Here’s a sentence to savour. “Our flagship newspaper products are our iPad apps,” says James Murdoch, speaking at the Monaco Media Forum.
If that’s the case – I’m tempted to say – then we’re all in trouble; those of us in publishing at any rate. Certainly a recent study published by MediaVest, the global media buying outfit, doesn’t give room for much optimism. The 1500 people polled about their use of the iPad seemed to have a host of other preoccupations – such as reading books, managing personal calendars, watching video, accessing maps, listening to the radio – before they got round to reviewing a publication. Top of MediaVest’s Must Try Harder list were magazine publishers, but I suspect the news business was not all that far out front either.
In fairness, the survey was compiled back in July – practically a Pre-Cambrian era in terms of iPad experience; although that’s not exactly a reason for complacency. Have things moved on since then?
Murdoch Jnr clearly thinks they have. From what we now know of the Times/Sunday Times digital paywall experience, iPad users actually make up a fairly small proportion of the 105,000 paying online users: about 15,000 of them according to a Guardian analysis. Considering the newness of the Apple device and format (launched in April 2010), that’s not bad user penetration. But Murdoch’s point is a larger one.
The iPad app has certain similarities to a print product. Like a cover price, the access fee encourages people to pay for their content. Determining just how that payment should be made is a much more complex issue, and part of a broader online publishing strategy. But that’s less important for the Murdochs than the fact the iPad experience is helping them to surmount a huge psychological hurdle: the idea of parting people from their money for general news online.
Take this argument a little further, however, and we can see there is trouble ahead. The iPad news habit is attractive precisely because it so resembles the way we read a newspaper. It has a lean-back, browsing quality to it, wholly unlike the information-grubbing experience of assimilating information from a laptop or PC. As Murdoch himself says: “The problem with the apps is that they are much more directly cannibalistic of the print products than the website. People interact with them much more like they do with the traditional product.”
In other words, journalists and publishers beware – the news business is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The iPad and its like may have the ability to supplant the “traditional product”, but – as I have pointed out before – the commercial terms under which media owners operate are not going to be nearly so favourable as they were in the print era. It is technology companies, like Apple and Google, who are the gatekeepers in this new era. They make the kit, devise or control the ad platform, license the apps and determine the profit margins.