Chris Brogan had an interesting post today on the Next Media Company, talking about what the future in media might look like, or how you might design one from scratch, assuming unlimited funds and what problems currently exist, causing economic problems for media companies of all shapes and sizes. It’s a great post with equally great comments, so please go read the original.
My comment was going to be long, so I decided to blog about it here instead.
Almost ten years ago, Douglas Adams did a series of programs for the BBC called the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Future. He talked about things like e-books versus paper, the emergence of interactive TV, micropayments and the like long before they became our everyday reality. In the series, Douglas discussed the fragmentation of media, and how each time there is a new development, the older technology shoves over a bit, but does not entirely go away. For example, radio and newspapers didn’t replace books; TV didn’t replace radio, the internet didn’t replace any of these. However, what the internet has done, as each new succeeding technology always has and always will, is carve out a share of the attention pie and revenue from the others. (This is definitely worth a listen, even now.)
So to torture the analogy, despite the fears from industry that the VCR would mean no one would ever go to the movies ever again, or they would stop watching TV, in reality neither has happened. Telephones didn’t obviate the need to see your friends down at the pub, it just made arranging the meeting a bit easier, and even easier to bug the people who forgot to come with your mobile phone.
Revenue stream for newspapers became less about people paying for the content provided and more about earning money from the bartered attention of the audience by advertisers placing ads next to the content.
Yet, over time, newspapers are getting creamed by their reliance on this model. People have found cheaper alternatives to the bread and butter ads- Ebay, Craig’s List and more are cheaper and easier ways to advertise a sublet or that lunchbox you have for sale, and the web now allows micropayments to take place, making even small transactions over long distance more cost-effective.
Not only that, as traditional big advertisers like department stores have consolidated, there’s not even any local competition to keep the advertising environment vibrant. Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and alas, the long departed Gimble’s are no longer at war- they are the same business, or simply out of business. Sears and KMart are one. There are less competitors for the space available in the paper, so I imagine prices have either dropped, based solely on supply and demand principals, or simply the lack of ads mean less paper printed, and less revenue and news for everyone in the process.
So what’s the problem here?
Getting just what you want when you want it on the web is great, right? The biggest problem with the ability to customize your news feed, in particular, online is that it prioritizes what you think you want to know about, but effectively walls you off from stuff you might need to know about, but wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise. Just like Google itself, a customized news feed takes you directly from point A to Point B but loses what I call the “library effect”- sometimes the most interesting book is not the one you thought you were looking for, but the ones living around it and nearby on the shelf. While recommendations for other similar books, or the “people who bought this also bought that” links on Amazon work to maintain some of that library shelf effect, news stories rarely do that. The New York Times online has some of this in the “popular articles” links and “most emailed” links in the sidebar, but the majority of articles are not intra-referential. You don’t get the choice to dig deeper into a story or have links to the reporter’s source materials. You don’t get to find out that other stories in the paper might have an impact on this one.
And this is important because reading stuff you might not be interested in by choice is where some of the best new ideas originate.
I see information as being something fluid- I may prefer more of one type of content over another , but I need to see more than just my preferences in order to be well informed. Even 24 hour news channels have decided to pick a certain perspective on the news- it’s not just fact- it’s spin as well.
But I also need content provided to me in a way which it is most efficiently consumed. When the local newspaper calls my mom, she’s been known to quip “I haven’t subscribed to the paper since the puppy was trained.” I have and would pay for content delivered to me without the actual paper itself- I would be happy, for example, to do a subscription to even several online newspapers for say, 1/2 to 1/3 of the cover price, if i could avoid actually dealing with the paper in my life.
Just like music companies had to adjust to the fact that they were in the music business, not the little plastic disc industry when people started adopting mp3 as their main form of purchasing music, newspapers will have to adjust to a model of news that is no longer dependent on paper and ink. The Kindle is a step down that road, but revenue streams for media will have to be based on selling their content, not just their advertising.
What I would love to see are the local newspaper- the Kennett Square paper, for example, offer an online subscription service. I would gladly get the local news through this channel, since I could get the local news when I wanted it, and didn’t have to deal with the actual physical paper in the house on a daily basis.
What I’m saying here is that I need news, but I don’t need paper for something as ephemeral as the newspaper. I want music, but I like it in electronic format- it’s easier to carry around, and the disposal or archive-ability is easier. I wish I could get any news- local, and community news in particular, in this new format that saves trees, ink, expenses, delivery issues, and costs, and instead gets me back to the core, of paying for the product I want- the content.