Will the New iPhone Save Journalism?

Let's follow the logic. Apple iPhones can now buy movies and TV shows just like a computer. What about magazines? Maybe them too: an application called Scrollmotion says it hopes to offer on the iPhone "50 major magazines, 170 daily newspapers and 1 million books," possibly including Esquire and Bon Appetit. Is the stage set for iPhone to cash in on that grand-daddy of  journalism life preservers: The iTunes of Journalism?


We've heard this before. The New York Times' David Carr suggested last year that journo publishers come together to build an online store that offered articles and magazines from premium sources the way iTunes offers songs and albums. Gawker, which has picked up the meme, drops the snark and starts thinking seriously about a iTunes or Hulu for the press:

Magazine and newspaper publishers might prefer to put together their own iPhone store, just as the TV studios set up the video-sharing site Hulu. Apple's terms would let them keep 70 percent of the sale price of their content -- a pretty good deal in comparison to selling content on the Kindle, where Amazon and its wireless carrier reportedly keep close to 70 percent of the money.

There's a few challenges to this. One that writer Ryan Tate notes is why in the world would you go through a publisher's landing page to read something that's only a URL away? There are plenty of other good reasons why an iTunes for music would not work:

1) Music isn't disposable. You don't listen to it once, you buy it to savor for months or years. When was the last time you felt that way about a Maureen Dowd column?

2) Music is unique. Most news is not. If I like U2, it doesn't follow that I will like every band covering U2. But if there's an election in, say, Iran, I don't need the New York Times to read about it. Cover artistry works much better in journalism than music.

3) Also, here's media maven Jeff Jarvis: "Even if Carr had a unique idea here, the essence of it--without guitar accompaniment--can spread without having to hear him sing the tune. Information isn't art. Neither are opinions."

Well that hurts! I think opinions are a bit like art.* Good opinions, anyway. Yes, I'm in the opinion business -- and perhaps this is just the evolutionary genes screaming "Fight!" -- but I do think that readers will pay more for opinions they trust and learn from. That's why the rather expensive Economist is selling like hotcakes while Newsweek is in the process of reinvention. News is a commodity. But opinion and voice that distinguishes itself is inherently not. A year of the Economist costs more than $100. Could an iTunes for world opinion and analysis journalism beat that? I think it could.


*Theoretically unique? Sometimes elegant? Often misunderstood? Check, check, check.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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