Apple's iPad Will Kill Publishing As We Know It

Last Updated Mar 4, 2010 11:45 AM EST

Magazine and newspaper publishers have been flocking to the Apple (AAPL) iPad as a savior. "Finally," they think, "we'll have a way to make money from digital content! And a bargaining chip in dealing with Google and Amazon!"

Those hopeful thoughts will fall victim to a status quo mentality and the law of unintended consequences. The iPad won't be a savior. It will kill the business as it has existed. But maybe that's a good thing.

I speak of the iPad as a metaphor. Publishing is entering a challenging phase more fundamental and radical than when Johannes Gutenberg invented the mechanical printing press. Even the development of the web can't compare. This time, publishers will have to confront the future. And it's going to destroy them.

Just last month I said that Interview Magazine's iPad demo showed the future direction of print publishing, and I still believe that. However, many in publishing mistakenly see digital media as nothing more than the new print. For example, on Tuesday at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Transformation Conference, Wired editor Chris Anderson said, "We've been looking for a way to do it [magazine publishing] better, and the good news is that I think we found it."

I realize that Anderson was talking to a room of potential advertisers, but thinking of e-publishing as "a way to do it better" is a fundamentally flawed concept. Electronic media isn't a new version of print. When done right, it will differ as much from magazines and newspapers as movies differ from books. E-publishing can incorporate video, images, sound, graphics, applications, mashups with other online resources, links to source material, geographic tagging, reader contributed material, and who knows what else that will appear in the next few years.

I think that media writer Colby Hall is right when he argues that magazines (and, by extension, other forms of print) must approach the iPad differently than many seem to be doing:

The question that publishers should be asking themselves regarding the iPad, and other tablet platforms, is not "how do we put our magazine on this device?" It should be "how can we best replicate the brand experience of our title, using the full suite of technological advances afforded by this new platform?" Follow up questions would include notions that would have previously been considered bizarre, like "What does our magazine sound like?" and "How many video advertisements is too much next this block of type?" (Because video stimulation hits the lizard part of the brain much quicker than the most well crafted and moving essay ever will.) It's sad, but true.
Those publishers that can't recreate their underlying concepts of publishing for the new medium will fall to the wayside. And that's just on executing the creation of new material.

The even bigger downfall is how electronic analytics will finally put a spike through print's one-time revenue gravy train. As MediaWeek mentioned in its article on Anderson's speech:

Anderson predicted that these devices will move past the CPM model to become the most measurable medium ever."The tablet will be measuring what you did on a page, what engaged you," he said. Marketers will know "what entices people to put their fingers on the screen" -- and the layered functionality seen in the editorial product will also be part of the advertising, he added.
Anyone in the business who's familiar with the pretend-games publishers play with advertisers -- pushing subscription rates artificially low to meet subscriber quotas, or claiming "readership" based on guesses of how many people other than the magazine's purchaser read it -- will both laugh and cry at the ability to measure, on a specific level, how people really interact with titles.

Such granular metrics are the publishing equivalent of what I've been calling the atomization of computing and content. Just as cloud computing lets an IT department purchase CPU cycles and bytes of storage on an as-needed basis (rather than buying entire servers and hard drives), e-publishing metrics will let advertisers measure what people saw, how they interacted with it, the time they spent with it, and how various topics, articles, images, videos, and other elements of the e-pub engage readers.

Advertisers will know that publishers can measure to the person how people respond, and they will demand that information. They will no longer pay inflated rates for attention that they theoretically get. Instead of buying the issue, they'll buy the page, or the article, or the view. Gross revenues are likely to plummet, and publishers will face three new requirements to:

  • Expand revenue models, such that advertising is only supplemental income
  • Use metrics to track what interests readers and find ways to make money from that information
  • Find ways to greatly reduce operational costs
If new story-telling models don''t kill off most publishers, the body blows to revenues will. There will still be publishing, but it will be far different from what we know today. Given how many publications are mired in their current approach to tone, insight, and format, that might be the best news the industry has had in years.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.