Stephen E. Arnold: Tables and News — or Tables and Decision-Support?

Advanced Cyber/IO
Stephen E. Arnold
Stephen E. Arnold

Tablets and Periodicals

October 19, 2013

Are tablets the salvation of the newspaper industry? Google’s chief economist thinks they may be. In a speech he recently gave in Milan, Hal Varian points to the ways consumers’ usage of tablets differs from that of other devices. Writer Will Conley summarizes:

“Varian said tablets are the most newspaper-like electronic medium due to their status as ‘leisure time’ reading devices. Citing a Pew Foundation study, Varian pointed out that tablets are the preferred electronic news reading medium for mornings and evenings—during which readers spend the most time absorbing the news—beating out both desktop and smartphones for those periods. Ad revenue depends on the amount of time spent reading the news, he said, and therefore the proliferation of tablets will help the online newspaper industry to gain a new foothold for the first time in 40 years.”

Varian believes tablets might even prompt users to devote more time to reading news, restoring the “analytic depth” that has been eroding along with our attention spans. It’s a nice vision. Unfortunately, an article at Gigaom that came out on the same day as Conley’s piece takes a contradictory stance. Gigaom contributor Jon Lund explains “Why Tablet Magazines are a Failure.” (I think we can extrapolate his points to periodicals in general.)

Lund points out that, as of yet, magazine apps haven’t been selling as hoped. Website traffic still far outpaces app usage for the same publications. Lund believes there are several reasons for this, including the ever growing sea of apps in which magazines get swallowed. Then there is the closed nature of these apps. Their content can’t be easily “shared” with a wider social network, and readers have grown accustomed to sharing information with the click of a link. Curation apps like Flipboard and Zite are likewise blocked from reaching in and grabbing content from magazine apps. Finally, he asserts, reading a magazine on a tablet just doesn’t feel right. He laments:

“When I nevertheless manage to find the time to open up an iPad magazine, I feel as if I’m holding an outdated media product in my hands. That’s ironic because these apps tend to be visually appealing, with interactive graphics, embedded videos and well-crafted navigation tools. But the gorgeous layout that works so well in print gets monolithic, almost scary, in its perfectionism on the iPad, and I find myself longing for the web. It’s messy but far more open, more accessible and more adaptable to me, my devices and needs.”

Almost scary? I’m not sure Lund’s discomfort with periodicals in tablet form is widespread and, even if it is, that will probably recede as we move farther from print media. I don’t think his other points are insurmountable, but they are something to consider for Varian and others wishing to pursue a news-coverage renaissance through tablets.

Cynthia Murrell, October 19, 2013

Sponsored by ArnoldIT.com, developer of Augmentext

Phi Beta Iota: Newspapers are largely crap — they have been corrupted by ownership and advertising, and do not serve the public interest, least of all the house pets called the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.  The Boston Globe is worth saving.  What tablets make possible is the delivery of education, intelligence (decision-support) and research to a single portable device, always on, everywhere. In combination with mesh networking, tables could be the intermediate step toward a world brain.

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