Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

Why Apple can’t be trusted with the future of news

with 10 comments

Steve Jobs (Picture: Acaben, via Flickr)

So Apple has decided that it’s not going to let publications offer free iPad access to print subscribers (at least for some European publications, although when everyone affected inevitably rolls over and plays dead it’ll doubtless extend to other markets).

This is yet another glaring example of why the media industry’s favourite tech company can’t be trusted with the hopes and dreams for the future that everyone from Rupert Murdoch to The Guardian seems to be investing in it. If you’re Big Media and you haven’t got an iPhone and iPad app of some description, no-one is taking you seriously at the moment.  This is a huge mistake for people who want to make news profitable again and for people who want to keep the news free of undue influence and bias.

First, the profitability side of things: if you’re investing huge amounts of your developers’ time and energy developing an iOS application, that is a massive amount of investment that’s going to be lacking in your offerings for other platforms. It doesn’t matter how many millions of iDevices Apple has managed to ship in impressively short amounts of time; your target market for an iPad app is laughably small compared to the number of people who could potentially access your content using smartphones on a different operating system, lesser phones that still make up the vast majority of handsets available worldwide, desktop and laptop computers, netbooks, and the coming avalanche of tablet computers that was announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Not only that, but the drive to get content onto iDevices means that media organisations are going to be failing to perform their basic function of informing people about events. Ownership of such gadgets, as well as online services like Twitter that are constantly endorsed and reported on in news media, is overwhelmingly concentrated among a young, metropolitan demographic who are likely to be media workers of one kind or another themselves. News produced to interest and animate these people isn’t going to be the news that gets the rest of the country, or the rest of the world, to reach for their wallets – and that’s even if they had the chance to buy it in the first place, which they won’t.

Large media organisations are yet to succeed in finding a sustainably profitable model for making content available on the web, accessible to any kind of device with a browser. The big experiments are ad-supported Mail Online and paywalled-off Times Online – and the jury’s still out on whether they’ll still be around in five or 10 years. The one thing that’s not going to turn things around is artificially limiting the audience to those who think that an iPad is a good investment.

The second reason to reject the iPad as the saviour of the media is Apple business practice. As the Register article I linked to earlier notes, the company isn’t just forbidding print/iPad bundles just to get the 30% cut of subscriptions it gets as part of the App Store arrangements. What it really wants is to interpose itself between media companies and their customers, making it the middleman in the information transactions going on. It can earn 30% of customers’ money this way, but it can also go back to the newspapers, the TV channels and other businesses and sell them the demographic data on their customers that they need to get advertisers interested in their publications and programming.

Not content with extracting money out of its role as informational middleman, Apple has its sights on controlling the public discourse as well, at least as far as it takes place through the medium of their devices. The company has been repeatedly accused of censorship, rejecting dictionaries and James Joyce’s Ulysses from the App Store – with Jobs declaring that Apple offered “freedom from porn”. This is all done in the name of retaining Apple’s image as a family friendly computer company, the computer company that understands that you want everything done for you and served up on a plate without you having to think about it.

This might be fine for a company that is selling people what is ultimately hardware. They can’t have their products associated with the idea of children using them to access unsuitable material online. But that’s not how the news should work. Current events TV pictures and photographs, and even textual descriptions of events, can be harrowing and horrifying experiences, totally unsuitable for children and rightly so. If the news is squeezed through the Apple child-friendly filter, it’s going to provide us (or at least Apple users) with an even more sanitised, family-friendly, Western-centric and politically vacuous picture of the world than the one we make do with now.

Apple is a business. It wants to sell as many products as possible in as short space of time as it can, and to keep customers coming back for more. If we think that the news is more than a business, that it should aim for something more than sales figures, then jumping into the Apple embrace is the wrong move.

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Written by Tom Barfield

January 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Great post, Tom. It’s a very interesting perspective.
    As for me, I believe markets will put pressure on Apple: if Apple’s direct competitors succeed in providing similar services without boundaries and at lower prices, perhaps Steve Jobs will revise his market strategy.
    However, and even though Apple hasn’t found the ultimate solution for Online Media, I believe it gave a new input that made us (professionals working for Media outlets) all think about alternative strategies to make news profitable online – aside from the traditional paywalls.
    Cheers, mate.

    Marco Leitão Silva

    January 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    • Hi marco, thanks for the comment!

      I think there’s always going to be a market for the kind of service Apple offers: a lot of people are prepared to pay for the convenience of not having to worry about issues like hardware compatibility, or reduced crash rates because the software is designed to work on such a narrow range of machines. This even extends to having Apple vet and curate third party software: enough people are prepared to pay or don’t have the time to do it themselves.

      The trouble is that this is a very narrow (if growing) market compared with the numbers on non-Apple PCs and mobile devices. It’s a mistake to invest such resources into the “app” model when providing content online would probably take less time, be more widely compatible, have equally viable interactive features (e.g. with html5) and reduce media organisations’ lock-in to the relationship with what is ultimately a predatory third party.

      There’s no denying that Apple is often a trailblazer when it comes to popularising technologies (hard- and software) and even whole device classes. It’s a great generator of ideas, but can’t always be trusted to see those ideas throught to an acceptable solution for all the people who have a stake in technological change.

      Tom Barfield

      January 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm

  2. Marco makes valid points. I’m not a journo, just a motp. Reach of market for i hardware may be bigger than you suggest. Spenders of readily-available grey pounds are growing in number. They find Apples i products more user-friendly than MS, & spread the word. They read a lot; are often quick to *invest* in trendy gadgets, but baulk at taking on new subscription spends. So other ways need to be explored for extracting revenue stream from them . . .

    Mary Jagger

    January 16, 2011 at 11:01 am

    • Hi Mary, thanks for the comment!

      It’s a good point about the increasing numbers of older people who’ll be buying technology… but there’s an equivalent argument that larger and larger numbers of the younger generation, who are “digital natives” (a phrase I really can’t stand), are also going to be making their presence felt as they become the average consumer over the next 20 years.

      It’s also worth remembering that Apple doesn’t have very good penetration in a large number of markets worldwide, especially emerging markets (except among the very rich) and Japan – it’s largely a US/EU phenomenon. This is a particular reason why media orgs need to avoid getting locked into onerous deals with Apple which will restrict the resources they have available to reach other markets.

      It’s an interesting point you make about the grey pound being shy of taking on subscriptions – is there research to back that up or are you speaking from experience? Even if not, it’s logical to assume that people on a fixed income would be wary of taking on a regular defined spend like that – and they’re generally quite fixed in their reading and viewing habits, so not susceptible to luring away through marketing. Maybe an unrecognised problem for media as Western populations age?

      Tom Barfield

      January 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm

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  5. “a lot of people are prepared to pay for the convenience[..]” (Marco Leitão Silva)

    Yeah, convenience, man! Take me: I don’t like making decisions. Should I stand up or sleep until noon? What clothes should I wear today? Is this girl really the right one? How am I doing? In three words: I am indecisive.

    So, I’d like to pay s.o. for the convenience not to decide. Great idea! My life would be so much better since I have so much free time to think about eating and having sex. That’s the real thing for the shaved monkey I am! Come on: choice != multiple choice 😉

    BenZol

    January 19, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    • Er, I mean Barfield not Marco. sry

      BenZol

      January 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm

      • Hey there! My thinking is probably pretty close to yours on this point; people are prepared to pay for convenience even when it is removing choice and control from their hands into those of entities which may not have their best interests at heart.

        The market for companies like Apple doing exactly that exists because people unfortunately don’t always have the time or inclination to make informed decisions about something they perceive as being so relatively trivial in their lives, much as many people just can’t be bothered to engage with the democratic process.

        Tom Barfield

        January 19, 2011 at 4:13 pm


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