Newspapers, murder-suicides and the Kindle 2

Few, if anything, in life is more irrational than a murder-suicide. I always think, “It was his problem; why didn’t he (it’s usually a “he,” isn’t it?) just do himself and spare everyone else?” I mean, if you are going off the deep end, go alone.

I think the same thing about the massively unenlightened newspaper executives around the country. They have, after all, lined up time, technology and new ideas, and shot them in the head. Now, one by one, they are swallowing the poison — gutting their staffs and their products — that makes the death of newspapers almost a fait accompli.

Yes, I am saying the death of newspapers is a murder-suicide. I’ve thought a lot about this subject, of course. It not only involves my former professional life, but is really in our faces in Seattle these days with the imminent passing of the Post-Intelligencer and the slower, but just-as-ugly and almost just-as-certain demise of my old newspaper, The Times.


v262792_161This week, I’m as close as I’ve ever been to canceling my subscription to The Times. It required fewer than 10 minutes to consume the useful and entertaining portions of its Sunday edition, and Sundays are the fattest editions of any newspaper. But here, that’s like saying a Victoria’s Secret model’s butt is the fattest part of her body. There just wasn’t much there to begin with.

Almost all of my friends are gone, so I no longer feel the emotional tug of supporting the livelihood of people I trust and care about. Sentiment and old habit are the only things left, but they are about to be overcome by my anger at those who have captained the Titanic right into the huge iceberg they’ve been staring at the past decade.

I don’t mean to compound the incessant, Brad-and-Jennifer-level analysis of the what went wrong in the newspaper industry, but let me just say this about that: During my nearly eight years at Scout.com, a sports network consisting of a tiny smattering of journalists, but mostly faux-journalists and hobbyists, my biggest fear was that my newspaper colleagues would wake up, smell the profits, stop treating the Web as a bonus revenue stream and focus their great newsgathering infrastructures on the subjects they covered best (for example, sports teams, local news, arts and entertainment and regional business) and charge people for reading their online products. Not repurpose, but reinvent themselves.

Would it have worked? The Wall Street Journal does it. The New York Times probably could have done it, had it charged for its newsgathering and not its opinions, which everyone has and mostly aren’t worth the nickel you’d have to plunk into Lucy’s tin can in Peanuts. Shoot, we did it at Scout.com, selling enough subscriptions to recruiting information and inferior college and professional sports content to entice a major, mainstream media company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, to buy us.

time-magazineFor the record, I didn’t just wake up in a bad mood and decide to take pot shots at my old industry. The timing of this post coincides not only with the shockingly vacant Sunday edition of The Seattle Times, but Walter Isaacson’s Time Magazine cover story, “How to Save Your Newspaper,” and Amazon’s introduction of Kindle 2. Believe me, it’s not going to require the powers of, say, Cormac McCarthy for me to weave these three elements together.

The centerpiece of Isaacson’s Time centerpiece is a proposal for charging micropayments — a nickel, say, for a story; maybe a dime for access to the day’s entire edition — to view online portions of newspapers. I cannot conceive of this working because relying on impulse consumption will not provide a consistent or significant enough revenue stream for newspapers to maintain meaningful newsgathering operations (even if micropayments supplement ad revenue, or vice versa). I also think newspapers have allowed themselves to go too far down the path of throwing in with the everything-on-the-Web-is-free mentality pervasive mostly in Generations X and Y.

Mostly, Isaacson, among many others, does not address what I believe to be the main issue plaguing newspapers, which is the ill-suited nature of the Internet as a replacement delivery system for their content. Print, of course, is a delivery system, albeit one, because of the cost of print and circulation, no longer economically feasible. But it does offer two elements that, at least psychologically, need to be replaced — tangibility and browsability. Tangibility, we know, is the ability to physically sense something, such as receipt of a package.

Browsability, first of all, is a word I think I just made up, but anyone who consumes newspapers or magazines knows what it means. Reading a newspaper or magazine is a journey. One browses (flips through) the pages and, whether drawn in by headlines or photographs, discovers pieces of content. In spite of its mechanism for access being called a “browser,” the Internet truly is a destination delivery system. It’s great for finding exactly what one needs or wants, but one must, of course, find it. The Web, alas, cannot replicate the joy of discovering one of those “Headless Man Cannot Even Spite His Nose” type of gems one might find in the corner of Page 22 in, say, The New York Post.

feat-libr-300px_v251249390_This all is why I ordered a Kindle 2, the second Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO, announced it on Monday. I didn’t get the first iteration because, after my bugged-out, Microsoft experiences, I’m a 2.0 kind of consumer, allowing a company some time to work out at least a bunch of any new product’s kinks. Thinner and lighter, the Kindle 2 addresses a third key element of the old print delivery system — portability (you can take it on the bus or subway) — and improves upon it (they won’t litter the floors of stalls in the men’s room or be left near the silverware tray at the coffeehouse for the next guy to avoid paying for the content).

What I’m mostly eager to test is the Kindle 2’s browsability factor, which supposedly is greatly improved. I think it already provides a good solution to the tangibility issue. It is wirelessly connected, so it will deliver, upon payment, many forms of content, including newspapers. The key word there is deliver. At Scout, we and our competitors, Rivals.com, addressed the tangibility issue by sending our subscribers print-edition “recruiting guides.” So our subscribers “got” something, in addition to the ability to visit certain parts of our Web sites, which we believed was tantamount to “charging for air.”

The Kindle way, which also is the iTunes way, is an electronic delivery system that works. The consumer actually takes receipt of paid goods, cannot feel the digital product, but certainly can see and hear them. We already know people will pay for electronic delivery systems (see telephones, cable and Internet) as well as premium electronic elements (see texting, HBO and broadband).

My Kindle 2 purchase will be a full-fledged experiment in the transferability of print to the Web. I don’t plan to read books on mine, as I still treasure the book as a decorating accessory and symbol of implied intellectualism. I’ll likely subscribe to a couple newspapers I love — the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times — but cannot have delivered to my home, as I do the New York Times.

As for The Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer, and other newspapers across the country, the Kindle 2 arrives, like the second or third ambulance to a car wreck, a little too late.

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