The iPad Won’t Save Media

So will the iPad be the savior of the news industry? Or just another $500 down the drain for this news junkie?

I’m a voracious consumer of news – everything from Truthout, the Wall Street Journal to gizmodo . . . occasionally even sports.

Two years ago I bought the iPhone with the goal of being able to keep constantly up to date on breaking news. It did its job – reading short blogs, AP updates, listening and watching podcasts were all easy to do and as long as I remembered to sync everything in the morning I was set for my ridiculous commute (1.5 hours underground). But for real news, lengthy articles and books, the iphone just wasn’t cutting it, and my paper copies of the Wall Street Journal were just being dropped in my recycling bin.

So three months ago I went to the Barnes & Noble nook, an e-reader with auto-updating newspapers similar to the Amazon’s Kindle. For books it was great: I knocked out 60 pages of usually unreadable Human Rights Watch reports. But for the newspapers it was like reading an rss feed, or a blog on a Tandy computer – slow and gray and darker gray. So I returned to my iPhone, squinting.

And so my final option was the tablet on the mount, the supposed savior of my occupation, the Apple iPad. So was this glorious slab of 9.7 inch glass and aluminum, sent down from on high by our black-turtlenecked God going to save journalism as we know it?

No. And it’s not the iPad’s fault; it’s a spectacular device. But it’s just a device.

It’s the content, stupid.

In the fight against the internet and blogs, newspapers and magazines didn’t stand a fighting chance. We all quickly fell into the delusion that news can and should be free, but as any working (or laid-off) journalist will tell you, real journalism is expensive. And it’s not going to our paycheck; it goes to our work. Currently I’m planning a film in Alaska. Without paying myself or my co-producer, our minimum budget is $10,000; no one’s covering those costs except my credit cards.

So when I hold in my hands the “future of journalism,” and I don’t see a place for low-budget or nonprofit investigative journalism, I worry. Currently the minimum cost of making an “app” for the iPhone or iPad is running $2,500 – something that most low- or no-budget news sites can’t afford: $2,500 is someone’s pay for two months.

On the profit centric side of journalism there is a handful of apps that make the iPad worth it.

The iPad is made for programming like NPR offers, and NPR has built an app that is perfect – the front page shows today’s programming, but tap on an article and it gives you the option to download the podcast and subscribe to it via iTunes.

The Associated Press (AP), the leader in the movement against free news, offers a limited but potentially good app heavy on the video but disappointing when it comes to photos, which are limited to a quarter of the iPad’s screen size. Right now news agencies are the last place for professional photographers to make a living – showcase the work that you have, don’t cripple it.

BBC and Reuters both get the iPad showcasing their strongpoints – audio for the BBC and photo/video for Reuters. The BBC offers live radio as you are viewing the app, but as with all the apps (skype included) it shuts down the moment you try to work on something else.

Far and away the strongest app is from the Wall Street Journal, which is, as of now, the only one that really works for an information consumer. The WSJ app (free, but there’s a paywall for the newspaper) nearly makes the $500 iPad worth it: The layout is as close to a newspaper as I’ve found other than the web page for the New York Times – which doesn’t have an app other than its glorified rss feed application. It also allows for you to view a weeks worth of newspapers without an internet connection, to me the most practical news application currently offered for the iPad.

Which brings me to why I am returning this tremendous device.

Right now, it’s not worth it. I’m one of the seemingly few media consumers that’s willing to pay for my news, and the iPad doesn’t make it worth my while.

Like most consumers (those outside of the Google campus), I don’t have Wi-Fi everywhere I go. I live in NYC and I went to three different coffee shops before I found one that had the Wi-Fi I needed. Once i was on the network the device worked brilliantly, and most importantly, quickly. If I went to my hometown, Syracuse, NY, I’d be out of luck, or at best I’d have to pay for access.

The iPad 3G will solve those problems, but at a starting price of over 600 bucks, we’re getting ridiculous. That’s why having access to content off the web is key.

Now is this Apple or the content providers’ fault? Personally I’d lay blame on the provider.

Apple has made an amazing media content viewer – now it’s up to the news agencies to make content to fill it.