Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pre game analysis: what if the Apple tablet is a dud and has no effect on the media world?

I don't know if you have even been in competitive sports -- in my youth I was quite a sports nut -- but there are two schools of thought concerning how to prepare for the Big Game. Common wisdom holds that you should visualize success, see yourself making all the right moves and winning the game -- the power of positive thinking. My brother-in-law told me that many athletes visualize losing the game and use the fear of failure to spur you on -- the power of total fear. Needless to say, my brother-in-law never wrote any self-help books, and I don't think he actually was advocating the power of negative thinking.

If the tablet strategy fails, is this the end of the line for print media industry? Probably not.  

But I was reading some comments from a publishing executive last week who seemed to think the introduction today of Apple's tablet would have zero effect on their business. I don't remember the quote and let it slip from my mind until this morning when I thought about this issue: what if the Apple tablet becomes just another electronic toy, nothing more than another way to listen to music and watch YouTube videos?

Then there is the concern that it will be publishers that let down the revolution. Jason Kincaid is certainly worried about it: "My concern is not that Apple will fail to deliver; I have little doubt that their product launch tomorrow will be stellar. My doubts lie with the content providers themselves," Kincaid writes on TechCrunch.

One could argue that the world of print media will just go on -- certainly that was the opinion of that publishing exec. Come Thursday, if this view is correct, we will all be back to discussing the world of publishing as if nothing new occurred, and the future path of the industry remains on its current course.

But what is that course? The major players in the trade press, Reed and Nielsen, are unloading their properties and writers are contemplating a world without many B2B magazines, wondering what that says about the industry as a whole. "Perhaps the bigger issue here is if major players like Nielsen and RBI are moving away from magazine publishing, then what, if anything, does that say about the sustainability and the future of the business for the rest of us?" wrote Jason Fell on the Folio: web site.

☜  The magazine I launched while at McGraw-Hill, a success from Day One, but folded by the company soon after I left the company.

I'm not a big believer in black and white answers to business issues. That is, just as I can see the value of pay walls in some circumstances, I also agree with those who feel that, in general, web users are going to migrate to free content over paid.

So on the issue of whether the trade press, and possibly newspapers, are on the way out unless a savior like Steve Jobs creates a groundbreaking product my views are not absolute.  The book form has survived for hundreds of years after all, so there is no reason to believe that printed newspaper and magazine won't do the same. But from this chair it certainly doesn't look like the kind of business I would want to be in (leaving New Media out of the equation).

A few days ago the New York Times ran a very good story with a truly bad headline:  With Apple Tablet, Print Media Hope for a Payday.  The story, written by Brad Stone and Stephanie Clifford, is fairly well balanced and doesn't take too many giant leaps. It does, however, give voice to the silly concern that Apple might dominate the print media industry by offering up some revisionist history concerning the music industry:

Mr. Jobs, the chief executive, made Apple the most important distributor of music by imposing its own will on the music labels, bullying them into accepting Apple’s pricing and other terms. Apple sold lots of music, but the music labels claimed that iTunes had destroyed the concept of the album and damaged their already deteriorating bottom lines.

This garbage about the poor little music industry being "bullied" by mean ol' Apple has been refuted elsewhere so there is no need to go over that ground again. Instead, I am more concerned about the opposite situation: that Apple's product introduction today will not lead to the creation of a new marketplace for newspapers and magazines.