On management: Kindle vs. The Post (or the Rocky)

Just last week a friend told me, by e-mail of course, that “the use of technologies as an alternative delivery/viewing mechanism is mostly a generational consideration, though the lines are blurring. “I saw a gentleman who was at least in his 80s sitting in Starbucks the other day with an Amazon Kindle,” my friend wrote. “I asked him how he liked it, and he said it ‘wasn’t perfect’ but he liked it. He was reading his Wall Street Journal on it as we spoke. The movement away from print media will continue and eventually accelerate.”

As you can imagine, being in the publishing business, I’m often asked how we are doing against the electronic media. Some actually ask how long before they put us out of business.

Actually the correct answer is that magazines, as a group, were doing quite well until the economic crisis. Companies, including magazines and newspapers, that had leverage, credit and cash problems were hurt or destroyed first. The previously healthy ones are still coping. More damage was done by the combination of bad management and the crisis than by electronic reading devices.

When business shrinks as in a recession, advertising dries up. When advertising dries up, print media hurts … sometimes fatally. The money in print media comes from advertising, not from circulation. While the Rocky was sinking, all the talk was about the writers creating an existence on the Internet and charging the individual readers for it. But it will never work because there is no advertising in their formula. Advertising provides at least 10 times the money that circulation does.

Back to the Kindle.

I was one of the first to buy the Sony e-reader, a similar device. I’ve had a Kindle2 since it came out. And this 73-year-old agrees with the 80-year-old in the second paragraph: It isn’t perfect, but I like it. It is great for reading books. The pages look just like the pages of a book, turning them is easier, and getting available books is as simple as pushing a button. But magazines and newspapers are another story. While the gentleman was certainly reading his WSJ on his Kindle, I would bet that it wasn’t as easy or fulfilling as the newspaper. To illustrate, take a copy of the WSJ, open it to a busy spread like pages 2-3, then open your Kindle to the WSJ and lay it on top of the paper. When you first look at a newspaper page or spread you are treated to a smorgasbord of ideas, pictures, ads, long stories and short stories.

You find yourself reading some seriously, others only the headline or caption. As you pick and choose you assimilate the relative importance of issues and ideas, at least to the WSJ editors. It’s a pleasure to read the WSJ newspaper. Not quite so the WSJ by Kindle, which gives you only a small fraction of the page.

My Kindle cost me $350. I was told to buy insurance on it. It costs about $9 for each book, it can display about 150 words at a time, it’s black and white, it doesn’t display pictures very well, you can’t fold it, you can’t put it in your pocket,  you have to be careful when you take it with you (it could be stolen or you could drop it), you can’t swat flies with yesterday’s news and you can’t just throw it away. And it isn’t a good place to put advertising.

But one day technology will solve most of these objections. However, today it’s more fun to read a newspaper for news and a feeling of what’s going on in our world, while it is very efficient to read a book on a Kindle. All the good solutions to come will support advertising, and wherever that takes us is where good publishing companies will be, like us.  

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