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May 12, 2009

Sure, Save Newspapers, But the Kindle ‘Reading Device’ Isn’t Going to Do It


Yes, it appears, newspapers are just about dead. A years-long, constantly-downward trend has combined with the careening economy to, almost certainly, bring the multi-century era of news delivered on print toward a close.

Major papers in Seattle and Denver have already folded. The largest daily newspapers in my original hometown (Minneapolis), my college town (Boston) and my current hometown (Philadelphia) are either in bankruptcy or in danger of imminent shuttering. Even the New York Times is teetering.

Why is it happening? Basically, the way Americans currently consume news is simply not conducive to the existence of an expensively produced physical newspaper that comes out once a day. As fewer and fewer people read, the papers themselves earn less and less advertising revenue. This leads to round after round of layoffs, which in turn make the newspaper less readable and further perpetuate the cycle.

And no, newspapers are not failing because of liberal bias. Some on the right say so, mostly because they think liberal bias is the explanation for absolutely everything. Are they saying that the New York Times, L.A. Times and Boston Globe – liberal newspapers with liberal audiences in liberal cities – would be better off financially if they went hard-right? Really? The fragmentation of the news audience, both in terms of ideology and medium, is a part of the change in the news business in the last decade, but come on – liberal bias on the part of editors probably isn't in the Top 25 of reasons why newspapers are failing. After all, as the Washington Post's ombudsman reported last week, editorial bias is described as the reason for canceling the paper by a whopping 1 percent of subscribers who do so.

I also don't think it's right to blame those damn kids who don't care about the news. Events of recent years, up to and including last year's election campaign, have brought the young into contact with the news in ways never seen in my lifetime. The problem is that an entire generation of news consumers has grown up getting their news in multiple ways, whether it be online news sites, blogs, the news feed in their elevator or even TV news.

I'm probably the biggest news junkie I know, but I rarely find myself reading a physical newspaper anymore. That's because just about everything in it is something I saw online 12 hours earlier.

The latest best hope is Amazon's upcoming third edition of the Kindle book-reading device. The new device, announced last week, boasts a much bigger screen than its predecessor, and boasts the support of several top newspapers who hope that, for a small subscription fee, readers will pick up the newspaper habit again.

Consider me skeptical. One problem is that the deal reportedly reached between the papers and Amazon will grant 70 percent of subscription revenues to . . . Amazon. Another is that it's hard to imagine how the Kindle is easier or preferable to reading the same content on the Internet, especially for those who spend their entire workday in front of an Internet-connected computer.  

But the biggest roadblock of all may be this: The Kindle's newspaper interface, at least for the New York Times on the Kindle 2 that I tested out last month, is horrible. It's slow, hard to navigate and in no way preferable to the newspaper interfaces on any smart phone, much less the Web. Hell, the Times application on the BlackBerry my dad had five years ago was better-looking and easier to use than the Kindle's version is now.

And they expect people to plunk down more than $400 for the device, plus a subscription fee for the papers? I can't imagine a market ever even begin to develop for such a thing. Perhaps someone else will come up with a better idea. Apple, of course, is rumored to be working on a "tablet" of its own that would work similarly but probably better.

I would love to see the newspaper industry survive, in some form, and am curious to hear some of the ideas of how it may do so. But putting all, or even some, of its eggs in the basket of the Kindle strikes me as wrongheaded at best, and catastrophic at worst.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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