Newspapers and the iPad: good exercise and the wanker effect


The past four months have been a constant stream of presentations to and interviews with corporate boards, management committees and industry conferences. Central to every conversation was the iPad — more specifically, what the app on this broader digital canvass means for branded content.

One moment stood above the rest, both funny and illustrative.

The management committee of a Pacific Rim newspaper company exploring the possibilities of an iPad app talked passionately about the pros and cons of the iPad versus other mobile devices, the app versus the web browser, and more. They were talking themselves into an iPad strategy, and I was the foil for the debate — a role I'm accustomed to playing.

Somewhere near the crescendo of conversation, I happened to ask the CEO how he used the iPad outside the walls of his newspaper company. He was perplexed by the question. His team was perplexed by his silence. And I was perplexed by the perplexity in the room.

“No, Earl, you'd never catch me with an iPad at a restaurant or a bar or maybe most public places,” he said. “I wouldn't want to look like a wanker.”

I've hot-linked to that term because I consider INMA to be a family association, and I'd prefer you get your pejorative definitions from shadier sources such as Wikipedia. Suffice it to say, it's not a term of endearment.

In my travels, I've heard quiet affirmations of this wanker effect. I've heard it from students who say they can't afford an iPad — but even if they could it's more a toy for Dad. I've heard it from newspaper executives who say they wouldn't have gotten an iPad without a corporate credit card. I've heard from people who see the iPad as a dialed down laptop, and I've heard from people who see it as a dialed up iPhone.

At last week's INMA Transformation of News Summit in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I listened intently to people rationally explaining why the iPad is the best canvass for news exploration. I heard why the app is an ideal way to opt in to branded content — an escape hatch for an industry lost in the abundance of the “open Web.”

Yet I didn't hear about the technophobes or the people in the middle of the great iPad love fest who might have fallen in “like” with the device and its app minions — but haven't quite fallen in “love” because it doesn't meet a relevant need in their lives.

The best explanation for today's market-less focus on the iPad and apps is that it's good exercise for when the third-generation devices emerge on speedier networks in the next 24 months — thinner, faster, better. For many newspaper companies, that 2012/2013 time frame will coincide with a tipping point: more web pages will be served for mobile audiences than PC-based audiences.

Perhaps by then, the wanker effect will have subsided enough worldwide for an even more rambunctious market reaction.

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