Why the Large-Format Kindle Is Not a Life Raft for Newspapers

Terminal patients often suffer colorful delusions. But none is as cruel as the fantasy Amazon.com has kindled among dying ink-stained wretches, who believe a magical electronic reading device will cure what ails magazines and newspapers.

Did we say "kindled"? Amazon's Kindle, the e-book reader, has indeed sparked fever dreams among the ailing lords of print. The New York Times has paused from chronicling its own doom to contemplate its salvation — a large-format Kindle, better suited to displaying newspaper-like pages. Hearst, News Corp., and other print-media concerns are pushing their own devices, loath to grant Amazon so much power over their future — but they are fumbling, while Amazon may introduce its newspaper-friendly device as soon as Wednesday.

What a petty concern to worry about, rather than asking if that future even exists!

The argument for e-readers goes like this: Newspapers and magazines will once again be able to charge for subscriptions to support the cost of production, while shedding the expense of printing presses. Readers will pay for the convenience of getting the news delivered to a device.

That prediction fundamentally misunderstands the lessons of the Kindle, which made books available in a convenient digital format, on an appealing device, for the first time. Downloading five books for the beach is vastly more appealing than packing them.

What are the publishers really proposing? Taking a product available for free on the Web, dumbing it down, and then charging for it. News without links, comments, or video, in black and white, updated once a day? In an age when print media ought to be learning to do more with less, they are instead fixated on getting customers to pay more for less.

There is one prospective market for this: The old, who may be so attached to printed media that they will accept an electronic substitute. Hearst digital chieftain Phil Bronstein, the former San Francisco Chronicle editor, told Maureen Dowd that the industry's best hope was that people would live longer, so those trained to read newspapers will stick to the habit.

The obvious converse of Bronstein's feeble hope: The young will never learn to read newspapers and magazines again, having grown up reading online. Why would they switch to a product like the Kindle?

Like the libertarian wingnuts who would rather flee to science-fiction cities on the sea, escape to outer space, or cosset themselves in an online fantasy world rather than live in reality, the addled lords of print like Bronstein would rather dream of a technological rescue than face the hard work of survival.

What newspapers and magazines need to do is obvious: Build appealing websites, and sell them better. But that would require changing.