The New York Times -

by David Carr

SOMETIMES what appears to be a threat is actually a life preserver.

The poor defenseless music industry cowered – then prosecuted – when the monster of digital downloads came lurching over the horizon. Then the iPod came along and music looks like a business again – a smaller business, eked out in 99- cent units – but still a business.

Cable channels were supposed to gut network television, but instead have become a place where shows like “Seinfeld” and “Law and Order” are resold and rewatched. The movie industry reacted to DVD’s as though they were a sign of the imminent apocalypse, and now studios are using their libraries to churn profits.

Which brings us to the last of the great analog technologies, the one many of you are using right now.

The newspaper business is in a horrible state. It’s not that papers don’t make money. They make plenty. But not many people, or at least not many on Wall Street, see a future in them. In an attempt to leave the forest of dead trees and reach the high plains of digital media, every paper in the country is struggling mightily to digitize its content with Web sites, blogs, video and podcasts.

And they are half right. Putting print on the grid is a necessity, because the grid is where America lives. But what the newspaper industry really needs is an iPod moment.

According to a nifty piece of polling, directed by Bob Papper of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and released last week, average Americans spend more time online, on the phone, punching the remote, the radio and the game console than they do sleeping – a total of nine hours a day. And much of the time, they are using more than one medium simultaneously, answering e-mail messages while returning calls with a TV buzzing in the background.

For all the print newspaper’s elegance – it is a very portable, searchable technology – it has some drawbacks. A paper is a static product in a dynamic news age, and while every medium is after eyeballs, the industry has to take that quite literally. You cannot read this story while driving in your car – which is how most of America commutes – and you cannot have it on in the background. America is hooked on “companion” media, a pet platform that sits in the corner and pays attention to you when you pay attention to it.

No wonder that print is taking a hit. In the Ball State study, the Internet in all of its incarnations beat out reading print materials in all forms in every age bracket up to 65.

Print’s anachronisms, whether it is the last-mile delivery, the slaying of forests, or the sale of thick packages that most consumers use only small slices of, make change inevitable once a better answer is available.

Consider if the line between the Web and print matter were erased by a device for data consumption, not data entry – all screen, no baggage – that was uplinked and updated constantly: a digital player for the eyes, with an iTunes-like array of content available at a ubiquitous volume and a low, digestible price.

Sure, there are tablet PC’s and so-called viewpads out there, but they need to boot every time they are used – they are just computers without keyboards. The iPod was not a new kind of CD player, it was a new way of listening to music. And the dangling white headphones became something that brought joy to the ears and also cachet to the wearer.

“There are all sorts of devices coming along,” said Dick Brass, who built the first spelling checker that worked and a format for e-books for Microsoft. “When something is good enough and close enough to paper for people to say, ‘I want to use this,’ then things will change quickly as they have with the iPod.”

Newspapers might live long on such devices, but again, there are hurdles, some technical, some economic.

“It looks simple to come up with a tablet that works, but it is not,” said Esther Dyson, a consultant on digital issues. “In order to have the power and portability you need, you need power. The screen is the part of the device that uses the most power.”

Mr. Brass and others have suggested that superthin lithium batteries will do the trick, or that the power source can be built into the spine of a fold-out two-page device.

But even when such a gadget is finally in a form consumers will glom onto, newspapers will have to fight for space and mindshare. And it is axiomatic thus far that online customers are much lower-margin customers than print customers. Because there is no scarcity of ad space on the Web, you cannot charge nearly so much for a banner ad on a page with millions of hits as you can for a double-page spread in a national paper.

The real peril of the industry has been the uncoupling of the editorial model – still salient if the Hurricane Katrina coverage is any indication – from the business model, which relies in part on classified advertising. The Web gives classifieds a functionality that print will never match. (Thank you, Craigslist.) And everybody knows consumers on the Web do not want to pay for what they can get free, right?

Maybe not. As iTunes has demonstrated, there is a vast swath of consumers who are willing to pay for what they want and avoid the moral taint of unauthorized use.

There is already a crisscross of intention on the part of the current content providers. The primary gesture of Google and Yahoo – search is actually content – is now being woven with video, paid columnists and, ye gads, even some reporters. Television networks are beginning to explore whether people would pay for an on-demand version of their product. Blogs are federating into verticals of quality to be sold to advertisers. Broadcast radio worries about competition from satellite radio while satellite wonders if it can get people to unplug their iPods.

That is the future that newspapers have to prepare for. Readers no longer care so much who you are, they just want to know what you know.

That may sound grim for big media brands, the kind of proposition that will not provide enough cash flow to finance a squad of reporters examining what a hurricane left behind or venturing out onto the streets of Baghdad. But in a frantic age where the quality of the information can be critical, being a reliable news source humming away in everyone’s backpack sounds just useful enough to be a business.