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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What if the book industry or the music industry behaved like the newspaper industry?

A couple of people have commented to me that they find it odd that I, a dyed-in-the-wool newspaper guy, would be such a big fan of e-readers, like my much-loved Nook.
I should love printed, ink-on-paper books, just as I love printed, ink-on-paper newspapers, right? If I rail against newspaper websites, I should rail against e-books, too, right?
First of all, I’m not one of these people who “just loves the feel of paper in my hands.” Blech. That’s such a trivialization of why newspapers are so great.
Second, I’ve said this many times before: Neither e-readers nor websites come close to replicating the experience of reading a newspaper. And when I say the experience, I don’t mean the tactile stimulation of paper in one’s fingertips. I mean the experience of looking at a whole news page there in front of you, a menu of the top stories of the day laid out before you, organized in a logical and consistent hierarchical order that doesn’t change when you turn the page and doesn’t place the same value on every single story, whether it’s Lindsay Lohan or health care reform. I would say some of the tablet newspaper apps come close, but still not quite the same experience.
E-books, on the other, almost exactly replicate the experience of reading a book. You have a rectangle of a page in front of you with a block of text on it. You turn the page to another rectangle of text. The experience of reading an e-book is nearly identical to the experience of reading a printed book. The experience of reading a newspaper website, however, is vastly different from reading a printed newspaper.
Yes, it’s true that in many, many ways, reading a newspaper website is much better — watching video, linking to past stories and related content, photo galleries, etc. But it’s still not the same.
Finally, as I sat there reading Richard Ford’s Canada on my Nook today, it occurred to me that the other big difference is that I damn well paid for that book by Richard Ford. Just because it’s not printed on paper and bound in an expensive hardcover, does that mean it should be free? Oh thanks, Richard, for writing that interesting book, now run along.
What if the book industry was like the newspaper industry and simply gave e-books away for free but kept charging money for printed books?
Let’s put it in another perspective. Remember when Napster came along and enabled users to simply download individual songs for free on the Internet? It turned the music industry downright apoplectic. It set off an industrywide crackdown on illegal downloads, with lawsuits and even threats of criminal action.
At the very same time, the newspaper industry was rushing to put all of its content online, downloadable for free, just like what Napster was doing. The music industry rightly recognized how damaging that was. The newspaper industry, meanwhile, thought that giving everything away for free was the smartest thing in the world.
Further, anyone who disagreed with that perspective was simply not keeping up with the times, holding onto the past, being an old-fashioned obstructionist.
Now, of course, we are seeing this new rush to paywalls, which I personally am in favor of. The bigger question is whether it’s too late and whether readers will pay for quality journalism.

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