Bunch: Netbook Giveaways a Good Deal for News Orgs

There’s much buzz about the larger-screen Kindle e-reader Amazon appears likely to debut on Wednesday and much speculation that the Kindle would be a better venue for news delivery if it were large enough to deliver a more newspaper-like experience (including newspaper-style ads).

While I think a larger-format Kindle would be a boon for several publishing markets (including engineers, architects, graphic novels and students), I suspect it would not, in itself, prove to be much of a boon to the news industry.

I have a Kindle 2 and in my opinion, the main drawback to subscribing to newspapers on it is the poor navigation, lack of interactivity, and lack of aggregator access. (For instance, the only way to access Google News on the Kindle is through its experimental, rudimentary Web browser, which resembles Lynx on Quaaludes.) Plus, a larger-format would detract from one of the Kindle 2′s major benefits: easy portability.

Once you find and load a news story you want to read, the Kindle does offer a great reading experience. But the first and biggest challenge with consuming news is finding the news you want. And right now, any basic Web browser (and nearly any mobile phone or PDA) currently does a far better job of making a broad variety of news findable and accessible, compared to the Kindle. For free — or at least included in most basic mobile data plans.

This week, Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News notes that the bigger Kindle strategy “smacks of what newspapers were thinking and trying to do in the late 1990s and early 2000s. … Rather than integrate with the devices that people already have and use for multi-tasking — cellphones, laptops, etc. — newspapers want people to pay for a separate device where they have more control over the content and the flow of information, and they can once again demand that people pay money for the content. … I think it’s better to go where people are happy now — like the Internet or their phone service — and come up with ‘apps’ (there’s a word that’s not in the newsroom vocabulary) that people are willing to pay for.”

Back on April 3, Bunch advocated a more radical approach to crossing the digital divide and expanding news organizations’ online audiences: Newspapers should give away free netbooks. Here’s his business argument in favor of this idea:

“A newsroom-sponsored netbook drive would offer flexibility in the search for the Holy Grail of a new business model. The goodwill generated by this could encourage voluntary donations from those with the ability to pay, in the mode of NPR — or it could possibly advance the paid subscription model coupled with free access to the neediest of the new netbook owners.

“Earlier today, I pointed to an article about how legislation could help newspapers reform as Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporations (L3C), which would allow news orgs to function more like a charity because of their demonstrated ‘social benefit.’ The effort is sure to get snickers from a lot of people — especially the politically involved on the left and the right — who think that journalists are deluded into grossly overstating the social benefits we provide. That’s a legitimate debate, but what if newsrooms put their remaining muscle behind a program to provide information to the public and close the digital divide at the same time? That’s ‘social benefit’ we can believe in!”

Bunch also suggested that newspapers could partner with local charitable organizations to finance this program. Bulk purchases of netbooks would help lower the per-unit cost.

It also would make sense to purchase netbooks that run a user-friendly “flavor” of the free open-source operating system Linux (such as Ubuntu). There are several Linux netbooks available. Not having to pay for Windows would further improve the economics of a netbook giveaway — as well as conserve precious computing resources on these lean machines.

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