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Will Rupert Murdoch's iPad Plan Save Newspapers? Not so Fast

By Sree Sreenivasan | August 16, 2010 2:41pm
Rupert Murdoch.
Rupert Murdoch.
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AP Photo/David Karp

By Sree Sreenivasan

DNAinfo Contributing Editor

Rupert Murdoch is at it again, getting attention for a new project before it's even off the ground.

His latest attempt to save the newspaper business was reported last week in the Los Angeles Times — Murdoch's launching a new national newspaper, but with a twist. Instead of a printed paper, it's going to be accessible on the iPad.

On top of being another broadside in Murdoch's ongoing war with the New York Times (the Times' iPad app has been downloaded 400,000 times by the 3 million-plus owners of the device), it's the media baron's newest gamble to get young people to read, and pay for, newspaper content in digital form.

"We'll have young people reading newspapers," Murdoch said during News Corp.'s earnings call this month, the Los Angeles Times reported. "It's a real game changer in the presentation of news."

Not so fast, Rupert.

In the first few months since the iPad's launch, a large number of people have been consuming news on it, not just through the New York Times' app, but through dozens of other media apps as well. A study released just last week in the UK showed that, in a survey of 1,000 iPad owners, 31 percent said the Apple device is their preferred way of reading newspapers and magazines, while 26 percent cited their laptop or computer, 24 percent opted for print and 12 percent used their phones.

But as I wrote in April, we shouldn't overestimate how much the first versions of the iPad will benefit journalism. While it is a device that has captured just about everyone's imagination, the idea that the iPad will save print media is overblown:

It will help a new generation of consumers discover, read and watch content, but no $500+ product (along with apps that can cost as much as the $5-a-week Time app) is going to save print's troubled business models. 

The initial success of the iPad, however, has meant that other manufacturers are getting into the tablets business with new zeal and the resulting innovation will mean more consumers of news on those products (heard about the India-made tablet that costs just $35?). Murdoch's investing in this platform will mean others are likely to follow — which can only be good for professional journalism in the long run.

But as for the likelihood of success for Murdoch's yet-to-be-named general-interest digital publication that will pull shorter, more easily digestable content from the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, his track record doesn't bode well.

As Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff wrote in his column on Newser, the media baron "has never succeeded in any digital venture he’s managed. Never. Not once. From Delphi to iGuide to his son James’ dotcom investments to MySpace—all for naught."

Paul Carr, a writer at Tech Crunch, is also skeptical. He wrote this weekend that "this is the last gasp effort of a man who knows the end is nigh. Murdoch’s print publications are hemorrhaging readers to online, and yet his grand experiment with getting people to pay for digital content – building a paywall around the Times in London; a newspaper traditionally read by an older, perhaps more willing to pay, audience – has yielded only 'disappointing' results. It’s no use."

It may be years before we know if this Murdoch adventure is a success, but sometimes, it takes someone with a real vision - and a lot of money - to force innovation. Perhaps Murdoch's stubborness and his millions might just make a difference.

What do YOU think? Let me know via Twitter @sreenet or via the comments below.

Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia Journalism School professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.