The Future of Journalism, Apps, and the Web

The web has put traditional journalism into a tailspin, and newspapers of all sizes are scrambling to find a way to monetize their content. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and more have created paywalls that require readers to pay to read all of their content each month, either online or in apps on various mobile platforms. Increasingly, though, publishers are turning to mobile apps as the only way to sell digital copies of their articles, cutting the web out of the equation.

Is this the future of digital media? Will we have to purchase specific devices to read the content we want? Or is there hope yet for monetized content on the internet?

Restricting Journalism to Apps

This past week, Fortune Magazine has created a stir by locking their latest issue’s featured story, an insider piece on Apple and Steve Job’s management style, behind a paywall. Rather than letting readers pay to read the story online, Fortune initially only made the article available to print and iPad subscribers. Later this week, they released the piece as a Kindle Single, bringing it to many more readers. The article included interesting original reporting, and is definitely worth paying for, but to only offer the article on certain devices seems incredibly short-sighted.

But it’s not just Fortune. Time Magazine and more are restricting their digital content to their iPad app, bringing it behind a paywall and away from the web. More troubling, Time is only offering their full featured articles on the iPad and in print. If you already own an Android device, Kindle or Nook eReader, or a traditional computer, you simply can’t read the articles that aren’t given away for free on their site.

Sorry, web: you're not allowed here

Most iPad owners would agree that tablets are great for reading, and find Kindle, iBooks, and Instapaper to be some of their most used apps. However, the transformation of magazines to the tablet interface hasn’t gone over so well. Most of the magazine apps are beautiful, but are essentially made of images of the articles rather than the actual text and images that make up the article. You can’t change font size, copy text, or even share an article with others. It’s got the same limitations paper magazines have, only this time, you’re paying $5 to read it on a $500 device.

iPad magazines offer a rich experience, but few sharing opportunities

Kindle is for More Than Books

The Kindle has emerged as an unlikely savior for books, and has created a rapidly growing market for eBooks on all platforms. Whether you own a Mac, Blackberry, Android Tablet, Windows PC, or any iOS device, you can purchase and read Kindle books anytime you like. The Kindle device offers one of the best digital reading experiences, but it’s their ecosystem of apps that really makes Kindle the strongest force in eBooks. The Kindle store offers most popular books, as well as an assortment of newspaper and magazine subscriptions. This has made Amazon one of the best hopes for digital media that can be read on any device.

Kindle books aren’t perfect, though. They’re still locked with DRM, which restricts the books to your account and gives you limited sharing options. Then, magazine and newspaper subscriptions only are available on the Kindle itself, so the other Kindle apps can only be used to read Kindle eBooks. Also, the rich images and text formatting we’ve come to expect from high quality books and magazines is stripped out in Kindle editions, and any included images are often blurry. Kindle offers a great reading experience, just so it doesn’t include much more than the text itself.

Amazon Shorts offer an interesting opportunity for monetizing long-form journalism

One interesting new development is the Kindle Shorts, which are shorter pieces for the Kindle for $1-$3 each. Many longer-form articles from magazines, including the recent Fortune piece mentioned above, are now available as Kindle Shorts. This is an interesting way to monetize articles that are almost more like a chapter from a book. Plus, with the Kindle Popular Highlights feature, you can share thoughts from an article and still make the article somewhat social. In addition to the existing Kindle newspaper and magazine subscriptions, this is yet another way Amazon can help boost traditional media and bring it into the new world of digital media while still remaining economically feasible.

The Kindle ecosystem is also coming to the web, making your browser once again the ultimate app. While you currently have to use your browser to discover, purchase, and manage your Kindle books, you can only read them on a Kindle device or app. That’s currently already changing, as Amazon has built the new Kindle for the Web that lets you read book previews in a Kindle-like interface in your browser. Amazon is planning to turn this into a full Kindle experience soon so you can read any of your books or Kindle Shorts right in any browser.

Kindle for the Web can

Another possible savior of long-form journalism could be the popular reading apps, including Instapaper and Readability. These apps are loved by people who enjoy reading, but want a better experience than the standard cluttered interface that most news sites use. Readability currently sends a portion of your subscription to the authors of articles you’ve added to your reading list, while Instapaper includes curated lists of the best long form online writing. Services like this could be a way to monetize content while letting readers choose what they want to read and pay for.

Instapaper's Editor Picks list

Chrome Web Store: Apps for Every Platform

The Chrome Web Store offers yet another way to monetize media online from a curated digital store. Many news publishers have created web apps for the Chrome Store that work very similar to their iPad apps. It’s refreshing to see a beautiful and interactive browser interface that includes everything you’d expect from a top-notch tablet interface.

Most news apps are free right now on the Chrome store, but some, such as the New York Times, charge a subscription similar to their iPad app. Chrome’s upcoming in-app payments are likely to be implemented by many publishers to enable instant article purchases and subscriptions. The good thing is, you can still at least read your content in the browser, and are not forced to buy an iPad just to read from a certain magazine. Plus, most browser apps include many more options to share content, even when it’s behind a paywall.

The New York Times Chrome Web App

Conclusion

From Apple to Amazon, the biggest names in tech are all vying to be the gateway for all media. Publishers are quickly embracing the app ecosystems, since they offer an easy way to monetize content, while Amazon continues building an increasingly powerful one-stop eReading solution. Both systems lose much of the advantages that the internet has brought to media. The web let content be shared and seen by millions who otherwise never would have seen it. Even paper books and newspapers were often read by others who hadn’t directly purchased them.

Content has to be paid for, and everything in the world cannot be sponsored entirely by ads. However, as more of our media goes digital, it seems a pity to lock it into proprietary formats that you own less than ever before. After all, is speech truly free if it’s locked behind paywalls and DRM?