[ExI] death of print news: was RE: To Arms!
Fred C. Moulton
moulton at moulton.com
Fri Apr 3 05:30:40 UTC 2009
Thanks for forwarding the article.
Lots of interesting morsels to consider.
On Fri, 2009-04-03 at 15:13 +1030, Emlyn wrote:
> 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.
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