Offering tablets to newspaper readers is not a crazy idea; not building decent tablet editions, however, is certifiable
This morning, with the usual solicitations from Williams-Sonoma (I do much of the cooking) and Toshiba Direct (they don’t know my daughter wants her new laptop to be a MacBook Pro, ouch) came an email from the Chicago Tribune. The Trib would like me to sign up for their digitalPlus and Sunday home delivery program. With that I get a tablet.
Is this a crazy idea? As a cynical old media guy my first instinct is to think this is a waste of time. But then I think of the media reporters who immediately dismissed the iPad and the tablet platform and are now being very quiet about their past opinions.
The Trib’s offer is pretty attractive: for $11.96 every four weeks on gets unlimited access to digitalPlus, the Sunday paper home delivered and a tablet. DigitalPlus is not a metered paywall the way the NYT or WSJ has set it up: it is “premium content”, additional sports coverage, access to the digital copy of the Trib, as well as the paper’s eBooks.
On the paper’s website it states that digitalPlus normally costs $14.99, so this is a discount right away. With the new offer one must sign up for two years, and if you cancel you get short rated as if you were an advertiser. Readers certainly won’t like this, but then again you get a tablet, right?
The cost for home delivery is $1.49 a week. I looked at my own bill and found I was paying $1.99 per week. That didn’t make me happy. But that aside, the offer is the equivalent of $2.99 per week, so the added cost is for digitalPlus and the tablet.
I think it is fair to say that most people who would be attracted to the offer are not going to be doing comparative shopping with other tablets. But for the record, the tablet runs Android 4.0 (Ice Cream sandwich) which was released at the end of 2011. We are currently on 4.3 Jelly Bean.
Where I see things breaking down here is not with the specs of the tablet, as poor as they may be, but with the thought that creeps into my mind: “what am I supposed to do with this tablet?”
As story I have told many times is when I was with a major publishing company and we were experimenting with ways to get our customers to use the web to access our information. It was so early in the days of Internet publishing that there was a trial where the company presented their customers with desktop computers – on loan – that were programmed to open with its browser pointed at a specific website (simply done by setting the home page). The experiment when awry pretty quickly when customers found that by simply changing the URL address in the browser they could access other websites. I guess we didn’t think they were that smart. End of experiment.
So what are readers to do with these tablets? They presumably can read the Tribune eBooks, that is a nice benefit. But otherwise they are stuck using the browser to access the Trib’s website and its online digital edition. You see the Trib doesn’t have a native tablet edition inside the Google Play store. Its two apps tied to the paper, Chicago Breaking News and RedEye Chicago, are designed for Android smartphones.
(Things are not much better in the Apple App Store as the paper has no Newsstand app, and its only iPad news app is a replica. Interestingly, the Trib has a nice news photography app inside the Newsstand, but readers who sign up for this tablet offer would not be able to use that app, of course.)
Back in 2011, when word came out that the Tribune Company would be offering tablets, the emphasis was on the tablets. Back in 2011 this particular tablet might have been more attractive. But one of the problems with offering tablets is that the technology changes every year, the publisher better be committed to updating those tablets – both hardware and software.
But ultimately where all this falls down is when the publisher is not enthusiastic about tablet publishing.
The Tribune Company has experimented a bit in this area, and the Trib’s RedEye for iPad was getting great reader reviews until the day product became a weekly one and readers started to wonder if they were owed a refund.
If giving away tablets is going to work there are just too many elements that must be tied together for most newspapers to venture into this scheme.
But many people think The Washington Post and its new owner Jeff Bezos of Amazon can make this work. Certainly the tablet side of things can be taken care of. Also, the Post has The Washington Post for Kindle Fire and Post TV apps that will work on a Kindle tablet.
In the end the offer I received today was deleted, just has it has in the past. But I remain open to the idea that it is possible for this to work – in some way, in some form. I’ll try and not continue to be cynical, as hard as that might be.
Here is my disclaimer: once upon a time I was actually a circulation director. It was for only six months and was designed to make me a better newspaper general manager. After the six months were over I was brought back into advertising and made the ad director of the paper. Ultimately the demands of the president of the company – that I be a good brownnoser – was too much and I left to join McGraw-Hill as a publisher.
But during those six months I very much enjoyed the circ game and had good results, growing paid single copy sales by over ten percent and being able to record the best ABC audit of the newspaper group. But back then it was all about home delivery and single copy sales of the print newspaper. I have a lot of sympathy for today’s circulation professionals, their jobs is hard and getting harder. Experimenting with circulation bundling is very wise, but I am sure it is also very frustrating.