iTunes for news: A quickly thought-up model

Admittedly, I haven’t read anything about David Carr’s iTunes for news idea since the days immediately following the column’s release in the New York Times on Jan. 11. I don’t know where the state of the conversation is at this point, but I’m going to write this anyhow.

A disclaimer before we go on. The thoughts here are rough. This is a blog, after all, and I don’t have the luxury of time this morning to revise and smooth the words that will follow. Consider this a raw outpouring of ideas, many of which may be good (I hope) and many of which may be awful (I hope not).

iTunes for news… What would that look like? Rather than imagining some new program with a new interface, let’s just take the simple thought experiment approach and use iTunes itself. Click on the iTunes store link and right between the audiobooks and podcasts link, we’d find a link to the news.

Okay, how do we organize it? Multiple ways, I suggest. Do it by content provider like iTunes does for podcasts. The New York Times has a page, as does the Washington Post and the LA Times. Want the Wall Street Journal? They’ve got a page too. See, nifty, easy.

But not so easy. You wouldn’t be able to find jack squat if the store was organized just by newspaper, so we’ve got to have tags: detailed, descriptive, semantic tags created just for each article using a constantly growing master list.

Every time an article adds a tag that’s never been seen before, it goes onto the master list. The form where content providers and writers add their material to the store would need a mandatory tagging section that requires them to tag every proper noun, concept and other term in the story. The form would have an advanced auto-complete feature, so if the person’s name or the company or the tag had been used before, the writer could merely click on it. That would save us having 15 differently spelled tags for the same thing.

Like I said, tagging would need to be mandatory. There could be no limit to the number of tags used or cost to add them. That would all fall under an umbrella fee for posting your material to the store in the first place. We’ll get to costs later…

Of course, unlimited tagging leads to abuse. Imagine a content provider trying to post an article but throwing in a few juicy and sexy tags, just to give the article a wider distribution within the iTunes store. That’s won’t do. We would need “report abuse” buttons on the customer side of things so that mis-tagging (intentional or not) gets sorted out by a human moderator at Apple. Repeat offenders get banned.

Searching. The tagging system would have to be complexly searchable, like a social bookmarking site, where you can apply any number of related or unrelated tags to the same search to create interesting combinations of results. Customers would also need to be able to search for keywords in the full text of the article, even if they don’t have access to the entire article in the preview.

That’s another thing. This is a store. You cannot have access to the entire article for free in the preview, but you must be able to preview at least the lead of the article before buying. That way you can have an idea that it’s what you want to read before plopping down your money.

Also, a comment system for the articles and some sort of rating/reputation system for the content providers. Add different ways to sort this data. For example, a customer could look at the x-out-of-5-stars reviews of the content providers and compare that to the number of article’s they’ve sold to see whether they deem that source reputable.

Related links, based on tags and user purchases, are also key to making this store work.

What else… the cost of course. Content providers would be charged a fee to place their material in the store. Probably this system would be based on one I imagine Apple already has in place for iTunes. Any content provider willing to give Apple its cut could post their material to the store and make money off of it. Heck, it could be international, provided the store was set up to handle the different forms of currency.

Now, consumer cost. Cheap, I say, cheap. Justin McLachlan suggests something like a dime or a quarter. I’m inclined to agree. A dollar is too much to pay for a single article, considering that you could just go buy the whole newspaper for about that cost. No, a single article needs to be cheap-cheap.

Implications? For one, it will tear down the walls between newspapers. The brands will begin to dissolve slowly until they just become iTunes. Sure, each article will still have bylines and source information, but gradually the source will start to become less important as people are able to arrange and view the store in more and more creative ways: by tags, by keywords, by author, by date, by whatever.

Is that a good thing? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Much like the borders between nation-states in this post-modern world we live in, the borders between brands are beginning to blur. It’s something that’s happening naturally through corporate mergers and other social factors. The Web just accelerated it a bit. The iTunes store would accelerate it further.

One downside would be tying the vitality of America’s paid-for news industry to a private company (Apple). There’s some inherent bias waiting to explode out of the woodworks there and, I’m sure, some possible First Amendment issues as well.

Yet, the health and future of the news industry is already tied to the whims of the corporate world. Newspapers are owned by mega-media-corps, and their fates have been tied to the bottom line for a long time. Why should we fret about tying those fates to yet another company?

Could a nonprofit do the same thing? Yes, but not as quickly and not as smoothly as Apple’s iTunes could, I think (or some other large content providing online store). If the nonprofit could get the model running quickly enough and bug-free enough, with enough content providers on board, to start making the cash to support itself immediately, then a nonprofit model could work. I’m not optimistic.

No, I think the future lies in something like an industry-wide partnership with Apple or some other large company.

It would not be a paywall. I don’t imagine a store like this replacing free online news content, but I imagine it as an ad-free source of text-based and even video-based news for the U.S. And besides, people are already shopping in iTunes anyhow, right?

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