We keep hearing about newspapers going bankrupt, going online, or just quitting. In this new era of hope and change, we hear about possible bailout funding for struggling newspaper publishers. One thing is clear - the way we get our information, how we use it, and how much we are willing to pay for it is radically changing. We are in the midst of a revolution:
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 reason.
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.
This excerpt is just the opening part of a longer article. I highly recommend y'all read the rest - this certainly seems to be some very clear, sound thinking about the changes we are experiencing in our society and how it relates to the newspaper industry.
What does the future hold? How could we possibly know? The internet revolution has invaded every facet of our lives. Twenty years ago, would you believe the amount of time you spend online? eBay and Amazon have revolutionized the retail industry. The appearance of Napster blew the traditional music delivery industry out of the water. MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have changed social networking forever - building on the instant messenger phenomenon. Who is to say any of these newcomers will still be in business twenty years from now?
There are still privacy issues to be ironed out. How much information can be gleaned by the knowledge of who we know, or our pet's name, or other such apparently random private nuggets of our lives we freely hand out online? Our internet infrastructure isn't capable of handling the data load pointed at it now, much less the future. Will broadcast television survive? How will governments react to the serfs having access to all the ideas and information? China finds itself continually mending it's wall from the world much like the Dutch boy and the dike, only China is gradually losing. There are those in this country who want to limit access for "certain" thoughts - it's for our own good, don't you know. Those who think they know better than us are living in some very uncertain times - and since they are control freaks, they don't react well to losing their traditional grip.
Which brings me to my major worry - the traditional media and the progressive left have been intertwined for quite some time, and they have even occasionally admitted it. I'm no fortune teller, but I think it will be a safe bet that particular partnership will fight like cornered rats to continue the status quo. With our tax dollars. Without our consent. Our political desires are routinely ignored already. So, when you hear: "We have to preserve (x aspect of the media) because: it's for the children/too important to fail/backbone of our society/whatever strikes them as a good argument - we will know they are blowing smoke up our collective keisters. The whole thing is a collapsing house of cards, and no one knows where they will land.