10 luminaries look ahead to the business of reading

Interviews conducted and edited by Beth Kowitt


(Fortune Magazine) -- 1. Kurt Andersen, novelist and public radio host

Anything remotely resembling news media is going to continue to migrate online until very little or none of it is produced on dead trees. But what remains to be figured out is how it's paid for, and whether this whole system of enormous magazine and newspaper staffs can be reconfigured to be sustainable in this new age.

I think we'll see content that's a deeper, better hybrid of audio, video, and print emerge, and that will become the default expectation of people. Take the recent story about NBC's late-night talk show hosts: I want to read a complete story about the decisions, the facts and figures, and the background on the controversy, but I also, at the appropriate moment when I'm reading, want to press the button and see Jay Leno making fun of himself or David Letterman making fun of Jay Leno.

The tablet is the Holy Grail for media people: a more portable, more visually interesting way to deliver news that can be constantly updated. I'm very excited to see what will be possible in the relatively near future in terms of presenting information, curating content -- the whole realm of things that magazine making is all about.

Unlike the computer screen, a tablet might be able to create for the reader more of a sense that you are in this carefully constructed closed garden; when you're online you feel like you're always just a click away into the great sea of media. I think that environment will be good for editors and content creators, and it can probably be useful for advertisers too.

Are tablets going to save the newspaper or magazine as we know it? Mostly not. Will they be a platform for magazine makers and newspaper editors to reinvent how they're doing what they do in a way that's sustainable and interesting and exciting? In a lot of ways, I think yes.

2. Katharine Weymouth, Publisher, the Washington Post, and CEO, Washington Post Media

This is an exciting time to be in journalism, and I think newspaper companies have been quite forward-thinking about technology and trying new ways to tell stories. Online journalism is still journalism. It's just a different format, which enables us to give Flip videocameras to our reporters so that they can do video with their stories.

We here are moving as fast as we can to experiment with the new technology to figure out, How does this enhance our journalism? How does this give us new ways to reach our readers? We've been on the web since the beginning, and we continue to try new things. We just launched something called Story Lab, which is a sort of journalistic experiment with crowd sourcing.

We do not charge for our content on the web and don't have plans to do so. But our content isn't free -- advertisers pay to be in front of our audience. One of the things that I think is exciting about tablets and the iPad in particular -- although I haven't seen it in person -- is the presentation.

For many of our readers, our ads are content. Many of our readers come to the paper because they want to find out what's on sale on Saturday at Macy's. So the fact that you will be able to have ads on the iPad is just going to be a better user experience.

3. Jimmy Wales, founder, Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia

I think we're going to continue to see more or less what we see today -- a mix of free and paid, advertising-supported content, and a lot more community-generated content. But I don't think we're really going to see any radical changes to that mix because it is working well for consumers.

Already there's a large movement of consumers generating all kinds of information online, and in many cases the quality is much higher than the content produced by media companies. This doesn't mean people don't trust newspapers, but they've lost their exclusivity as an authoritative voice.

I think tablets can provide an opportunity to media companies because they could make it very easy for consumers. I subscribe to the New York Times on my Kindle, and I enjoy it very much because it's just magically there every day.

Anytime I want I can go on the web to read the same content for free, but it's not really about that. It's about the package and delivery. But the really interesting thing is that through the Kindle, I'm giving money to the New York Times for the first time ever (I've never subscribed to the physical paper).

The rise of things like the iTunes Store or apps stores or the Kindle Store are huge developments in terms of people's willingness to buy. Once we make it easy for people to buy, I do think we're going to see growth in the paid-content world.

4. Steven Brill, founder, The American Lawyer, and co-founder, Press+, an online payment system for news sites

I think readers now and in the future still will pay editors and publishers to assemble content for them in a way that's distinctive. There's no reason for me to buy my local newspaper in Ohio for a wire story about something the President said in his press conference yesterday. What I will buy my local newspaper for, whether it's online or in print, is how the reporters covered the local zoning board and the town planning commission, local sports teams, and local theater events.

Everybody decided 10 to 15 years ago that it was really cool to give away content for free online. So a reader of a newspaper who is 20 or 25 or 30 years old basically thinks information has always been free.

The online version of news and information in many respects is better than the print version. It gets there faster, it's instantly updated, and often there's video. And yet that improved version doesn't command a premium; in fact, it is free. That is not a brilliant business plan.

Some publishers are just putting down a wall and saying to readers, "From now on, you have to pay for everything." Instead, Press+ has pioneered a metered approach: After someone has read five or 10 or 15 articles in a month, say, you start asking him to pay something for it.

We also enable publishers to charge non-locals for content. If there's a Japanese expat in Boston who reads a Tokyo daily newspaper every morning, the Tokyo paper should get the reader to pay because the information is obviously valuable to him, but he can't go to the newsstand and buy it.

5. Marc Andreessen, co-founder, Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz, a venture fund

The good news is that reading is alive and well and flowering in a way we've never seen before. Text is the primary format of the Internet. More and more text is flowing over Facebook every day. The written word is alive and well and thriving.

Businesses built on the written word, like publishers, have to reinvent their whole businesses from top to bottom if they want to survive, because the economics of the Internet and the online world are different than in print. I think that's becoming increasingly obvious to people, but I worry that there's this temptation to hold on to the old model, and I fear that tablets are feeding that temptation.

Existing companies think that people will read on a tablet in a way that they don't on a PC or phone, and that the tablet will let content providers charge for their product. But to think tablets will essentially be the new newspaper or the new book or the new magazine, and that all the economics for newspapers, magazines, and books will carry forward on the tablet, is really dangerous.

Businesses like Tech Crunch or Talking Points Memo, which I'm an investor in, have to build their businesses with the assumption that their content has to stand on its own two feet. These outlets get paid based on the value of their content to the users and, of course, to the advertiser. Their revenues are a fraction of what the comparable print publishers are, but that's just a reflection of the difference in distribution costs.

I think in the future they can be high-margin businesses. They may not be $1 billion or $10 billion or $100 billion companies, just because that may not be the structure [for information companies] going forward.

I love the Wall Street Journal, I love the Financial Times, I love books and magazines and newspapers. If they all go under there will be new online versions of each of those. Civilization will endure, but I think it will be a shame because it will have been a missed opportunity.

6. Jeff Jarvis, author, What Would Google Do?

The future of online content is already here. We've been here for 15 years, since the commercial browser was first released. You can access content, you can interact with it; you can link to it and send it around, and add multimedia to it.

By no means have we arrived fully. Look at what happened with Twitter in the least year and the notion of the stream and Google Wave and the idea of collaborative content. There are more frontiers to come, but note that those frontiers are not about putting up static pages of content.

Traditional publishers have to change their own definitions of content. The opportunity here is to change their relationship with the people they used to call the audience and to enable the audience to help create and distribute content.

There's tremendous opportunity in finding new efficiencies because you no longer have to be all things to all people. You should do what you do best and link to the rest. Specialize more.

Online media is about relationships. As Eric Schmidt said, Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) sends four billion clicks a month to publishers, and it is up to them to create a relationship with those people. And if they don't, it's their failure, not Google's.

You can charge for content, that's fine. But in news and publishing you have no limit of competitors. There is a marketing cost that you have to go through when you charge. And finally you lose Google juice if you put things behind a pay wall. You lose the opportunity to discover new readers, to be passed around, to be found in search engines, to be found through Twitter and Facebook and all these opportunities. You cut off the potential to build a richer, deeper relationship.

So I just don't think the economics of charging makes any sense in most cases. (It works for the Financial Times, it works for the Wall Street Journal because that's content people make money on.)

Magazines are awaiting their digital messiah in the form of a tablet. I guess I'm mixing religious metaphors. But we already have the tablet. We have laptops, we have computers, and we have iPhones and we have plenty of means to the web.

All the tablet is going to be I believe is access to the web. Can you tie some new business models to it? Maybe, but then you've got to count upon millions upon millions upon millions of people using that device. The issue with the tablet, the reason that I think there's so much desire for it, is that it is the last effort, the last hope that old media properties think that they have that there's something that will return control to them.

7. Jeannette Walls, author, The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses

Book publishers never gave content away for free, but that's because they were slow to adopt new technology! I love the book publishing world, but in many ways the business operates a bit like it did in the 1950s and 1960s -- in this case it turned out to be a huge advantage.

I used to buy 12 newspapers every day when I was a journalist. I'd be all covered in ink by the end of the day. Once I started getting information online it was immediately obvious to me what was going to happen to all those papers. The transition was less immediately obvious with books. It's harder to read long form online. The Kindle and the Nook have done a really good job, but it took a long time.

I think electronic readers and tablets are going to have a huge impact on the textbook business. Some textbooks cost more than $100. What student can pay for that? So I think for school books and research materials tablets will be absolutely wonderful. I'm ridiculously optimistic.

For those of us who produce words and have ownership over those words, there's a big question about how we stay in business, but I believe that will work itself out. For those who love access to information and trading information, these new outlets and devices are great. More people than ever will have efficient access to the written word.

8. Paul LeClerc, president and CEO, New York Public Library

It's important to note that libraries have never been afraid of technology. There is lots of evidence that libraries have embraced new technologies as soon as they come along.

The New York Public Library, for example, was doing computerized databases in large measure before just about anyone else was, or any other organization in the cultural domain.

We've got one arm around all the traditional kinds of forms of human expression -- stuff on paper. But the other arm is wrapped around digital information, e-books as well as subscriptions to an extraordinary number of databases so we can provide our readers with access to information they need, regardless of the format. Our position is to be nimble, to move quickly, to exploit technology, to give our readers what they want when they want it.

One of the most popular parts of our collection now are e-books. We do two things. Let's say we want to buy copies of Catcher in the Rye, because the ones we have on the shelves are sort of beat up.

So we could buy x number of copies of Catcher in the Rye as books but also through a vendor we could buy y number of copies of Catcher in the Rye as e-books or e-audio books and then let's say we buy 50 of each, 50 hardcopy and 50 e-books. It's like having 100 copies of the book.

People can go to a library in their neighborhood, check out the physical copy, or a person could go online any time on his handheld device or computer. The digital version of the book would reside on the devices for three weeks and then disappear -- no overdue fines to pay!

E-books are, in effect, flying off the shelves. We now circulate more e-books than any library in America, some 350,000 last year, and that number is growing dramatically year to year. If you care about people reading, should you be picky about what sort of a format they read it in? I don't think so.

I think the posture for us is flexibility, nimbleness, being unafraid of technology, embracing it, and bringing its benefits to our people -- the people who use us and those are now people around the world.

I'll just give you one little example of something sort of dramatic that happened here: I was involved in organizing the exhibit on Voltaire's Candide. It is a small show but really pretty neat. I asked the staff here to put together an online version of the exhibit that would be innovative and might create a new kind of template or model for online library exhibits.

So on Tuesday, on that little teeny part of our website there were 1,069 visitors. That's a very big number in one day for a small show. Candide is an important book that's still being read, but still, it's not Catcher in the Rye. How did that happen? Well, one guy with one blog that a lot of people pay attention to wrote two sentences about it. So, word of the exhibit went viral.

9. Kevin Rose, founder, Digg

I want a lot of social features to be built into the tablet reading experience. If I'm reading a book I want to see where my friend left off, or I want to be able to leave a voice annotation around a chapter so if a friend stumbles upon that chapter they can listen to what my thoughts were around that area. I want rich media incorporated into my books. I want the ability to go out and look up instantly on Wikipedia what something means or see pictures or video around that. That doesn't exist today.

Hopefully I'll be able to receive on Apple's new tablet the Economist or anything else I want to, but rather than go kill a tree and pick it up on the store shelves I can have it right there on my digital device.

Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500) has really kind of pioneered this in the ability to download any book and consume the first chapter for free and then decide whether or not you want to continue on. I think that's great.

Lending digital books is something that we should all be able to do, too. And if my friend doesn't give the book back? I would click a little button that says "Request book back" or "Rip book out of friend's e-book reader," and digitally transfer it back to me.

10. Matt Mullenweg, founding developer, WordPress

I think in the future we'll see more content produced by smaller organizations. Look at someone like Om Malik who went from Business 2.0 to GigaOM, his own online media business. GigaOM in many ways looks like a traditional media company but a mini-sized version of it.

I think for the written word, the elements of it that make it successful -- the basics of typography, the quality of writing -- haven't changed very much in hundreds of years. And those fundamentals don't change when you're on the screen, whether you're looking at a tablet or a Kindle or anything like that.

The Kindle has impacted my life more than any other device in the past year simply because it's drastically increased the amount that I read. I'm buying more books because I can literally execute one click and it's added to my Amazon account. I used to read only in the morning or night, but now I always have it with me, and I read while I'm waiting on line, going through security, boarding a plane, any number of things. That's pretty darn neat.

In the case of Apple, because they have the one-click iTunes and hundreds and millions of credit cards already on file, perhaps they can provide a pretty compelling experience where you don't really feel like you're spending any money. It's like the App store. I don't buy that much software traditionally and if I do it's in the hundreds of dollars range like a Photoshop. But we've all had that experience where, oh, this looks kind of neat, you click a button and a week later you get a bill for $3.

Whether people pay for magazines and newspapers on tablets will be the real test. I don't know the answer to be honest. Online you're always one click away from something free; on the tablet publishers might benefit from having a more captive audience. To top of page

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