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Is it just me, or did Apple's new iPad make everyone in the journalism biz a little crazy? And I don't just mean crazy as in, making way too much of yet another story that could stand some restraint. Crazy as in, how you feel when the doctor who gave you six months five months ago calls and says, "There's this very interesting new drug you need to know about."
Consider this headline in the Economist, "Steve Jobs and the tablet of hope." Lovely word, tablet, as in pharmaceuticals and as in Moses descending the mountain bearing the Word of God. Here's a key graph of the story (which online has a slightly different headline):
"Publishers hope that tablets will turn out to be the 21st-century equivalent of the printed page, offering them compelling new ways to present their content and to charge for it. 'This is really a chance for publishers to seize on a second life,' says Phil Asmundson of Deloitte, a consultancy."
And here's Frank Rich in Sunday's New York Times: "Many Americans were more eagerly anticipating Steve Jobs's address in San Francisco on Wednesday morning than the president's that night because they have far more confidence in Apple than Washington to produce concrete change." And I'm thinking, fer sure your paper was! When Obama spoke, all the Times did was cover him. When Jobs spoke, the Times was up onstage showing off the app it had already created for the iPad.
"Years in the making," says the Economist (in a second article on the iPad), "it has been the subject of hysterical online speculation in recent months, verging at times on religious hysteria: skeptics in the blogosphere jokingly call it the Jesus Tablet."
But why am I bothering to tell you this? Doonesbury sent up the Jesus Tablet and all the giddy hopes it carries the week before Jobs formally said it exists.
"Apple means to do nothing less than to reshape the world by charging us for things that used to be free!" reports thunderstruck TV correspondent Roland Hedley. "From music to news to books, Jobs seems to think if you get the delivery right and use lots of Helvetica, people will pay for content! HA!"
When it comes to news, the famed new media trend setter can't imagine anyone paying for anything. So the crowd's reaction puzzles him. He allows, "I can't explain the rose petals."
What some of us thought — OK, hoped — the Roland Hedleys of the world were missing is that people are not only willing to pay for content, we want to pay for content. Payment gives content value and enhances the payer. The need to pay forces choices on us, and turns every choice not to pay for something into a significant statement of personhood. And I could continue on indefinitely in this vein of existential blather, but, let's put it this way — if you had to pay to read it you wouldn't.
So we enter a new age, in which we'll all need to learn again when to shut up.
Saving journalism by some sort of tribal process of reinvention always felt like a lovely thought and a long shot. The American way is for some genius to invent a gadget that rejiggers the status quo. The iPad has yet to prove it's that gadget — it's weeks away from even hitting the market! — but hopes are extravagantly high. "I couldn't say the future had arrived," wrote Times media columnist David Carr, trying to keep his feet on the ground, "but I'm pretty sure we can see it from here."
"Apple has the annoying habit of producing products that make perfect sense once you get your hands on them," wrote the Sun-Times's Andy Ihnatko after getting his hands on the iPad.
"Big Media companies should be all over this like a cheap suit," Trip Hawkins, CEO of a firm that makes game aps for cellphones, told the Times business section. And that article continued, "Indeed, they already are."
It's not as if there was no such thing as a tablet computer before Steve Jobs. But when Jobs decrees, "This is the future," the world responds, "OK, now we know." You could almost hear the publishers of America sighing to themselves, then it's settled, and curling up for their first good night's sleep in years.