An iTunes for news? Dumb, dumb, dumb

by Mathew on January 12, 2009 · 19 comments

David Carr, the New York Times media columnist, muses in a recent column about how it would be great if the newspaper industry could somehow come up with an “iTunes for news.” After all, record labels were on a long slide into oblivion just like newspapers, right? And then Steve Jobs came along with iTunes and saved everyone’s bacon, and now the record industry is just as profitable and healthy as it used to be, right? Wait — you mean the music business isn’t as profitable and healthy as it used to be? Hmmm. Maybe there’s a flaw in Dave’s analogy somewhere.

In fact, there are a number of flaws, as my friend Jay Rosen and media industry attack dog Jeff Jarvis have both pointed out. One of them is the old “people say that bloggers can replace journalists” straw man — this time leveled at Michael Hirschorn and his recent Atlantic article. As Jay notes time and again, this is something that virtually no one, including Michael Hirschorn, has ever actually said. Jeff’s argument is a good one as well, and it is this: “the real fallacy in Carr’s delusion is that a news story or an opinion, like a song, is unique — that you can’t get it somewhere else.” The simple fact is that music is unique in ways that news can never hope to be, no matter how many times newspaper writers and editors say it is.

Music is unlike the news in another crucial way as well: People like to listen to the same song over and over and over, and are happy to pay money for the privilege of carrying it around with them so that they can do so. Does the vast majority of what appears in a newspaper fall into that category? Hardly. I would like to think that some of my columns were so well written that they will stand the test of time throughout the centuries — but even I wouldn’t be silly enough to argue that someone (other than the truly insane) might pay to read them over and over whenever they want to.

Steve Jobs decided to sell music for one reason, and one reason only: to drive the market for iPods. I happen to think that he also wanted to grab the record labels by a sensitive body part and force them to bow to his will, but I have no way of proving that. In any case, there is no corollary for newspapers in this model. It’s possible that if Amazon wants to sell more Kindles, it might try to bundle news, and that might help drive people to pay for subscriptions (Jack Schafer at Slate thinks it could, but I think he is wrong). In any case, it is never going to amount to the same kind of windfall that iTunes has become.

In a way, Carr’s column is a sign of just how desperate things have become at even major papers like the Times: it’s gotten to the point where journalists are dreaming about becoming enslaved to an Apple-like hardware maker because they can’t think of any other way to get back to the glory days when they owned both the news and the package it came in.

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