By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
January 4, 2010

It’s not just bloggers who are obsessed with Cupertino’s tablet computer

“I’m hoping we can get the newsroom more actively involved in the challenge of delivering our best journalism in the form of Times Reader, iPhone apps, WAP, or the impending Apple slate, or whatever comes after that.” — New York Times managing editor Bill Keller

Keller’s videotaped speech to his digital staff last October, excerpted below the fold, has been getting a lot of play lately on the off-chance that he had been briefed by Apple (AAPL) and let slip the presumptive name — iSlate — of Steve Jobs’ next big thing. (See, for example, here.)

But the off-the-record, all-hands speech may have been something else. It may have been a not-so-subtle signal from the top of the newsroom that the paper of record’s reporters and columnists were to start focusing for self-serving reasons on a particular product, not on the editorial page but in the paper’s news hole.

We’ve certainly been reading a lot about Apple’s tablet in the Times recently; a quick search turned up more than two dozen mentions in December alone, including a Bits item declaring 2010 the Year of the Tablet.

But two pieces Monday — one in the Times and one in the Times Co.’s (NYT) International Herald Tribune — stand out: David Carr’s “A Savior in the Form of a Tablet” and Alice Rawsthorn’s  “Impact of the ‘iSlate’ Could Rival iPhone.

“There hasn’t been this much hype about a tablet,” writes Carr, the Times‘ star new-media columnist, “since Moses came down from the mountain.”

It’s no secret that the Times — and nearly every other company in the print business, including Time Inc. (TWX), which publishes this blog — is struggling to adapt to the exigencies of the digital age.  And it’s an open secret that Apple has been courting publishers, encouraging them to prepare redesigned content for a possible forthcoming tablet device. (See, for example, the Sports Illustrated tablet demo.)

Rawthorn’s piece in Monday’s IHT, despite some cluelessness (the design columnist claims tablet computers represent “one of the the fastest growing areas of the computer market,” apparently confusing tablets with netbooks), is right on message:

“Many people like their e-readers (not least because they save them from having to haul around books, newspapers and magazines) but I’ve yet to meet anyone who loves them. That’s the key. If a really great e-reader appeared, the market would explode … If it comes through, demand for electronic books, newspapers and magazines should soar.”

Carr, who is anything but clueless, puts the issue in its starkest terms, calling the iSlate a “Jesus tablet” and exploring the ways it might save “some embattled print providers from doom.”

“For one thing,” he writes, “it helps magazines and newspapers enter a world where they can measure consumer engagement with ads, which is pretty much the only game in town going forward.”

And why, he asks rhetorically, would people pay on a tablet for what they’ve been getting for free on the Internet?

“That’s where Apple comes in. A simple, reliable interface for gaining access to paid content can do amazing things: Five years ago, almost no one paid for music online and now, nine billion or so songs sold later, we know that people are willing to pay if the price is right and the convenience is there.

“People have pointed out that there is far more value in repeat uses of ‘Stand by Me,’ by Ben E. King than, say, a copy of this column. But somewhere between the iTunes model and the iPhone app store, where people pay for applications that make their life better or simpler, there may be a model for print.”

Carr opens the piece by saying he’d buy an iSlate in a minute, even if it did cost closer to $1,000 than $200. But being David Carr, he ends it by putting some distance between himself and the device to which his boss seems to have hitched the paper’s wagon.

“I haven’t been this excited about buying something since I was 8 years old and sent away for the tiny seahorses I saw advertised in the back of a comic book. Come to think of it, the purchase didn’t really meet my expectations, but with the whole new year thing, a boy can dream, right?”

Below: Keller delivering his “Apple slate” message. The full speech to the Times‘ digital staff is available here.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

You May Like