Better Read Than Dead

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There’s been a ton of (predictable) reaction to Walter Isaacson’s cover story this week, in which he argues that micropayments could save the newspaper business.

Bloggers and old media guys alike  have derided the idea. People don’t want to pay for Web content online, they argue. They don’t want to be nickeled and dimed. Even Nick Carr, who gets it mostly right, and  understands that the situation is volatile and fluid, either doesn’t believe or doesn’t see that the salvation for the journalism business won’t come from the Web. (Or to phrase it as a positive: Thinks that newspapers and such still have a chance to find real revenue on the Web.)

It’s too late to charge for Web content. And by the same token, who would pay for blog content? Blogs are perfectly suited to the “economics” of the Web: They are like LEDS, requiring only the tiniest bit of energy to give off a modest bit of light. But the business model, such as it is, is based on eyeballs, and is showing serious signs of eroding. That’s because, let’s not mince words here, no one looks at ads on the Web. (I heard a great bit of jargon today that describes that phenomenon: “Banner blindness!”) So if ads won’t work for even blogs, how can they work for the more expensive to produce stuff?

But really, who cares? People don’t blog for money, they do it because they want to be heard. And, on a  grander scale, the whole, old Web itself should be open and free. That’s how it was conceived (anyone remember the the early days of the Internet and the AUP?) and that’s how it was designed. It’s a boon to civilization to have one, big open cauldron of data that endlessly feeds the world.

And that’s exactly why there’s a big-ass opportunity for old media, which knows how to package and communicate complicated information: Migrate your content to offline digital platforms!

I’m referring to the class of reading devices that are, well, indifferent to the Web. We’re going to see many more of these things, which are online, but non-Web. Think of the Kindle, only better. The fact that 500,000 people bought the Amazon reader, mediocre as it is, tells you that there’s demand for off-line, digital reading devices.  And Kindle 2 leaves a lot to be desired (want color; want bigger screen; and as a publisher, want the ability to make my stuff look the way I want it, not gussied-up ASCII.) But help is on the way. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in new reading displays, from Plastic Logic to MIDs and netbooks.

If you’re still not convinced, take this test. Imagine if Apple had designed the Kindle. (As an aid, check out  the third version, here.) Would you pay $200 for that device if it were connected to an online bookstore via WhisperNet? Would you pay 75-cents to download the Sunday New York Times (what it costs at the Kindle download store now)? Hell, I’d pay that for just the crossword puzzle. –Josh Quittner