Apple's tablet will make online news and magazines better

Should Steve Jobs introduce Apple’s tablet (the iPad, iSlate, iTablet, or perhaps iBook) at the company’s press event tomorrow, the device will likely contain a number of features: users will be able to play games on it, surf the Web, read e-books, and much more. But perhaps the most important feature it may contain will be the ability to save the press from its demise -- and will hopefully increase the quality of what we read.

At the end of a failed 15-year experiment in giving away its product, the press (newspapers and magazines) has begun to renounce free. It’s slow in starting, because of the inertia of this decade and a half, but the New York Times announced recently that it would begin charging for its website, and others are sure to follow.

In fact, this was a huge game of chicken, where US newspapers wanted to start charging for their content, but none wanted to be the first to take the leap. If it's successful, British newspapers will likely follow suit. But payment for websites alone won’t be enough to change newspapers’ and magazines’ bottom lines from red to black. Apple’s tablet, however, will.

The end of free

It’s time for free to end. Newspapers and magazines made the mistake, in the early days of the Web, of giving away their content for free, in exchange for revenue from Web advertising. (One could argue that this is not exactly free for users, given the annoyance they have to put up with.) While this may have been viable for a few years, everyone now knows that Web ads simply don’t work. In the early days of the Web, people clicked on banner ads because they were new; but they quickly just became a nuisance, and now everyone ignores them.

In the past few years, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, and newspapers and magazines are cutting back and folding all across the world. For example, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, shut down in early 2009, used to have more than 200,000 weekday readers, and a half-million Sunday readers; now you can’t even wrap fish with it. Gourmet magazine had nearly a million monthly readers, and you can no longer cook fish with it.

Yet we need the press: the fourth estate is a necessary check for our government and business. As long as free thrives, the press can’t do its job correctly. Free may be good for freeloaders, but it’s bad for society. Those who want things to be free forget that there are still people doing the work they get for nothing, and those people need to be paid. As the old saw goes, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. (And, please, spare me the comments about how free will lead to other forms of income; this has been tried, and has been a massive failure, with only rare exceptions such as Google.)

It can be said that 'news' is worthless, that it is a commodity that can be provided by anyone. News about accidents or politicians’ infidelities, election results or sports scores is little more than facts: names, dates and numbers. News agencies can funnel these facts to a central aggregator which can then syndicate them at low cost to newspapers and Websites around the world, and this type of news will continue to be free on the Web.

What news agencies can’t do is the added-value reporting, the analysis, opinion and in-depth reporting that we want to read to better understand, and that we need for society to thrive. It may be a coincidence, but in recent years, investigative journalism was severely lacking at a time when it was needed the most. Only when people pay for news can we have quality reporting.

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