Papers won’t profit on tablets if they keep cutting reporters

Computer scientist Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” As Apple gears up to launch its much-hyped tablet as soon as next week, the best way for legacy media to succeed with it is to create rich content.

Apple’s tablet could end up setting the same standard of excellence the iPhone achieved in a crowded, confusing (but booming) cell phone marketplace. Or Apple’s tablet could fail in a fledgling tablet/e-reader market that hasn’t given consumers enough compelling reasons to buy products that are more powerful than cell phones but less advanced than computers.

Meanwhile, newspapers, radio and television stations are considering how they can profit from tablets, the next generation of which will have ever bigger, better screens, quicker processors and stronger Internet connectivity.  Yet, newspapers need to figure out how to derive revenue from tablets more than tablets need to learn how to benefit from the print media. Any news on a tablet will compete against all the devices’ nonnews content including phone services, music, games, TV shows, movies and Web sites across the Internet.

In order to profit from tablets, newspapers must provide an increasing amount of unique, high-quality content including top-notch videos, photos, graphics and troves of valuable information in databases. More than anything, newspapers must reaffirm their commitment to good hyper-local journalism, in-depth investigations/analysis and breaking news updates.

Of course, the media will need talented staff to produce all this great content, but layoffs, firings and buyouts continue daily. Arts and entertainment writing, business coverage, regional reporting and, perhaps most critically, investigative, state-house and Washington D.C. reporters generally suffer the heaviest causalities. Across all departments, newspapers announced roughly 30,000 layoffs and buyouts in 2008-09, according to the industry-tracking blog Paper Cuts.

Predictions are never harder than when it comes to technology. So, here’s a safe prediction. If newspapers don’t stop firing people and begin bolstering their content, all the whiz bam tablet technology of the future won’t save them. Once these tablets come down in price and advance (perhaps only a bit more) technologically they could become hugely popular.

But newspapers risk suffering so many self-inflicted wounds they won’t be fast or agile enough to keep up with tablet technology let alone all the other multimedia/multiplatform competition for the public’s attention. Many people already have stopped relying on legacy media to get their news fix.

“One of the problems is newspapers fired so many journalists and turned them loose to start so many blogs,” industry analyst and blogger Alan Mutter recently told the NY Times. “They should have executed them. They wouldn’t have had competition. But they foolishly let them out alive.”

Daniel Axelrod spent five years as a full-time newspaper reporter, most recently in Scranton, Pa., before moving into public relations in April 2009. Reach him at deaxelrod@msn.com

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