NYTimes is to Kindle as Gillette is to Razor

Today, much like Dr. Hfuhruhurr performing two screw-top brain surgeries at once, I grind two of my favorite axes: The New York Times and Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader.

The Kindle, which is apparently selling better than I thought it would, can receive nine major news publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Le Monde, and, of course, The New York Times.

You’d think the news outlets would view this growing platform as an ideal opportunity to expand their reach, given their shrinking print readership. And you’d think that the Times in particular, having recently eliminated TimesSelect in a bid for scale, would be doing everything possible to leverage the popularity of the Kindle and subsequent devices.

You’d think, but you’d be wrong. You have to pay $14 per month to read the Times on a Kindle. Less than it costs in print, true, but $14 more than reading it on the web. It’s another sign that the NYTimes Company is conflicted at best, at war with itself at worst.

The future of news is digital, different rules apply to digital content, and those are the rules they should be playing by. And the first rule is that in a world governed by an overabundance of information, value flows in different directions. The attention information garners is more valuable than the information itself. Of course the two are related, but in addition to traditional attributes like quality content and a trusted brand (which still hold), easy, free, ubiquitous access becomes vital.

There are historical antecedents for reduced cost and increased access changing the media landscape. As Daniel Czitrom has pointed out, the introduction of the penny newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century, facilitated by the invention of the steam press, completely changed journalism. Reduced cost and increased access essentially created the Times in 1851, and those are the forces they should be paying attention to now.

Transitioning to a new model is painful, and it’s understandable that the Times would want to milk the old one as long as possible. It also makes sense that they’d have different strategies in effect in different places during a period of transition. But they let this go on too long at their own peril. Once a disruptive technology passes a certain threshold, to not embrace it fully means to go down with the ship. It’s time for the NYTimes Company to suck it up and move, across the board, to business models that are growing, rather than contracting.

At the very least they should be the cheapest news site available on the Kindle, rather than the most expensive. Free would be better. But why not take a page from Gillette and subsidize the cost of the Kindle, the way Gillette sells razors below cost and makes it up on the blades? Sell a Times-branded Kindle, with the Times set as the permanent default newspaper (they could make the thing less ugly while they’re at it). There’s an antecedent here, too: at one point Bloomberg Radio gave away thousands of cheap little radios, which could only tune in Bloomberg’s channel, WBBR.

If the Kindle really is doing well, it may herald a new platform, and the Times should ride that wave, rather than get swamped by it. It may be one of the ingredients that helps them hit the scale of which they’re capable, and which can lift them from their doldrums.

Steve Jobs: "People Don’t Read"

Apple’s Steve Jobs, talking to The New York Times about Amazon’s Kindle:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Which means sixty percent of people in the U.S.–180 million people–are, to some degree, readers. More if you count newspapers, magazines, and the web.

It strikes me as odd that Jobs, the head of a company that is doing very well with a less than 9 percent market share*, doesn’t appreciate that.

* UPDATE: Notice how I conflate the size of a market with market share? I think that’s called lying with statistics. Still, I think the larger point stands.

The Kindle: Books Don’t Need Saving

Todaythe tech and book blogs are all buzzing about the Kindle, Amazon’s attempt at an ereader. The tech blog reports are in-depth to the point of exhaustion, a bit hyperbolic, and overall what you’d expect. They’ve done this before.

That’s not so much the case for the book people, and there’s a whiff of desperation to the coverage, as if the Kindle is a deus ex machina that will help them maintain relevance.
Earth to publishing industry: people like books, and you’re doing just fine. You are not in the same sinking boat as the newspaper people, so chill out. Yes, some kinds of books aren’t so useful anymore (who under the age of 30 still uses a printed dictionary? The online options are superior in every way). But for the reading of long-form narrative, the best option is, and will remain for some time, a book.
For that to change, somebody, probably Apple, is going to have to come up with a far better device than the Kindle. Because I’m lazy, I’m just going to quote the obnoxious comment I left on the OUPblog:
“The older book demographic won’t buy [the Kindle] because they’re not gadget people, and young readers (yes, young people do read books) won’t because it’s fugly, and they’re already lugging around an iPod, smartphone, and laptop. On top of those devices, the Kindle is a redundant piece of crap.

Once again it’s going to be left to Apple to get this right. Schnittman is correct that any media device has to be networked, and have easy access to an enormous reservoir of content. But it has to be beautiful, or at least attractive, and it has do more than one thing. The iPhone is beautiful and multifunctional, for the same price as a Kindle. Speaking of price, who in their right mind is going to pay $14/month for the New York Times, in this emasculated, black and white, linkless form? Or $2/month for a bunch of otherwise free blogs? If they get 17 subscriptions, I’ll be shocked.

The Kindle is going to go down like the Lusitania.”