4,000 bookstores in the U.S. Again, let's say half sell magazines.
  • There are a bit more than 3,400 newsstands.
  • Let's not forget 7-Elevens, which all sell Newsweek: 5,700 of those. There are probably at least as many other convenience stores under different names.
Take all of those together—and I'm doubtless leaving out many other outlets where copies of Newsweek can be purchased—and you get 70,000 or so possible places you can plunk down $5.95 to pick up a copy of Newsweek.

In other words, unless something in my math is wacky, Newsweek sells an average of less than one newsstand copy a week in each place that it's available. Oh my.

That's just Not Good. You have to wonder if the magazine even can break even distributing that many copies to that many places and selling less than one copy apiece (to say nothing of the returns–there usually are several copies on the rack, of course).

It's not like Newsweek is making it up on subscription circulation, either. It recently announced plans to reduce its circulation rate base to 1.5 million copies a week—from a recent high of 3.1 million. And of course, a lot of that circulation is in the form of heavily discounted subscriptions. 

Then there's Newsweek's advertising—such as it is. It's a pretty thin magazine these days.

Guess all this is why Newsweek lost $20.3 million in the first quarter of this year on revenue of $46.1 million. Those are ugly numbers. But given the circulation statistics, they're hardly surprising. It's a little hard to see why—especially in an age of real-time online news—The Washington Post Co. is keeping Newsweek alive. Readers (and advertisers) just don't seem to care.