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The scoop on newspapers giving out free electronics

A few weeks ago I proposed here that newspapers should consider giving away free netbooks -- low-cost laptops, essentially -- along with online subscriptions and services. The idea was to make a Web-only news organization (with its lower distribution costs) more feasible, while re-building the sense of urban community that newspapers have lost by making it their crusade to eliminate the digital divide in America. Now I see that newspapers are moving towards an idea that is a lot like mine in some ways, but very different in others:

Now the recession-ravaged newspaper and magazine industries are hoping for their own knight in shining digital armor, in the form of portable reading devices with big screens.

Unlike tiny mobile phones and devices like the Kindle that are made to display text from books, these new gadgets, with screens roughly the size of a standard sheet of paper, could present much of the editorial and advertising content of traditional periodicals in generally the same format as they appear in print. And they might be a way to get readers to pay for those periodicals — something they have been reluctant to do on the Web.

Here's the part of the idea that's similar to my netbooks proposal:

Such a Web-connected tablet would also pose a problem for any print publications that hope to try charging for content that is tailored for mobile devices, since users could just visit their free sites on the Internet. One way to counter this might be to borrow from the cellphone model and offer specialized reading devices free or at a discount to people who commit to, say, a one-year subscription.

But therein also lies why I don't really think this strategy works. It smacks of what newspapers were thinking and trying to do in the late 1990s and early 2000s -- get the Internet off my damn lawn! 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.

There already is a such a magical device, and it's available for the low cost of just 75 cents a day or less, a lot cheaper than what you mindlessly fork over at Starbucks every morning. It's called a printred newspaper, and every year fewer and fewer people are buying it, because they prefer the free-flowing ways of the World Wide Web. I don't see how any kind of closed-loop device -- no matter how gizmo-y -- fixes that. 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.

Just a quick footnote, if you're wondering why newsrooms are worth saving -- here's two example ripped from the headlines here in Philadelphia. One is the massive Inquirer expose on how a corrupt and outdated Board of Revision of Taxes rips off Philly's taxpayers, the kind of journalism that takes months and can only really be done by team of a paid, full-time investigative reporters. On the flip side is Dick Jerardi's remarkable account of the Kentucky Derby in today's Daily News, which was just as compelling to read as it was to watch the actual event.

I don't know how to pay for that type of journalism --  nobody does. But I think all of us -- even the daily bashers -- will learn that we miss it when it's gone.