[ExI] death of print news: was RE: To Arms!

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Fri Apr 3 04:43:16 UTC 2009

2009/4/3 spike <spike66 at att.net>:
>> ...On Behalf Of Fred C. Moulton
>> ...I would not want a reporter on a deadline ... to mistakenly think...
> Fred
> Fred, your post was actually about something else but your comment caused me
> to recognize a big advantage to the coming death of print news.  The news
> cycle manipulation and rush to a particular deadline that you describe both
> go away, being artifacts of print news cycles.  Traditionally these have
> been one issue per day, with special arrangements on weekends.  Now, news
> stories can go up on the site whenever the reporter is satisfied she has the
> facts, instead of when some arbitrary schedule demands.  Rebuttals can be
> offered quickly on politically opposite news sites.  Balanced reporting will
> be accomplished, and misinformation can be greatly reduced.
> Trees will be saved too, and the furry little animals that live in them.
> May we bury the print news quickly, without mourning their passing.
> spike

Amen brother!


Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating
piracy of Dave Barry’s popular column, which was published by the
Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the
sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including
the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a
2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a
teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself,
because he loved Barry’s work so much he wanted everybody to be able
to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy
Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I
remember Thompson saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year
old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he
hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” I think
about that conversation a lot these days.

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet
coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that
they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came
up with not just one plan but several. One was to partner with
companies like America Online, a fast-growing subscription service
that was less chaotic than the open internet. Another plan was to
educate the public about the behaviors required of them by copyright
law. New payment models such as micropayments were proposed.
Alternatively, they could pursue the profit margins enjoyed by radio
and TV, if they became purely ad-supported. Still another plan was to
convince tech firms to make their hardware and software less capable
of sharing, or to partner with the businesses running data networks to
achieve the same goal. Then there was the nuclear option: sue
copyright infringers directly, making an example of them.

As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the
merits of various scenarios. Would DRM or walled gardens work better?
Shouldn’t we try a carrot-and-stick approach, with education and
prosecution? And so on. In all this conversation, there was one
scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that
didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious

The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to
share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would
prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and
therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread
use. People would resist being educated to act against their own
desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer
online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain
massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and
software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor
would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the
attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable
flaw. And, per Thompson, suing people who love something so much they
want to share it would piss them off.

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary
times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are
seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative
futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t
been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the
ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world
was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people
were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people
spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic
micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded
not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in
an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have
the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact
happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be
ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the
fabulists has different effects on different industries at different
times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most
passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in
which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

* * *

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that
they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to
preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect
copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all
imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the
organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for
publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and
only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has
degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by
skeptical responses.

“The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, so we can too!” (Financial
information is one of the few kinds of information whose recipients
don’t want to share.) “Micropayments work for iTunes, so they will
work for us!” (Micropayments work only where the provider can avoid
competitive business models.) “The New York Times should charge for
content!” (They’ve tried, with QPass and later TimesSelect.) “Cook’s
Illustrated and Consumer Reports are doing fine on subscriptions!”
(Those publications forgo ad revenues; users are paying not just for
content but for unimpeachability.) “We’ll form a cartel!” (…and hand a
competitive advantage to every ad-supported media firm in the world.)

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving
newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will
work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will
work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the
internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for
industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized
for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about
a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves —
the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something
available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

* * *

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention,
The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of
her research into the early history of the printing press. She was
able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era
before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the
pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book
was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life
in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread.
Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary
languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and
Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending
both religious and political stability.

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored
the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before
or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely
distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard
question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world
before the printing press to the world after it? What was the
revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local
languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil?
Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of
Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the
relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith
in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted
while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost
literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who
can you trust?

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only
revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the
Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume
along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book
and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the
democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more
portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for
all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken
faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any
given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes
stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict
what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must
be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the
agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that
whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient
social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly
replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to
replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are
not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that
old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are
demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril,
that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading
information will improve previous practice rather than upending it.
They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

* * *

If you want to know why newspapers are in such trouble, the most
salient fact is this: Printing presses are terrifically expensive to
set up and to run. This bit of economics, normal since Gutenberg,
limits competition while creating positive returns to scale for the
press owner, a happy pair of economic effects that feed on each other.
In a notional town with two perfectly balanced newspapers, one paper
would eventually generate some small advantage — a breaking story, a
key interview — at which point both advertisers and readers would come
to prefer it, however slightly. That paper would in turn find it
easier to capture the next dollar of advertising, at lower expense,
than the competition. This would increase its dominance, which would
further deepen those preferences, repeat chorus. The end result is
either geographic or demographic segmentation among papers, or one
paper holding a monopoly on the local mainstream audience.

For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been
alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these
economics. The expense of printing created an environment where
Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t
because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it
about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing
budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident.
Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that
way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.

The old difficulties and costs of printing forced everyone doing it
into a similar set of organizational models; it was this similarity
that made us regard Daily Racing Form and L’Osservatore Romano as
being in the same business. That the relationship between advertisers,
publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural
practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.

The competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by
the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then
everyone gets to use it. And when Wal-Mart, and the local Maytag
dealer, and the law firm hiring a secretary, and that kid down the
block selling his bike, were all able to use that infrastructure to
get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did. They’d
never really signed up to fund the Baghdad bureau anyway.

* * *

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from
flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the
daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This
coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper
readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone
from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to
bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit
society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at
hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a
business model. So who covers all that news if some significant
fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500,
when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The
internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than
half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the
developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even
the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy soul to expound on the
potential of craigslist, then a year old and not yet incorporated. The
answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation:
“Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are
intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. What no one would
have told you, could have told you, was what actually happened:
craiglist became a critical piece of infrastructure. Not the idea of
craigslist, or the business model, or even the software driving it.
Craigslist itself spread to cover hundreds of cities and has become a
part of public consciousness about what is now possible. Experiments
are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.

In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to
‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the
question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?”
The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the
time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will
seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo
volumes did.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart
and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife.
Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models
that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like
ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case,
but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a
century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen
newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable.
That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as
it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways
to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’,
the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do
whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could
be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or
Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of,
working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence.
Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism
is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in
a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping
special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as
researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship
or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will
rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these
models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are
now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the
collection of new experiments that do work might give us the
journalism we need.


http://emlyntech.wordpress.com - coding related
http://point7.wordpress.com - ranting
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