Kindle & the Future of Print Journalism

As someone who writes about the future of printed books, I’m often asked to weigh in on the future of another popular printed medium — newspapers. Up until now I’ve only broached the matter offhandedly, but this month’s Mother Jones prompted me to consider the matter more seriously.

It happened after a friend of mine alerted me to MJ’s “Exhibit” spread called, “Black and White and Dead All Over.” According to the piece, about 20% of newspaper journalists have lost their jobs in just the last eight years. And from January to May 2009, “100 newspapers shut down and 9,000 newspaper jobs were lost.”

Usually I’m skeptical whenever I hear about a medium’s impending death. It’s pretty clear from the spread, however, that newspapers are suffering terribly right now. This is due in no small part to proliferating digital communications technologies, combined with news agencies’ growing reliance on untrained grassroots “iJournalism.”

The irony is that newspaper publishers also see digital technologies as a savior. New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., for one, believes that Amazon.com’s new Kindle DX e-reader will “enhance our ability to reach millions of readers” — especially those for whom the printed version of the paper is unavailable. No surprise, Amazon is marketing the device heavily for its news reading capabilities, having partnered with the Times and other major U.S. papers.

Before I get to the crux of the issue, some disclosures are in order. I come from something of a newspaper family. My late sister Anne was an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times, FL, and before that she was a reporter and editorial writer for the Time Herald-Record in Middletown, NY. Way back when she was editor-in-chief of her college newspaper at Binghamton University, Pipe Dream. I freelanced with the Record as a photojournalist in 1993 and interned with the paper in 1994. I also worked on my college newspaper, The New Hampshire, throughout my undergraduate studies. I even seriously contemplated becoming a professional photojournalist before deciding to pursue a career as a university professor.

In other words, I’m a friend of newspapers — and by that I mean, of printed newspapers. But I’m also part of the problem in that I now I do most of my news reading online. I cannot remember the last time that I actually paid for daily news.

The prospect of the newspaper’s replacement with costly digital e-reading devices, such as Kindle, seems a poor future for me indeed. I say this not because I fetishize ink and paper. As I make clear throughout The Late Age of Print, I positively do not. Instead, I worry about the economic and political effects of a business model in which stand-alone e-readers become a — or maybe even the — primary delivery vehicle for daily news.

The Kindle DX costs $489. It’s smaller, less feature-laden sibling costs $359. Either price seems to me to pose a huge barrier to entry when it comes to acquiring one’s daily news. Add to that the cost of one or more digital newspaper subscriptions — you cannot buy an individual day’s paper via Amazon — and you’ve dropped the better part of a grand inside of a year.

Beyond the reporting, what made printed newspapers great was their price. Most cost under a dollar a day when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, and many even hovered around 50 cents. In my grandparents’ day you could pick most papers up for around a nickel. Daily news was cheap — indeed, democratically so. Nearly everyone could afford to partake of the affairs of the day, and many did so regularly.

But if Kindle becomes a primary platform for daily news, then the newspaper industry will have all but abandoned this longstanding democratic ethos. What’s the point of a fourth estate if only the economically advantaged are the ones reading the news?

So here’s a radical proposal for Amazon and the newspaper companies to consider. If your survival plan involves a switch-over to digital e-readers like Kindle, then lower your prices! Significantly reduce the economic barriers to entry and create an economy of scale. Perhaps the e-reader even could be sold at a loss, with the understanding that a portion of all newspaper subscription revenue would be paid back to the hardware manufacturer.

The point is, you don’t save journalism by making it more exclusive.

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4 comments

  1. Remember the first computers? The ones that cost $10,000? Well, they’re pretty affordable and accessible now thanks to Moore’s Law: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore%27s_law

    Don’t worry. eReaders will, too, get cheaper (and more powerful).

  2. Ted Striphas says:

    One can only hope, Kevin. I hope that one day I’ll look back, when Kindles cost as much as CD players do today, and laugh myself for having worried. Of course, where will journalism be by then?

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. From the day the first Kindle was released I thought it was a wonderful device that should have been free along with a subscription or at most $50. I agree the price is a huge barrier.

    However, I really do not understand why/if most people really would want another device (other than people who are not online at all).

    I expect in the near future there will be a smallish netbook/handheld/tablet like full computer with an incredible built in ebook reader as good as the kindle or better. Am I dreaming? The XO laptop included a decent ebook reader 2 yrs ago. But I’m expecting something for adults that’s even better.

    Netbooks can be found for $200-400 now and I agree with Kevin, the prices should only come down. And the technology will also get better. Also, my NYTimes iPhone App is one of my most frequently used apps (not as pleasant an experience as reading a newspaper or on my laptop but it’s not bad and it’s convenient). Again, I’m expecting something better, and as a boomer I think maybe twice the iPhone size. Or iPhone size with a pull out or plug in screen of some sort (I enjoy dreaming up this wonderful everything device).

    There was an interesting post on this site with some good comments http://tinyurl.com/nw5jtu titled “eBook Readers, or, How To Miss The Point.”
    (me=last comment, smiley face.)

    I agree, you don’t save journalism by making it more exclusive, and I don’t think it has to be. Most in this country now have handheld devices with Internet access. For many people in developing nations the handheld device will be their only computer.

    Currently, I can read the NYTimes for free on my iPhone, but there is talk of charging because unlike on a larger screen they can’t fit ads. Fair enough, so require either micropayments (with no ads) or forced ads prior to reading for free access to the content or some other cost model (perhaps provide options and let the user choose).

    Thanks for the post. I look forward to reading your book.

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