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Google Can Save Digital Newspapers and Magazines [Opinion]

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When Steve Jobs unveiled the orig­i­nal iPad it was hailed as a con­tent con­sump­tion device. Most of the people that I know that own a tablet use it almost exclusively to consume content, not to create it. Despite the heavy empha­sis on con­sump­tion, pub­lish­ers have strug­gled to get smart­phone and tablet own­ers to pay for con­tent on their devices.

This struggle between publishers and readers is as old as the Internet. The Inter­net set a new stan­dard for con­tent with most web­sites pub­lish­ing articles for free with ads lin­ing the sides of the web­site. Even­tu­al­ly publishers used pay­walls to force read­ers to pay for a sub­scrip­tion or a one time fee to read an arti­cle in its entire­ty. Read­ers who had become accus­tomed to free con­tent moved on to other sources or looked for ways to get the article for free. The iPad was sup­posed to be the medi­um with which pub­lish­ers would be able to charge for con­tent again, but as Jason Pon­tin of Technology Review explains, the cost of app devel­op­ment and lim­it­ed read­er response made the iPad an ille­git­i­mate mes­si­ah of pub­lish­ing.

Pon­tin con­cludes that since the iPad and News­stand failed to attract sub­scribers, the web must be the future of pub­lish­ing, not apps. I’m con­vinced that Pon­tin is wrong. Pub­lish­ers made two vital errors with dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing: first, apps should not be treat­ed as a mag­a­zine replace­ment and second, peo­ple shouldn’t be forced to pay for con­tent that they don’t want. If pub­lish­ers and Google can work togeth­er to cor­rect these errors, togeth­er they can save dig­i­tal mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. 

From songs to films to writ­ing, peo­ple have found a way to get dig­i­tal con­tent for free. All it takes is one pirate and a dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work to dis­trib­ute media freely. Despite so many options to steal mate­r­i­al, con­tent dis­tri­b­u­tion sources like iTunes, rdio, Net­flix, and Google Play have mil­lions of users who pay for con­tent. The prob­lem isn’t that peo­ple don’t want to pay for con­tent, but that peo­ple want to pay for good con­tent in an attrac­tive medi­um.

Many pub­lish­ers made the fool­ish mis­take of think­ing that peo­ple want­ed dig­i­tal con­tent to be iden­ti­cal to a mag­a­zine. Sure, most tablets are rough­ly the size of a mag­a­zine, but that doesn’t mean that read­ers want to look at dig­i­tal pages that were formatted for a magazine. Read­ers want the qual­i­ty of mag­a­zine con­tent in a new medi­um.

Pon­tin men­tions that var­i­ous screen sizes, res­o­lu­tions, and ori­en­ta­tions made design­ing con­tent for tablets and phones dif­fi­cult. These issues should have been obvi­ous from the start because tablets and smart­phones aren’t mag­a­zines. If pub­lish­ers want to con­trol how the con­tent looks then they should design the apps for cer­tain form fac­tors and restrict ori­en­ta­tions. If they don’t want to be that restrictive, they should design the con­tent to be mal­leable to var­i­ous form fac­tors, ori­en­ta­tions, and res­o­lu­tions (like the web).

Of course the larg­er issue fac­ing pub­lish­ers isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the medi­um, but how to get peo­ple to pay for con­tent. Devel­op­ing a way for read­ers to see con­tent in a beau­ti­ful envi­ron­ment costs a lot of time and money, so pub­lish­ers want to ensure that they’ll get a decent return on their invest­ment. On the web this was solved with ads, but ads have a nasty ten­den­cy of becom­ing intru­sive. Popup block­ers have pushed adver­tis­ers to cre­ate ads that roll out on top of a website with hid­den close but­tons. Often these are impos­si­ble to close on a mobile device, mak­ing the con­tent unread­able. Savvy read­ers might turn to an RSS read­er or page saver like Instapa­per, but most will prob­a­bly just move on out of frus­tra­tion.

Apple tried to pro­vide a uni­fied solu­tion for digital magazines and newspapers with News­stand, but the lack of inno­va­tion in News­stand led to its poor adop­tion. Every iOS user has prob­a­bly opened News­stand upon dis­cov­er­ing that it can­not be hidden away into a fold­er. Per­haps Apple thought that being restric­tive like that would encour­age users to try out the app; I have a feel­ing it just turned users off. To make mat­ters worse, once News­stand is opened every paper and mag­a­zine is list­ed as free, but dig­ging fur­ther reveals the same tired month­ly sub­scrip­tion options that no one wants.

This is where Google’s new subscription option in the Play Store could save magazines and newspapers. The key to under­stand­ing how to get peo­ple to pay for con­tent is to under­stand that people like choice. Though pub­lish­ers want read­ers to pur­chase a sub­scrip­tion to a pack­age of con­tent (like music labels want lis­ten­ers to buy whole albums), users don’t want to pay for con­tent they don’t want. The web has con­di­tioned users to expect an option to pur­chase indi­vid­ual pieces of con­tent, not a whole pack­age. Peo­ple don’t visit web­sites to read every arti­cle, they visit them to read the arti­cles that inter­est them. Like it or not, the web has spoiled users into believ­ing that they deserve choice.

Google is the company that built out the web for most people. Without Google Search, the Internet wouldn’t be what it is today. Google Search allowed people to find what they wanted. Because Google has consistently been about offering its users choice, I think Google is best poised to talk publishers into rethinking subscriptions.

If pub­lish­ers were to accept the idea that people should only pay for what they want, the prob­lem then becomes how to dis­trib­ute and price indi­vid­ual arti­cles. Apps like Read­abil­i­ty have tried to help pub­lish­ers by collecting sub­scrip­tion money from read­ers on behalf of the pub­lish­ers. This idea isn’t a bad one, ­but I think users would be more comfortable paying for content through Google instead of through a third party app. Google should build in support for magazine and newspaper subscriptions in Google Current, but allow users to pay for individual articles as well as subscribe to whole magazines or newspapers. Google could still help pub­lish­ers by offer­ing free sub­scrip­tions that are sub­si­dized by adver­tise­ments and paid sub­scrip­tions for a num­ber of arti­cles instead of whole news­pa­pers or mag­a­zines so that read­ers have one place to go for read­ing instead of multiple websites or apps. Either way, pub­li­ca­tions would be get­ting paid money that they’re miss­ing out on now.

The web as we know it isn’t the future of pub­lish­ing, but nei­ther are indi­vid­ual apps for each pub­li­ca­tion. Peo­ple are look­ing for con­tent in apps because unlike the web, apps are designed from the ground up to work on mobile devices. The soon­er pub­lish­ers real­ize that the future is mobile and that peo­ple want per­son­al­ized con­tent, not gen­er­al­ized con­tent, they soon­er they’ll be able to put out a prod­uct that peo­ple want to pay for.

If any company would rally behind the idea that users should only pay for what they want, I think it would be Google. Google partners with OEMs every year to ensure that there are a plethora of Android handsets to meet a wide variety of tastes and needs. Google built a search engine with the idea that free access to the information you want is a good thing. Google Plus was designed from the ground up to put you in control of what you share and who you share it with. In short, Google is a company that is all about giving its users what they want. It’s that sort of attitude that can save magazines and newspapers.

  • mkranitz

    I disagree with this approach. When individualism becomes so focused, readers and society as a whole loses touch with the larger picture. Most of the information we are exposed to on a daily basis is not information we would choose from a menu. It just catches our eye. When it does, our horizons are instantly broadened. By narrowing the scope of what people read to only those things they can imagine, we limit their breadth of awareness and intelligence.

    If you consider the case of our niche (radio control flight), having a “package of articles” (conveniently called a magazine) that touch on different elements of the hobby is what makes reading it entertaining. It’s what gets a hobbyist to sit down with the tablet for the EXPERIENCE and the EXPOSURE to things they might not have otherwise found had they been served up exactly what they asked for.

    Last thing here; when I was attending Law School at Vanderbilt in the early 80′s, Westlaw and Lexus-Nexus search tools were just coming online. Everyone loved them because the software could pinpoint searches to find legal precedent applicable to the case at hand. But as I entered practice, I found those tools lacking when compared to browsing through case summaries in an advance sheet. By browsing over content I was not necessarily looking for, I enriched my library of knowledge and was able to apply it to other cases I had then and in the future. It’s no different from magazines. If a magazine is well-thought, it should be able to serve content that is engaging to the reader without having the reader select specifically what the reader THINKS he/she wants to read based on a preview.

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      I like your last point. Something I hadn’t considered.

  • http://profiles.google.com/k3gman Keg Man

    The reason I wont subscribe to media is
    1. Nobody really has time to read the paper everyday like they used to.
    2. We know the electronic version of the paper is “virtually free” so dont insult me by taking off a dollar off the printed subscription price.
    3. printed media failed to reinvent itself and many people have found other interesting things to read like Droid-Life. I know more about phones than I do about the news and I dont care.
    4. The printed media is suffering because there are just so much more to do to pass the time, reading blogs, writing blogs, text messaging, dvr, angry birds…..there were less things to do to pass the time back when printed media was king.
    It is not necessarily the internet or digital content that blew up the printed media, its juts that we have more options to pass the time now.

  • mdeamicis

    “If pub­lish­ers and Google can work togeth­er to cor­rect these errors, togeth­er they can save dig­i­tal mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. ”

    These are the most intelligent words I have ever heard form a blogger or just about anyone else for that matter.

    This is why I do not buy or even read magazines. I have to flip like ten pages to get to the next word in a broken sentence and am instantly pissed off. It breaks the flow and kills the joy for me. I have not picked up a magazine for ten years even at the doctors office. I take a book or my game boy or now my phone keeps me happy.

    I remember even s a kid. Newspapers pissed me off. They are like the size of a flicking kitchen table and then they do that shit where the article is spread out over different sections so you have to bounce back and forth. I think and read linearly. I also like to finish a thought before picking up another and having to find the rest of the article shatters that process. I have not read a newspaper in over 20 yeas. I also trust news reporters about as fa as I can throw a politician so that makes it relevant anyway. I don’t even watch the news on TV, which brings me to my last ant.

    I have not had cable TV for a few yeas now. Yea see, when I am paying for a medium, and then the provider of that medium is adding advertise content to it, ad making me watch shit I don’t care about in between segments of what I do want to see, I feel like my money has been stolen from me. I feel that if I am paying 100 bucks a month to watch sesame street then I should not have to listen to some asshole lie to me about how good Chevy is and that I should buy American.

    I doubt you even know how right he got it. But you nailed it as far as I am concerned.

  • http://twitter.com/nicknowsky nicknowsky

    i love Google Currents, especially on my iPad. But I do use it on all my devices

  • Martin Nilsson

    A clever way to create a newspaper app would be to use all the available methods that Google offers. Create an app where you get the “bigger” articles for free, use ads to cover the costs or sell it for a low price. Add the ability to buy today’s news paper, as an in-app payment and then also add the ability to buy a subscription. Should give users all the choice they want and need =) (and since this isn’t Apple you would probably be able to buy the actual paper and get access to the app as well. Or buy your subscription straight from the newspaper and unlock using some code ;-) )

  • http://twitter.com/binglut9 Brian

    Am I really the only one that hates Google currents. That app is a POS compared to other RSS feeds.

  • Tyler Chappell

    I enjoy using Google Currents, I would pretty much treat it as my “newspaper” for when I would get breakfast etc. As far as magazines though, rather than buying a subscription, I just go into a Barnes & Noble etc and read the magazines that interest me like PCGamer, Photoshop Creative, etc. So essentially, I am getting the content without paying for it right? No one can stop you from just picking up a magazine and reading through it unless they put that annoying plastic wrap around it.
    Basically I think the Netflix model would work best for subscription magazines, a low monthly price for unlimited content essentially. One of my biggest pet peeves about reading any tech magazine is how the content is already outdated or old news, or something I have already read on the internet before the magazine gets put out, so what’s the point? If it were all digital, the information would be much more current and convenient.
    It always cracks me up that it will be like the beginning of May or something and I walk into a store and pick up a June issue of some magazine yet all the information is stuff I knew about in April. It’s misleading as far as I am concerned to have a June issue of a magazine that doesn’t even include content from June etc. Magazines are old news to me.

  • ddevito

    Don’t confuse media with newspapers and magazines.

    A song or a movie is meant to be played repeatedly. Whereas, a magazine or newspaper is read once.

    People don’t mind spending $3-$5 for a magazine. On the flip side, people spend $500 for an iPad, why spend $5 for a digital magazine on top of that?

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      They are different, but I’ve gone back to read a good article again. I think the largest issues is that people want to be able to pick what sorts of news and articles they read, not rely on a magazine editor to decide for them. That shift requires a change in the way we approach subscriptions to magazines and newspapers.

  • http://twitter.com/Jubmasterflex Jubby Salhi

    I love Google Currents…WHEN IT WORKS. Seriously, this damn app has frozen time and time again on my tablet, particularly after a few pages of reading.

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      Agreed. The app needs a lot of work.

  • AlexKCMO

    Only comment I have is that it depends completely on the magazine/news content you’re referring to.

    For example, news can never work with this kind of model. It’s free in too many places. Why would I pay for content to news I can get for free via http://news.google.com ?

    I could see this working for magazines, but the articles would need to be ridiculously cheap and archive forever. There have been several Maximum PC articles I have saved for years, even issues. The problem is the magazine is $5 or so (maybe $7 these days). If a magazine has 10 articles/columns/sections total (Reader Mail, Cover Feature, E3 Coverage, etc.), you can’t charge me more than ~70¢ per article/column/section. Even then, I might just say screw it, I’ll buy the magazine because I get more (Included CD, Poster depending on the mag, etc.).

    This was a longer article, so you may have touched on it, but I think digital versions of magazines need something extra. Instead of giving me a picture of a process, give me a video illustrating the step. Give me an audio version so I can listen to it if it’s a tutorial.

  • Higher_Ground

    Like others are saying, I really like the opinion pieces. That being said, this isn’t an opinion I really share.

    There are only a few magazines I subscribe too. I wouldn’t want to pay for the articles in them individually. Part of the reason I enjoy the magazines (nat geo, smithsonian) is that they bring articles I wouldn’t expect. Some may not appeal but it’s hard to figure that out before you read it. That may not be the same for a magazine like sports illustrated where if the particular sport or team doesn’t appeal to me I know right away not to waste time reading the article.

    I really hate teaser articles and it irritates me enough that I wouldn’t want to see magazines move in that direction.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that readers want it to look good and the more interactive it is, the better.

    If they want more subscribers they need to follow the same tricks that worked for paper magazines – clubs, heavy discounts, free watches, fundraisers, etc. That’s how I ended up with virtually all the subscriptions I’ve ever had.

  • bakdroid

    I guess you just really like to hear yourself talk, huh?

    • CORYK333

      Have something more constructive to say, you clown?? It actually was a well written & thought out piece, which is probably why it didn’t appeal to you. Even if the subject didn’t interest you, why not just ignore it, instead of leaving rubbish comments? Probably bc you “like to hear yourself talk”. Now back to the circus u go…..smh

      • bakdroid

        His articles are “rubbish”. Every article he writes is either stating the obvious (like this one) or completely misinformed trash. He contradicts himself constantly, he bashes Google but then turns around and says that they could be the savior of something. He is a complete tool and people need to realize this. Anyone with a brain already knows what he is writing about here, which is probably why you like this article. Hey, news flash! The earth is round! Wow, that means I should write an opinion post here too!

        I write one line, he writes a novel, and you write 4 lines and I am the one who likes to hear myself talk?? How an originally childish comment. So to come down to your level…..I am rubber and you are glue…

        • CORYK333

          Wow, really dude?? I love the Internet……

  • CivilDroid

    Keep up the opinion posts, Ron. At first everyone (myself included) was like “who the hell is Ron?” but I have really grown to appreciate these posts. They really get you thinking about things that aren’t always at the top of your “to-think-about list” such as the next phone, update roll out, or new cool widget. Thanks again for the time you take to write these.

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      I’m glad you like them. :)

  • Jer

    Magazines include advertising. Advertising is really the main revenue source for the publisher. The cost of the actual magazine primarily pays for the cost of the materials, printing, and distribution. Since those things are void in a digital market, then advertising should be able to pay for the content without the need for subscriptions. IMHO

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      Some people like having ads to pay for their content, but not everyone. I think we need both options.

      • Michael

        Scientific American has to be the only magazine that charges you to read their content on their webpage and has not created an e-zine on any platform like amazon or play, etc. Their magazine subscription to have it mailed to your home is 3 times cheaper than their online subscription on their site, usually its the other way around online cheaper than a physical and delivered. Just saying because this magazine is like one of the last to catch up with the times. And its my favorite.

  • Buy This

    A couple thoughts:

    1) These ‘op-ed’ posts have really grown on me and are extremely well written
    2) I wonder if there will be a move towards paid apps that aggregate content from like a set of providers. Like if a number of private news organizations formed or got together and said we will provide content exclusively for this app that users will subscribe to or pay once for and divide the profits. I don’t know if this would work but if droid life, phandroid, and some other reputable android sites got together and said we will provide exclusive news/content to an android app which is basically a version of pulse that aggregates our content, I would pay for that. In that sense, I wonder if there will be apps that use that concept but can cater across the board directly to the consumers personal interests. And I mean offer such a diversity of content and media, that they can not only provide an enhanced product but also they can reach across demographics and age groups, whatever, to provide that enhanced product. Just thinking out loud. tryin’ to…get the balll….rolllllllingg….ya.

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      1) Thanks. :)
      2) That’s basically what Newsstand on iOS was supposed to be. It’s hard to argue that people would pay for news now, but they might pay for editorial or longer stories like the features done at The Verge.

  • https://plus.google.com/110773438514346746273/ tjhrulz

    First off Ron I really like your opinion posts.
    Second I agree with this but I feel like you cut ads no slack I think you can do a fine job of it.
    Third as for a magazine example that just feels right in electronic format try ganeinformer their website contains most of their articles in the magazine for free but they also lso have an emailed electronic interactive version of their normal magazine that you can get instead of standard magazine.

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      Thanks! I think GameInformer is a great example. I think they get how to do it because they’re a relatively new magazine. Older magazines want to put the old system in a new medium, but I don’t think that will work.

      • https://plus.google.com/110773438514346746273/ tjhrulz

        I think that’s true with anything not tech related trying to be tech related.

  • Dylan Neu

    I’ve been using a family member’s iPad for a month now to try out the idea of using a tablet in my daily life, and so far I’ve loved it. The best part by far though, has been the magazines and books (via Google Books) I’ve viewed on it. Magazines by Conde Nast (GQ, Glamour, Wired, etc.) look amazing on the iPad because they are designed for a tablet, with pages that look great and ads and content that reformat for landscape and portrait orientations, and free issues of magazines I already have subscriptions to. I wish I could get the same content on an Android tablet going forward, and if Google can’t work with publishers to match or exceed the iPad’s content, I may not buy a tablet at all.

  • RedPandaAlex

    I don’t think you’re totally wrong here, but there are two competing models for buying content that are succeeding. One is the iTunes model of selling individual pieces of content for a much lower price than the bundled album. The other is the Netflix or Spotify model, in which a small monthly fee gives you access to everything as long as you’re a subscriber. You’re advocating the iTunes model, but I’d give serious thought to the Netflix model too. Of course, Netflix works because they have partnerships with a variety of content creators, and nobody has really tackled that challenge for print media. But even if my favorite magazine offered a subscription that gave me access to their entire catalog, that would be more appealing to me than recurring payments for individual issues.

    Personally, the reason I haven’t done any kind of digital subscription is simple: the one or two magazines I ever read and valued consistently aren’t available in any digital form.

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      I mentioned the subscription model for a number of articles – I meant something like Netlfix by that. Not super clear though. I think you’re right, though. Many things are moving towards subscription models and newspapers and magazines should be one of them.

  • feztheforeigner

    I had some stuff to say but the article was so long I forgot what it was…

    • CORYK333

      So you decided to post that b.s. instead?? Spare us next time……the comment sections have actually been a bit more civil in recent weeks, don’t ruin it dude