McGuire on Media

If the tablet is going to help newspapers then tend that garden

Every morning as I pull my old bones out of bed I grab my Kindle Fire and my iPhone from their chargers.

First, I read some 150 overnight Twitter messages to get a handle on the big news developments. A well-put-together Twitter feed is a great news stream to begin a day.

Then I grab my trusty Kindle Fire and download three newspapers, the Arizona Republic, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and The New York Times.

This 40-year-newspaperman’s pristine hands never touch an ink-stained newspaper and there is no absolutely risk of inclement weather chasing a folded newspaper around a driveway.

Newspaper content is still central to my life but the dead-tree form of a newspaper is not. While the “tablet as newspaper savior “ debate rages on. I personally believe tablets will serve as an excellent outlet for newspaper content for some years.  I doubt tablets can solve many of the newspaper’s revenue problems, but I am fairly sure tablet revenue will prove to be more than chump change.

But there is one thing of which I am absolutely sure, and that is—for me—  tablets are the perfect answer.

I live in two places. I care a lot about about two communities, two sets of teams and two sets of politics, characters and obits. Being able to inform myself about both places 365 days of the year is a delightful luxury. And, for good measure I have the incomparable New York Times at my fingertips, including the Monday Media section of the New York Times,  the best, most consistent newspaper package I can name.

The Kindle Fire presentation of news is not fancy. Newspapers like the Star Tribune and the Times organize their content on the Fire simply, according to the Front Page, Local, Features, Sports and Business.

For me the elegant organization and prioritization of content—like I find in the Star Tribune and the Times–is what allows any publication to rise above.  Call me old-fashioned, but l want to know what the editors value and I don’t want to read my opinion page articles with my news stories.

My experience with the Arizona Republic in the last several weeks has not been near as rewarding as that of the cither two newspapers. Now, I am the first to caution that news is not what the editor had for breakfast this morning so I don’t want my personal experiences to become my agenda. However, I think my Republic experience speaks to a larger industry truth worth discussion. 

For weeks the Republic “smushed” all their articles into three categories, features, news and sports and presented them haphazardly. Especially on Sunday not all of their articles even got published on the Kindle Fire edition. The reading experience was dismal and I desperately wanted to understand why.

After wrestling with the Republic’s internal organizational structure for several days I was  able to talk to Mike Coleman  the Republic’s Vice President for Digital Media.  Mike is a great guy. I know from personal experience he is smart, articulate and caring.

My candid 20-minute conversation with Mike was informative, but vaguely disturbing. Mike made it clear he thinks his organization has knocked it out of the park with with its I-Pad edition. He bragged about the large number of page  views and the large audience the Republic is serving with the I-Pad.  As pleased as he was with that I-Pad edition he was personally disappointed with the Kindle Fire edition.

He admitted it’s been bad and without really making excuses explained that a move to a new content management system has complicated the task. He also complained the the Amazon feeds have been more difficult to work with than the I-Pad system.

Several times during the conversation Mike said “if we had an army of developers……..” I took from that the clear implication the Republic did not have enough digital  development resources to solve the problem.

Therein lies the problem for newspapers.  All of the competitors do have armies of developers. Facebook and Google get praise for their quick reactions to technical problems. They are obviously tech companies first.

I am fairly convinced by the fact that the Republic problem with the Fire has been solved Monday, that I caught the organization at a bad time and they will continue to fight the good fight to manage the rapidly changing tablet ecosystem.

There is a bigger problem though and that’s can newspapers as a species legitimately play in the digital world?

Newspapers have only two real choices. The first is to admit they are outdated analog companies and die a slow death. The second is to rethink their technical approach and make digital capabilities a top priority with the technical muscle and expertise needed to compete with “real” digital companies.

The path that will not work is to “do the best we can with what we have.” That path leads to perdition.

The interesting irony here is that the second greatest strength of analog newspaper companies, after news, has always been operational brilliance. “The daily miracle”’ really was miraculous and newspapers could beautifully solve practically any operational or logistical challenge.

Critics and newspaper advocates can argue all they want about who did what in the past and who wounded newspapers. That question is becoming stale and irrelevant. The only question that matters  now is can newspapers become agile digital competitors?

The tablet is ballyhooed by many as a key element of a viable newspaper future. But unless the same operational brilliance that has always marked newspapers becomes a hallmark of digital problem-solving, I fear the future is dim.

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