Thoughts early in the Revolution

In response to Can Journals Live on Subscriptions, Mimi Hui asked a number of questions, which I would rather answer here, where more people are likely to read them. Here goes…

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.

11 comments

  1. vanderleun’s avatar

    “I don’t think of the Globe as a “brand.” Nor, I suspect, does anybody on the editorial side of the paper.”

    Corrrect, they think of it as a political and lifestyle choice. Which is one large, unacknowledged reason they’re tanking straight to dev/null.

  2. vanderleun’s avatar

    Mimi: Why can’t a publishing house eliminate all of the physical portions and switch to a pure digital play?

    I’d note that the physicality gives the Post, for example, a reach and a real reality that pure web sites can’t match. That’s why the thought of printing content down from the web has more legs that printing content up to the web. Doing both has a synergistic effect on credibility that a pure web play or a pure print play can no longer achieve.

  3. Chip’s avatar

    “ranther” caught my eye
    But it was not a rant, but a very well reasoned piece

    I’m going to share with some others who are mulling “printing blogs” (wrong way on a one way street?)

    Ciao

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks for the fix, Chip. Just made it.

  5. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    Hey, Doc, how about Harvard buys the Globe and bails out the Times at the same time?

    Good fit there — revenue is not the primary goal of either’s work, both embody public service roles and societal values: respect for truth, mastery, substance, information and creativity. Both education and the free press are essential components of a democratic society.

    Know any bigwigs there you can ask about that?

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Given that the endowment has been tanking, I don’t think the university would be in a mood to rescue much other than itself.

    But it’s still a fun thought. And what the hell, I could ask around. :-)

  7. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    No worries, the endowment is still enormous, and Harvard keeps making new little Cantabrigians to contribute to it.

    Btw, I used to complain about broken and outdated advertising systems, but shrinking incomes mean people can’t (or won’t) buy your products even if you make them want them. The very concept of advertising is now broken, wires flopping around unable to connect with current-cy (cq).

  8. Mimi Hui’s avatar

    Big thanks for this post. I’ve been covering W2E in San Francisco + have just found your link on my site – apologies for the tardiness.

    Great discussion. Btw, my original comments were followed by some reasons as to why it can not be switched to a pure digital play (overnight). It may help to review that so my comments are not taken out of context.

    I am actually quite familiar with the publishing industry and the underlying COGs. This extends to POD (Printing on Demand).

    Still, the main question goes unanswered. If we were able to source all the magic that makes up the parts of the Globe that we love so much (call it what you want, if you don’t want to call it content), would we still love it as much?

    It’s fascinating to read that your feelings towards the Globe is as passionate as those towards friends and family.

    Now, if we want to review some hard calculations around how much something would cost, let’s take a look at factors surrounding it. As a consumer or avid fan are we willing to source these bits yourself. And if we are, would you need this entity known as “the Globe”?

    Take that one step further. Are you willing to put in your credit card information to purchase each article?

    Of course The Globe is a part of your life, I’m not disputing that, I’m just wondering what really are each of us is willing (or able) to do to save an entity that we love. Forget cost in monetary currency, what about cost in time? Are there enough people who love it enough to apply a model that is more similar to a Wikipedia (or equivalent) to the writers of the Globe?

    Also, writing online does have limitations. On the technical side, there is server space, disk storage, resources to manage systems that are expected to be up more than 99% of the time. As the web has become more and more ubiquitous throughout the world, users expect localization (more cost).

    As an end user, we have been largely shielded from a lot of these costs but let’s not fool ourselves. There is cost involved and they are not necessarily tiny.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Hey, Mimi. Thanks.

    re: If we were able to source all the magic that makes up the parts of the Globe that we love so much (call it what you want, if you don’t want to call it content), would we still love it as much?

    I doubt it, because it wouldn’t be the same institution. And institutions are living things. Newspapers especially. But … living things die. Alas.

    re: It’s fascinating to read that your feelings towards the Globe is as passionate as those towards friends and family.

    I said the Globe is part of my life, as are members of my family, and that none of them are “brands” to me. Levels of affeciton, however, are different. I like the Globe, but I love my family. Big difference.

    re: Take that one step further. Are you willing to put in your credit card information to purchase each article?

    No, but that’s not something I’d propose, least of all to sell newspaper stories or to save a paper. I do propose that papers, or at least journalism, might be saved by equipping readers with pricing guns and simple ways of paying what they please for whatever media goods they like. This is PayChoice. As it now stands. (And please don’t rush to judgement of it. We’re still working it out, and the proof will be in pudding we do not yet have.)

    Your other points about the difficulties involved in saving papers are all correct and sobering.

    fwiw, I also didn’t say that I’m fond of AM and FM radio, and I thnk they’re just as doomed as newspapers. They just have different expiration dates.

  10. Mimi Hui’s avatar

    Ah yes, I totally understand. Thanks for going through the trouble to respond.

    For me, being from New Yawk, I have a similar feeling towards the NYT. I know I can get it online but having the physical paper in my hands evoke a very different memory, one of curling up on a Sunday in New York in my 20s. I miss the crunch of the paper in my hands and the shiny Sunday Magazine. I don’t get very emotionally attached to my laptop, even if it is a Mac. :-)

    No judgement on PayChoice, but will be following to see how the market plays out especially when mesh with consumer psychology. Thanks for the Wiki entry.

    On a fun note, if we look at trends, we may just see a resurgence of newpapers as a ‘retro’ movement in about 30 years. It won’t be the same but it’ll be interesting to see if nostalgia kicks in to bring it back, but more as a design element. (EG. audio tape shaped goods such as: http://bitly.com/l1Zwk). Sadly, it won’t save the Globe or the NYT, but perhaps it will serve to evoke some happy memories.

    Everything does have a life cycle. Even the inanimate. And even for the inanimate, it is the intangible that we frequently miss.

  11. Sheila Lennon’s avatar

    Dallas Morning News journalists are live-blogging their layoffs at DMNCuts.

    “Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs do not die in sport, but in earnest.”
    ~ Bion, “Water and Land Animals,” Plutarch

Comments are now closed.