Mimi: …it’s largely infrastructure, and not editorial, that is costly.
This is true, and much overlooked in debates on the topic.
Mimi: …what exactly do you like about The Globe? Meaning, if it is purely for the content, which is arguably generated by the writers, would you still love it as much if their content was not aggregated by The Globe as a brand?
First, I don’t think of what I read in the Globe as “content.” Instead I’m with John Perry Barlow, who said, “I didn’t start hearing about ‘content’ until the container business started going away”. I’m a writer. I write posts, editorials, tweets, emails, columns, essays and books. (Or parts of some… but just wait.) Those all have a worth that exceeds their sum of pixels or ink. To me “content” suggests a pure commodity — or worse, packing material.
Second, I don’t think of the Globe as a “brand.” Nor, I suspect, does anybody on the editorial side of the paper. The word “brand” was borrowed from the cattle industry, and I never liked it, even when I worked for many years in the advertising industry. I have a relationship with the Globe. The paper is part of my life. So are my wife, kids and friends. I don’t consider any of them “brands” either.
Mimi: Why can’t a publishing house eliminate all of the physical portions and switch to a pure digital play?
First, printing on paper costs more to produce and distribute, but advertising on paper makes more money. Many publications will cease printing on paper when the cost outweighs the income. But there will be existential costs to doing that. The Washington Post is a newspaper, not just a news site.
Mimi: Perhaps one question to ask is, is it possible to trim infrastructure in such a way as to provide valuable content to readers in a cost competitive way? And if so, what are methods for readers to discover the same content in a time efficient way?
Well, this is already being done. Writing online has none of the space limitations of writing on paper, and is far cheaper. And discovery systems improve every day.
But it’s still very early in the course of the Internet revolution.
This was put in context for me by a participant in a breakout session at an event this past weekend. He said something like, “Here’s the idea. We’ll cut down forests in Ontario, turn them in to giant rolls of paper, use barrels of ink to print news articles and advertisements onto that paper, and hire people to drive around and deliver the results to people’s doorsteps, fresh every day — but only once a day. Whaddaya think?”
Such an idea is absurd, but only in fully modern context. Equally absurd are other institutions central to our civilization, including television, telephone and automobile industries.
In fact we are only at the beginning of a great transition caused by the presence of the Internet in our midst. Here’s how Clay Shirky describes some of what happened during the last Great Disruption, and what it teaches us during the current one:
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.
While there is much that can be done on the supply side, I think there is much left to be done on the demand side. We need much better tools for expressing demand, and for crediting sources of the editorial goods that enlarge our minds and help us inform others.
Meanwhile, the breakage continues.