But would you pay to read a digital magazine like THIS?

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I call them e-book people; they’re  publishing types who see a big future for media distribution – not just books, but also magazines and newspapers – through e-readers and tablet devices.

They include folks I know pretty well, like David Nussbaum of F+W Media (the consumer-special-interest giant that touches people who are into anything from creative writing to geneology to knitting or woodworking), to folks I know only by reputation, like Alan Meckler of WebMediaBrands (events and online communities surrounding media and technology).

They’ve been building excitement for months, maybe longer, over the prospect that Apple will eventually come out with a category-smashing tablet that puts Amazon’s market-leading Kindle e-reader to pasture.

Based on the recent press (like this, from the NJ Star Ledger), it appears as if it’s finally about to happen. And not only should the folks behind the Kindle and other first-generation e-readers be scared, but newspaper and magazine executives should rejoice. This is the vehicle that could finally direct them down a clear path toward the future.

The problem with current e-readers is that they’re good for text and not much else. They don’t handle graphics well, so they aren’t useful for  technical books or anything with color pictures. E-readers, as they currently exist, are basically good for best-selling books. They’re a single-application device, and the next-generation unit – whether it comes from Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Google or anyone else – will do to them what the Palm Pilot did for the Apple Newton.

Which is the long way of getting to the real point: When the tablet PCs start to come out, newspapers and magazines will have a great opportunity to try and reinvigorate their existing business model, or to build on the more obvious business model that they simply have to make work.

The old business model is advertising, and the high-touch interactivity that a tablet PC could offer advertisers might be enough to entice them back to the traditional media marketplace. I’m sure it eventually will help to flatten out the downward trend for print advertising revenue. But I don’t believe it will ever halt the juggernuat of advertisers who seek to aggregate their own audiences and produce their own content – which is what the new age of marketing is all about.

But the new business model has more hope. That’s the one in which people actually pay for the content they use. It’s the only obvious next place for media to go. But up to now, there hasn’t been a vehicle that presents print media better than the existing hard-copy formats of magazines and newspapers. Those are so expensive to produce that, without growing advertiser support, there has been no hope of shifting their full cost to consumers.

Can the tablet change that? Not in a hurry. But here’s what it CAN do:

It can give publishers a medium that is powerful enough for them to create something new – something that extends beyond the boundaries of the newspapers and magazines they already produce.

This goes back to the old Marshall McLuhan quote, “The medium is the message.” Up to now, solutions like e-zine interfaces have simply been an attempt to push old messages into a new medium. The mismatch has been underwhelming at best.

But the tablet can create a new message – a new set of boundaries for old print media companies to create electronic-only products that generate real excitement among consumers. The kind of excitement people pay for.

For example, check out this proof-of-concept video from Sports Illustrated:

If products like this really come around, I’d pay three or four times what I do now for a magazine subscription. Would that cover the cost of generating the content? It’s a question for the market to handle. But if it also arrested the decline in advertising revenue, there might actually be a business in this.

This isn’t a short-term solution. Tablet prices will start out too high for any publication to convert a meaningful number of subscribers. And ad revenue won’t follow until that changes.

And it will take years of education before consumers understand why tablet-based publications are the future of media. Just consider some of the comments that people left after viewing SI’s video:

There are probably many kids here that think this is wonderful but i am not sure if they have the capacity to think! What will most likely happen is that the selling price (books, magazines, etc) will not reflect the savings and? they will be able to control what you have on your device and how long you have it for. This is not good for the consumer. It is not a good idea that content providers decide how you have access to information (be they Apple Microsoft or Google).

Do I need another electronic product to add to my cumbersome life?
How? many other things you have to carry around with you 24/7 to keep you up-to-date?

I don’t see the point of this. Nobody is going to buy this thing just to read e-magazines. Why not just load the …damn website? Seems like people are desperate to save print-based magazines. Make this smaller, like the Kindle, and strip away all this excess so it reads books. Then I’ll consider.

OK, so people don’t get it yet. And they aren’t ready to pay for a digital subscription. But as more and more magazines disappear, and more innovators build great content for tablets, the correct path for media will begin to unfold.


About the Author:

Bob Rosenbaum is founder and principal of The MarketFarm, a content-oriented strategic communications firm.

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