Will the iPad Save or Kill Print Culture?

The release of the Apple iPad yesterday, or word of its coming, has kicked off a tsunami of speculation on a topic much bruited (now there’s a word you seldom see) about here: The impending death of print culture, which seemed to impend even closer with the unexpected popularity of Amazon’s Kindle reader. I’ve noodled and nattered on the subject several times, as in this radio commentary.

Like opposing attorneys drawing different conclusions from the same evidence,  Print-Deathers and Print-Lifers both find validation in the iPad, as seen in this NY Times recapper.

Preferring to work in small experience-based steps rather than grand theory, I’ll offer two recent stories  of a guy with a foot in the print world and another in the digiverse:

1. I’ve subscribed to the Atlantic Monthly for most of 25 years and I’ve generally been happy with their excellent work.  However, the Atlantic is a prime example of what’s killing the old print-journalism business model. The complete issue is available online to anyone for free, and they promote it so vigorously, sending out updates constantly, that by the time the print edition arrives in the mailbox, I’ve read just about everything I care about. I think the sub price is about $14.95, which I guess I’ll continue to pay as a small homage to the great Age of Print. But, as mothers used to say to their daughters before “Jersey Shore” and “The Girls Next Door” set the cultural tone, why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?

(Needless to say, the Atlantic is run by a large nonprofit foundation, meaning they don’t absolutely have to balance the books each month or show a p-r-o-f-i-t. If they did, they’d have folded ages ago.)

2. My experience with Esquire mag also gives a glimpse of the future. I had dropped my sub a few years ago because I just never read the thing. Issues stacked up and up unread. Then, two years back, they cajoled me to return with a $9.95 sub price–less than a buck an issue. I figured, hey, great old mag aflutter with the ghosts of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Styron and Mailer–surely I can help out.

But a year came and went and the issues went largely unread. So when it came time to re-up, I said no to the five letters and seven emails and five phone calls they sent my way in an effort to retain my $9.95. Finally, I got a robo-call asking me if I would re-up for $6 a year--or fifty cents an issue.  Unbelievable. How could I say no to that? So I said yes, and more unread mags are piling up. I know they make most of their bucks off advertising, and they want to boast the biggest circulation possible, but still. . . something’s radically askew here.

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