There’s been no end of talk these past few weeks about the iPad’s revolutionary potential: how you don’t have to choose between a smart phone and a laptop any more, how you can throw that Kindle in the fireplace, and how people might even start paying for news on the web. But are media outlets relinquishing editorial control by jumping onto the iPad app bandwagon?
When the device came out earlier this month after a long lead up and more than a few hagiographic profiles of the man who would deliver the tablets to us, the other story was that Random House was not going to be offering its titles through Apple’s iBook store. Though you could still read Random House books through the apps of other companies, such as Amazon’s, the publisher rejected Apple’s pricing policy and therefore did not join in the iPad mania.
On the newspaper and magazine side of things, however, the excitement that surrounded the release of the iPad was near-universal. So much so that the ties between Apple and some of the media companies who stand to gain from the new outlet for their content raised some eyebrows. Dan Gillmor recently commented on the relationship between Apple and the New York Times, noting that Times new media executive Martin Nisenholtz was on stage for the iPad’s unveiling ceremony in January, praising the device, and that the Times frequently appeared on the screen of iPads in advertisements for the device. All of which makes Gillmor rather “uneasy”: “By appearing on stage at the Apple event and by launching an iPad app that the Times wants to monetize in every possible way—an app from which Apple will likely make money as well—the Times is becoming more of a business partner with a company it covers incessantly.” When a media company so visibly displays its interest in the success of a consumer product, we should all feel a little uneasy.
This is especially true because of the nature of the iPad: it’s not just a better computer, it’s a different way of providing content. It doesn’t make it easier to surf over to nytimes.com, rather, the big draw of the iPad is that you don’t go to nytimes.com, you get the content of nytimes.com in a visually-appealing and user-friendly app. All of which puts a lot of importance on the app as a content-providing medium. Magazines and newspapers are rejoicing over this medium, because people will have to pay for it. But by setting up the app as the salvation of journalism, the major media players are relinquishing a lot of control over their content. They’re giving Apple the upper hand. An unsettling proposition, when Apple can reject apps they see as not meeting their editorial standards, such as Mark Fiore’s Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoons. Media companies need to think long and hard about the possible ramifications of the move to this app-based content-providing system controlled by one corporation, something the companies don’t seem to have yet done. That’s why Columbia Journalism Review‘s Ryan Chittum is even calling for a boycott of Apple’s apps if media outlets aren’t given total control over editorial content. Its much easier to have this discussion now, he argues, because “If the iPad becomes a significant driver of media revenue, and Apple decides to crack down, it will be too late.” The journalism industry needs to step back and look at the iPad with an objective eye before it makes the leap to this new medium: all the benefits of this monetized and innovative content delivery system will be worthless if it results in censorship in any form.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, user cyclonebill.