I saw Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of TIME magazine, on The Daily Show last night. He wrote a cover story for the current issue of TIME called “How to Save Your Newspaper”, in which he illustrates not how print journalism will succeed by overcoming its ails, but how it will fail by the stubborn old-thinking ways of its leadership.
But before I get to all of that, I want to first point out a glaring problem in the article. To quote:
One of history’s ironies is that hypertext — an embedded Web link that refers you to another page or site — had been invented by Ted Nelson in the early 1960s with the goal of enabling micropayments for content. He wanted to make sure that the people who created good stuff got rewarded for it. In his vision, all links on a page would facilitate the accrual of small, automatic payments for whatever content was accessed. Instead, the Web got caught up in the ethos that information wants to be free.
Can anyone cite a source (besides this article) that makes such a claim about Ted Nelson’s motives in creating hypertext? I cannot. To my knowledge, Ted Nelson created hypertext for a host of reasons that were wholly unrelated to the commercial gains of those who might use it.
Getting on to illustrations of old-thinking, Isaacson quotes none other than Bill Gates. Again, from the article:
the Web got caught up in the ethos that information wants to be free. Others smarter than we were had avoided that trap. For example, when Bill Gates noticed in 1976 that hobbyists were freely sharing Altair BASIC, a code he and his colleagues had written, he sent an open letter to members of the Homebrew Computer Club telling them to stop. “One thing you do is prevent good software from being written,” he railed. “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”
Clearly, Isaacson is not familiar with the “consumer as producer” model, the open source movement, or the ramifications of either not only on journalism, but on all of technology. These models have greatly disrupted the status quo, empowering the masses, and causing great concern to corporate giants resolved to cling to business models that were born during the Industrial Revolution 150 years ago. We’re in the midst of a technological revolution that is every bit as disruptive as the Industrial Revolution, and it demands fresh thinking about how business will be done. Those who accept and embrace that notion are doing fantastically well (Amazon seems virtually unfazed by the current recession). Sadly, most of those are not newspapers.
Advertising and Perverse Incentives
In part of the article, Isaacson states that when media companies rely solely on advertising for revenue, the result is a company that is now beholden to the advertisers, rather than the readers. He says that the incentives for journalism become “perverse” in such a world. However, in a cocktail of self-pity and hypocrisy, he also says that during the heyday of easy ad revenues, HE LED THE WAY to putting all of TIME’s content on the web, and doing away with online sales of their content! I, for one, can’t believe Jon Stewart let that slide by!
I remember talking to Louis Rossetto, then the editor of Wired, about ways to put our magazines directly online, and we decided that the best strategy was to use the hypertext markup language and transfer protocols that defined the World Wide Web. Wired and TIME made the plunge the same week in 1994, and within a year most other publications had done so as well. We invented things like banner ads that brought in a rising tide of revenue, but the upshot was that we abandoned getting paid for content.
Forgetting that doing this was perhaps wise in terms of the bottom line, it nevertheless paints these companies as those who will gladly become beholden to advertisers if the revenues are there. It’s only when they dry up that things get “perverse”.
When I worked for AddThis.com (a social media sharing widget that allows users to easily share content, and publishers to see statistics about what content is being shared, using what services, in which countries, etc), one of my jobs was to brainstorm about the kinds of things publishers might want to do with the statistical information available to them through our service. There was one idea that I had that I thought might have merit, but that I never have actually seen in the wild.
It seems pretty easy to conceive of a system for classifying content, and then charging different rates for advertising based on:
- Which classes of content their ad is displayed with (Tier 1 would cost more than Tier 2 content)
- Where on the screen the ad is displayed.
It’s not particularly difficult to conceive of a system that can foretell, to some extent, how content should be classified based on the recent popularity of keywords in the article, or recent spikes in “viral” sharing activity for certain kinds of content. This would give publishers the ability to increase their ad revenues while at the same time giving advertisers some assurance that their ads will be displayed prominently near “front page news”-tier content. I doubt that any generic system like this exists that will work for all publishing systems, but internal technology development should, at this point, be place pretty high on the priority list. Hint: Engineering is not really a cost center. It’s a revenue center. Reclassify your engineers. They can make you money. If they’re not making you money, it’s an issue with mission and management, not engineering.
Here’s the thing about paying money for content: we don’t want to do it. Even Isaacson admits that he has stopped subscribing to the New York Times, since he can read it for free online. He then daydreams about digital versions of a wallet or EZPass, or digital coins of some sort. Some way for publishers to collect a nickel or dime from you whenever you happen across some content that you value enough to pay for. He also is quick to point out that these types of digital wallets have failed miserably for various reasons.
He has faith that micropayments could work if there were an “iTunes-easy” way to charge for the content. As if the iTunes model works solely because it is easy. iTunes works because it gives you the ability to purchase and consume a product over and over again, and integrate it with just about all of the rest of your digital life. When I launch iTunes, it beams the music to my stereo, and posts whatever I’m listening to to whatever social network I want, so my friends can see what I’m doing.
I should be clear in saying that there’s no reason they couldn’t create an iTunes-like application for newspapers. I don’t really know why there isn’t one already, or why Apple doesn’t just approach the media companies to actually give iTunes the ability to replace the newspaper at the breakfast table. Either way, where’s the beef? Either get to writing some code, or get your people together with Apple’s people, and see what you can do! It seems to have worked with Amazon and the Kindle. Where’s the innovative thinking? Why do companies have to come to you? GO GET YOUR BUSINESS.
I should also be clear in saying that micropayments in the form of some technology that is going to disrupt my browsing experience and force me to pay attention to things like security and privacy, on the spot, while I’m in a cafe or airport connected to a free Wi-fi hotspot teeming with malicious pranksters is not going to work.
Journalism isn’t going to die
What would happen to journalists if the AP and all of the traditional newspaper conglomerates went out of business? Journalists, and journalism, would survive. It’s not that we don’t value the information. In fact, the traffic that is sent parading to those companies’ web sites from the aggregation sites and blogs is proof that we value the content.
That being the case, it would not surprise me if some of the traditional news outfits did collapse, and people with more innovative ideas about how news is produced and delivered to consumers, and funded, sprung up to take their place. Journalists are also not limited to doing print journalism. Television and the internet are hotspots of news content. And just because we’re in an age where consumers become producers doesn’t mean there isn’t room for an actual journalist to strike out on his own and make a living for themselves.
In fact, they’re probably in a good position to do just that. The barriers to entry have never been lower. In order to produce news, you no longer need huge investments in real estate and heavy machinery. All you need, at least to get started, is an internet connection and a whole lot of heart and hard work.
Look at the Huffington Post — they don’t even have a print offering, and yet they appear to be doing well. Why? Because all of the money the NYT spends on real estate, machinery, bureaucratic administrative hierarchies, advertising sales people that have to cover more than one medium, etc., they can put into devoting people to understanding internet social trends and technology, and exploiting them to increase their readership.
In all, what the New World wants in this revolutionary age, is a news organization that leads in the direction its readers are already moving in. Not one that tries to handcuff them to paper for the sake of justifying investments and business models put in place generations before they were even born. It’s not up to us to save “our” newspaper. It’s up to the old, rich white men in suits to save theirs.