Sunday, April 26, 2009

Print 2.0: Can Ebooks Save the New York Times ?

image by Michael Pastore: Moses bringing ebooks to the people

Story Summary:
Print publishing has one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peel. Can ebooks — part of the electronic publishing revolution that has often been blamed for print publishing's troubles — be a significant factor in the paper's resurgence? ... A gruntled author, whose upbeat book about ebooks has been ignored by the Times, explains the causes of newspapers’ demise, and then offers 11 solutions for renewal, including a New York Times-owned ebook reading device: the NYeTBook.

Essay by Michael Pastore, author
50 Benefits of Ebooks

Print publishing has one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peel.

Magazines are vanishing from the racks like Cheshire cats in Wonderland -- but not even the grin remains. Most book publishers are cutting costs, titles or staff. In the rainforest of Information, every print newspaper in the USA is an endangered species.

The Huffington Post — which calls itself “The Internet Newspaper” — reported in December 2008 that the NY Times Company “said it would try to ease a cash problem by borrowing up to $225 million against its mid-Manhattan headquarters.” On April 22, 2009, it was reported that the NYT had given six- and seven-figure bonuses to upper management, after a recent 5% salary cut to its 1,300 news staff members, and despite a first quarter 2009 loss of 74 million dollars.

Even my favorite columnist, the unflappable Maureen Dowd, is beginning to flap. In an essay Slouching Toward Oblivion, Dowd writes: "... old-school newspapers seem like aging silent film stars, stricken to find themselves outmoded by technology."

Print newspapers are dying. It’s strange that this situation seemed to strike as unexpectedly as the financial meltdown in October 2008. Could the publishing crises have been foreseen? ... More than 50 years ago, Aldous Huxley, interviewed by a cigarette-smoking Mike Wallace, warned:

“We must not be caught by surprise by advances in technology.”

We were not surprised. We were astounded, flabbergasted, thoroughly unprepared. Never did we dream that the blathering blog would evolve into the omnipotent HuffPo. That news would multiply ten-thousand times faster than you could report. That a world-class team of 1,300 news staff would be less captivating than a mind-numbing network of text messages not exceeding 140 characters in length.

Ebooks Fit In Where ?

Even if the profit from every ebook sold in 2009 were contributed, it would not be enough to save the newspaper, since the entire ebook industry in 2009 will gross approximately 100 million dollars. Ebooks alone can’t save the Times. But ebooks might be one essential element in the Times’s shift from a newspaper industry on its deathbed, to an innovative information industry that is sustainable.
image by Michael Pastore: print publishing accident

What Went Wrong: The Shift from Print to Pixels

Why can’t newspapers make money, repeat advertisers, and retain readers? ... You can’t blame ebooks and electronic publishing, as the Germans are doing, as they raise taxes on ebook sales in an attempt to boost sales for printed works. You can’t blame the Huffington Post, or the blogosphere in general: they’ve got the glitz, but they don’t have anything near your talent and your expertise. And you certainly can’t blame your best friend in the business — Google . Without Google to send us to your stories, you would be lost in cyberspace: unread, unappreciated, unfound.

The problem is medium of print itself: we are no longer a print-centered culture. Print publishing in general has five problems that it make clunky for our age. One: it’s too slow: by the time you’re holding the newspaper about pirates capturing a ship, there have been four story updates that make what you are reading obsolete. Two: printed books and periodicals are expensive, and costs are rising all the time. Three: printed matter eats up trees and energy and other resources: it’s bad for the environment. (For example: one year of Sunday newspapers produced by the New York Times is responsible for the destruction and consumption of almost 4 million trees.) Four: since printed publications cannot be searched with software, the information they contain cannot be organized efficiently. And five: printed information is not interactive. For better and for worse, the key to captivating modern readers in this age of narcissism spins around the word “me”.

The New York Times is far from perfect. And personally, I’m mad as hell at the Times for ignoring my most recent book. But when I search my steaming soul, I cannot deny the fact that I depend on the New York Times every day. I need its intelligence, its in-depth stories, and its liberal slant that tells the journalistic truth without malice and without fear.
image by Michael Pastore: NYeTBook, the New York Times ebook reading device

10 Ways the New York Times Can Save Itself from Extinction

One of Mahatma Gandhi’s most cherished principles for social action was the Hindu idea: “Any action is better than no action.” Applied to the New York Times crisis, this would be disastrous. The Times needs to act quickly and with intelligent actions. The goal must be to re-invent itself not as a “newspaper company” but as an “information company”.

1. Build the NYeTBook, your very own ebook and edocument reading device.
Hearst Corp. is working on one, what I have called the “Cosmo-Reader.” Apple’s secret project to be announced in June, guided by Steve Jobs, is an iTablet. A cheap reading device ($ 100 or less), with its own operating system, is the next giant thing. If you don’t want to build from scratch, take a look at Readius, a portable reading device whose release has been stalled due to lack of funding.

2. Evolve from a print newspaper to an information company.
This is not a small change, it is an evolutionary leap. O’Reilly Media is an excellent role model.

3. Make and sell ebooks with original in-depth content about current issues.
Digital News Books are now being created by a number of newspapers: the last time I looked, the New York Times was not included in this project. No matter. The NYT can do it all themselves: cut out the pricey middleman, and sell all the content from their own website.

4. Charge one small and flat yearly fee.
I’ll pay you $ 25 per year for unlimited access to the premium content on your website. As a bonus, I get your “ebook discount” option: I can buy any of your ebooks for a buck.

5. Cut salaries and eliminate bonuses of upper management.
We, the people, will not support the New York Times if their payroll is over-stuffed with outrageous salaries and unjustifiable bonuses to upper management.

6. Seek input from your readers.
Ask Pastore’s question for managing human relations: “We have a problem: what can we do to solve it?”

7. Take the bailout, please.
Congress will be meeting in May to discuss what might be done to help the newspaper industry. If they offer you a bailout package, grab it for dear life. Even if it means going non-profit, and becoming the print equivalent of NPR, take the bailout before it gets too late.

8. Network with other periodicals worldwide.
Join with other worldwide newspapers and share resources and profits.

9. Get a cool two-syllable nickname.
Lots of people claim that the Huffington Post is thriving because of their liberal leanings, their contributions from famous persons, their passion and panache. But the most important factor in the Internet newspaper’s success is their cool nickname: HuffPo. New York Times, if you want to talk to the current generation, you will need a cool nickname. (How about: “the NYeT” ?)

10. Focus on Barney Smith, not Smith Barney.
Internet news is clobbering print news because it’s free, it’s interactive, and it’s often about the little guy. After she had 20 million YouTube hits, the New York Times published an article about Susan Boyle. (“After the horse has escaped, the fool shuts the stable.”) Give more space to writing upbeat stories about “the little guy.”

NYeTBook Nation: A Nation of Readers

And there is one thing more, the most important thing. In an essay published posthumously, Henry David Thoreau reminded us to clear our minds:

“We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”

Read the Eternities. That meant, for Thoreau, reading and living the wisdom of our great books. The newspapers have often urged us to vote for this man or that woman, to support this cause or that. How often have they reminded us to cherish our nation’s literature? The newspaper profession — and everyone in the publishing industry — must consistently encourage the reading public to read more than the daily newspapers.

America must once again become a nation of readers. If we do not learn to read “the Eternities”, then ultimately we will find nothing at all interesting in the Times.


Michael Pastore is an author of novels and non-fiction, including most recently:
50 Benefits of Ebooks: A Thinking Persons Introduction to the Digital Reading Revolution.

50 Benefits of Ebooks is a celebration of reading, publishing, ebooks and electronic publishing. Ebook newcomers will find all the basics here. And ebook experts can debate and debunk the author’s wild predictions for the rosy and thorny future of ebooks, by reading the essay, “Publishing Ebooks: Ten Tremendous Trends in 2009.” Authors will discover tips, tricks and resources for ebook publishing; and library professionals will enjoy the book’s glossary, index, links to leading-edge ebook sites, and sections about how and why ebooks are good for libraries.

The 320-page paperback edition is pricey, but you can buy the ebook for a buck (in PDF or ePub), here:


The text and images in this essay are all Copyright (c) 2009 by Michael Pastore.
The image of Obama in the NYetBook is creative commons 3.0 license, by the photographer named Bbsrock, from Wikimedia Commons: