How the iPhone threatens newspapers

Journalists are chronically confused about why people read newspapers. As Clayton Christensen has pointed out, the best way to understand product-market relationships is this: People don't buy products; they hire products to get specific jobs done.

One of the reasons people read newspapers involves the recycling of downtime. If you read a newspaper while eating lunch, you can entertain yourself while feeding yourself. Or perhaps you're using it to avoid people you really don't want to talk with. Or escape the uncomfortable feeling that you're dining alone in a crowded restaurant. Or whatever.

In any case, there's probably a very personal reason involved that is something quite different from "getting the news" and stepping up to your responsibility to be a well-informed citizen. Those are benefits, especially benefits to society, but they may be quite disconnected from the actual decision to pick up the newspaper and read it.

Which brings me to the iPhone. In a contest to serve any of these purposes, which one is going to win?

  1. A newspaper, whether it be the daily Bugle or the weekly Whining Alternative.
  2. Everything on the entire Internet, interactive and in color.

Easy: #2 is going to paste #1.

The point here is not to predict the ultimate victory of the iPhone over all forms of media. The iPhone is at this point a perfect product because it hasn't been sold and nobody has had a chance to discover the limitations and annoyances that inevitably come with real-world products.

The point is simply to illustrate why discussions of old-media business models such as charging for content are pointless. We are awash in a sea of new choices competing for our time and our attention. Some of these new choices are inherently superior solutions for some of the jobs for which print media used to be hired.


Hi Steve: I'm not yet sure that the new cellphones are as big a threat as you fear. Where big companies control and funnel access, where there's a payment mechanism in place, where people are willing to pay for useful stuff, it may be possible that smart newspapers can find a more comfortable and profitable home on the mobile internet than they do on the fixed one. Maybe.

One of the planks of the fixed internet is that everything is more or less readable on any computer in the same way as on any other computer, with a few minor browser quirks. But that's still a long way from true on cellphones, as anyone who has surfed for the past couple of years on a Treo 650 (that's me!) will tell you.

I think it's possible we newspapers have a greater opportunity in learning how to publish effectively for phones and make money, with help from the big companies who control access to them, than we do on the imagination driven, democratic, interactive, lots-of-things-that-we're-not-world-class-at-yet, fixed internet.

John Duncan

I think one of the characteristics of the iPhone is that it changes the control equation by providing usable access to the real Internet. The Safari browser, based on open-source technology, renders standard Web pages quite well, and the phone grabs the nearest open 802.11x broadband connection, so you're not limited to the faux-Internet, limited-content world of today's mobile phones.

Yes indeed.
And, that's exactly what Steve Jobs said in his sit down interview published in the Wall Street Journal this week.

Provocative, too was it not, that the first Web site Jobs browsed to on the iPhone in his keynote presentation was

The Message? You do not need to buy Microsoft's Times Reader to read the New York Times. You can get read it (And all Web sites) just fine on your iPhone.

The iPhone is a game-changer.


whenever i'm eating i don't bring newspapers, i bring my phone. and i'm always looking and surfing on it for diversion. it's like one of my most valuable past times. so true i never buy newspapers because i think it's more for the older generation that likes having something in their hands. i think it ads to trash and waste.