EPublishing Innovations Forum 2008

My opening keynote speech at the 2008 EPublishing Innovations Forum, London, May 7th

Thanks, David! Two linguistic notes before I begin.

First, please forgive my Yank accent. My great-grandfather Crosbie, who was born in London, would wince at it.

Second, doe anyone here speak Chinese? I ask because, after people who read English, the second largest linguistic group online today is people who read Chinese. To make sure they benefit from my speech, I took the title that the conference organizers suggested – Thriving in the digital age: threats and opportunities for digital publishers – and put that into Google’s English-to-Chinese translation engine. Then, just to make sure that I got the Chinese version right, I took that result and put it into Yahoo’s Chinese-to-English translation engine. The resulting title is Watts that you say? Screw Gutenberg, the Change Underway is Even Larger. So that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Gutenberg. The Screw. Watt. And why the changes today underway are even larger than during Gutenberg. (Don’t worry, I’ll explain the screw.)

Here is a slide of Gutenberg in Strasbourg. His statue in bronze and a target today for pigeons. He’s also a target for quotes about the Internet. My guess is that you’ve all heard most the quotes before:

‘The Internet is the biggest things since Gutenberg.’
‘The change underway will be the biggest since Gutenberg.’
‘The Internet will change things as much as Gutenberg did.’

Well, don’t get me wrong: Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press probably sparked the Renaissance. Yet it’s time we understand something: The change today underway is even larger!

The change now underway is bigger than mass production was for the medieval calligraphers and scribes who Gutenberg’s invention put out of work. Moreover, it’s not just a change from production of single calligraphic editions to mass production of millions of books. What is underway is an intellectual jump. It’s a quantum jump in how information is distributed to people and how they find information.

I’ve lately become an academic, and in academia we have a technical term for the magnitude of the change today underway. It is an academic term that combines Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. We call it a Mindf*ck.

It’s like a jump from two to three dimensions. And from this new dimension arises phenomenal new opportunities for publishers. Opportunities we’ll talk about.

Unfortunately, most publishers today still think only in the old two dimensions – and therein lay the only threat to their livelihoods. Their failure to understand the new dimension underway in publishing is the threat. Understand me: The only threat is not to understand the change underway.

Let’s go back in time for a moment. The U.K. Statistics Office says there are more than 10,000 Britons who are more than 100 years old. In 1908, the streets outside this hotel, and all the streets of London, were full of horse carriages and horse carts. Though the 20th Century was new then, people nevertheless knew that the 21st Century would be a mechanized age despite the abundance of horses.

The early automobiles showed promise. Telephones were beginning to become common in offices and homes. Tesla and Marconi were each experimenting with something that would eventually be called radio. Yet nobody knew how quickly all those things would affect London’s seven million people, one million horses, 25 daily newspapers. Also, more esoteric and far-reaching things were also being developed in 1908. Things like quantum mechanics, which would later give us devices such as television, the transistor, the computer, the laser, and the CD, DVD, etc.

Today in 2008, people still get information distributed on paper pulp or from analog broadcast transmitters that fundamentally have changed little since Marconi’s time. Nevertheless, we know that our new century will be an all- digital age. An age of pervasive information. If the personal computer and mobile phone were our equivalents of the newfangled telephones and automobiles for people 100 years ago, so too can we now foresee things that are only recently being and invented, things we’re starting to have a clue that will shape the 21st century.

The one million horses were gone from London’s streets by 1920, only a dozen years’ after 1908. Likewise, the changes between now and 2020 will be phenomenal. If you think that you’ve seen change during the past dozen years, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

I’ve a bold agenda this morning. My job is to tell you how much things will change and explain the general themes and opportunities in those changes for publishers in the 21st century.

  • I will explain why 1.3 billion people have gravitate online despite their already having access to mass media in much more convenient formats than online.
  • I will explain why the fragmentation of audiences is an illusion.
  • I will explain why traditional newspapers’ and news magazines’ circulations, and news broadcasts’ viewerships, must ineluctably evaporate. And the reason is not because people don’t want news.
  • I will explain why most newspapers’ and news magazines’ and news broadcasters’ Web sites won’t save their companies. (In other words, why what you here in British publishing circles are calling the Rusbridger Cross won’t occur.)
  • And I’ll explain why people will be even better served by New Media than by Mass Media. In other words, why the change today is even greater than that during Gutenberg’s era.

That’s an ambitious agenda, so let’s begin.


We’ll start with Johannes Gutenberg, who wasn’t originally a printer but a metalsmith from Strasbourg.

Although the Chinese had been using it for centuries in their part of the world, ‘Johnnie Goodmountain’ invented a device for mass producing innumerable copies of the same thing.

He inked a reversed, metal analog of what he wanted to print. Then he used a screw to press that metal analog into some paper. Analog. Screw. Press.

Gutenberg’s analog technology created the editorial practice that editors used for the next 500 years. An editorial practice that creates editions that at once are the same for everyone. Let’s be clear about that: Because the technology of analog presses is capable of manufacturing only the same thing at one time for everyone, editors for 500 years have had to produce the same edition for everyone.

Faced with that technological limitations, editors selected stories according to two criteria:

  • Stories that have the greatest common interest.
  • Stories about which the editor things everyone should be informed.

One common edition manufactured for the many. The thing same for all. The one-to-many.

The general-interest newspaper came into existence shortly after Gutenberg and was certainly due to the analog technology he invented and the production limitation of printing the same things for everyone at once.

That analog technology has fundamentally changed little every since. James Watt’s steam engine merely increased those presses speeds. Gutenberg’s screw couldn’t keep up with steam power, so analog presses became rotary: a rotating cylinder that inks a common edition. Thomas Edison’s electricity made those cylinders print even faster. Nevertheless, the newspaper industry – what used to be on Fleet Street and is now largely at Canary Wharf – still manufactures its products the same old analog way. The Mass Media editorial practice is still the same as it was during Gutenberg’s era: production of the same edition at once for everyone. All because of the technological limitation of Gutenberg’s metal type.

That’s a huge problem, and it’s why the newspaper industry today is dying.

It’s a problem because I’m a football fan. No, not American football, but football football. The real thing. The Number One sport in the world. What Americans call soccer.

In America where I live, I subscribe to The New York Times. Yet The New York Times hardly ever publishes stories about the world’s most popular sport. The Number One sport in the world, but The New York Times never publishes any stories about it, except maybe every four years when there’s a World Cup championship.

However, I know The New York Times has soccer stories. I know because I was the Reuters executive who, at that newspaper’s request, sold it the football wire. Their newsroom receives hundreds of soccer stories each day. The New York Times has the stories about every Premiership game. They’ve got stories about every Turkish Third Division match. They’ve got the Swiss intercantonal game results. The Korean Intercity league. They’ve got it all!

But The New York Times doesn’t print football stories because its analog presses can print only one edition at once for everyone. That means the newspaper’s editors publish only stories about the sports with the greatest common interest in New York, which this time of year means American baseball stories and golf stories.

There are hundreds of thousands of soccer fans in the 17 million-person New York City metropolitan area. There probably are more fans there than live in some European countries’ capital cities. But those New York fans won’t see any soccer stories in The New York Times because of that newspaper’s analog production limitations and the limitations that makes on its editorial practices. The same is true for every other American newspaper. Or newspapers here (God forbid if you’re a baseball fan in London!)

At root, this is a distribution problem. A massive distribution problem. The stories that specific people may be interested in exist, but aren’t getting to them via traditional, analog media.

Mass media ably distributes some stories — the common stories, but not each and every story that a person might want.

Radio and TV have the same problem, and use the same analog production and packaging practices. Analog transmitters — technologies that were invented before the automobile — send the same program at once to everyone. Everyone hears or sees the same thing at the same time, on the same schedule.

Analog. Most newspaper publishers and editors and broadcasters can’t fathom there being any other way – as if these analog production practices were god-given or the divine right of kings!

Publishers, editors, and broadcasters forget that their editorial practices are based upon — and have been limited by — the limitation of technologies that were invented when horses were the only form of transportation on the streets.

Worse, most newspapers and broadcasters today shovel those same analog practices online — even though the digital technologies of online don’t have the limitations of analog printing presses or analog radio or television transmitters. Go figure!

So, why is criticism of analog editorial and packaging practices – hallmarks of mass media – pertinent to this conference?

Because more than 1.3 billion people have gravitate away from Mass Media and those traditional practices.

Why have more than 1.3 billion people – one of every six people on the planet – gone online when they already had access to traditional Mass Media? After all, video is easier to view on TV, audio easier to listen to on a radio, and newspapers are easier to read on paper than online.

Why are more than 1.3 billion people now spending more time online than with traditional Mass Media?

I’ll tell you why. They are customizing – individualizing.

Look around this room. Or look outside. Each of us in this room and every person outside shares precious few common interests. What topic could possible interest every one of us, including everyone who’s not in this room? The weather perhaps. Or whether or not a bomb has gone off in London today. Whether Victoria Beckham is really a man? If you think about it, there are very, very few topics that interest everyone. All people share few common interests. There are very few things that are common and relevant to all people. Relevance is judged by the individual, not by the publisher or broadcaster.

Some groups of people do share some group interests. You’re here listening to me. There’s probably a few fans of Manchester United or Arsenal here. Or fans of Top Gear or Torchwood.

But each and every one of us has myriad specific interests. A hobby. An author. A favorite place. An activity. A type of food. A favorite actor. A favorite band or recording. Etcetera. Among the 200 of you in this room, there must be more than a thousand – if not thousands – of specific interests.

And each and every one of us is a unique mix of common, group, and specific interests. That’s what makes us individuals.

The analog editorial practices of Mass Media are wonderful at satisfying the very few common interests. Those practices are so-so at satisfying group interests (you can read the Premiership soccer results in your newspapers but I can’t in mine). But they are frankly lousy at satisfying very specific interests. So analog editorial practices satisfy only a fraction of interests.

Fifty years ago, general-interest newspaper circulation was in its heyday because people had little other access to daily changing information in text format. Broadcast news listenership and viewership was high for that same reason.

I didn’t grow up in the U.K., so let me tell you about the U.S. a generation ago. Thirty years ago, people in the average U.S. town or city (which doesn’t mean New York City) had access to only two daily newspapers and three television channels.

Everyone read the morning newspaper and the afternoon newspaper because those were people’s only daily changing sources of information in text. The newspapers satisfied their few common interests, such as the weather. An edition might have had a story or two that satisfied some group’s interests, such as a story about a team in a sport. But an edition probably didn’t have many, or any, stories about each individual readers’ specific interests. However, each individual read that edition hopes that a story about a specific interest might appear that day.

Fifty years ago, the average newspaper reader read only 4 to 8 stories in each edition despite there being scores of stories in each edition. That ratio hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed because the ratio of stories that satisfy an individual’s unique mix of common, group, and specific interests hasn’t changed because the analog editorial practice and its limits are the same.

Likewise for radio or television. We’d watch the three television channels for those same reasons. If you were a tennis fan, then maybe – just maybe – there’d be a tennis match broadcast once per week (even if only as a ten minute segment on ABC’s Wide World of Sports).

Mass Media circulations, listenerships, and viewerships were high were high because people had no other choices.

But look what has happened in the decades since.

During the 1970s came cable TV (and later satellite TV). My town has a 250-channel cable TV system. If you’re a tennis fan, there’s not only four purely sports channels but a 24 hour tennis channel. There’s even a 24-hour channel of nothing but the Premiership soccer! If you like to cook, you no longer watch the Sunday afternoon cooking show, you now have access not only to cooking networks but individual channels about Italian cooking or Chinese cooking or barbeque. Group and specific interests.

During the 1980s, computerized offset lithography replaced hot lead letterpress and made publication of ‘niche’ magazines economical. Newsstands that once sold only one or two dozen titles now sell hundreds of titles. Hundreds of titles aimed a group or specific interests.

Then in 1992 came public access to the Internet. Each of you – and 1.3 billion others – now have online access to every newspaper, news magazines, trade journal, radio stations, TV stations, and TV network on Earth. There today are more than 200 million active dot-coms, dot-orgs, and dot-nets. There are Web sites for every specific interest. And we nowadays have that at broadband multimedia speeds. Always-on access. And more and more in wireless access. Pervasive access to everything.

Within a single human generation, people have gone from relatively scarce access to information to surplus access. From having access to only a few things to access to everything. A cornucopia of information.

And what’s the result? More than 1.3 billion people are gravitating to whatever mix from that cornucopia matches their individually unique mix of interests. They’re gravitating away from Mass Media and its one-size-fits-all attempt at satisfying 1.3 billion unique mixes of interests.

I’ll say it again: billions of people are gravitating online to find much more relevant matches of their interest than the traditional practices of Mass Media can give them. They’re customizing – individualizing. Billions of them.

I’m sure you’ve all by now seen this diagram. It’s called the ‘Long Tail’ diagram. It ably charts people’s interests. Its horizontal axis lists topical interests and its vertical axis lists the popularity of each of those interests. The huge but narrow spike at the left shows the very few topics with common interest. The radial curve towards the lower left of the line shows group interests, topics that hold interest from sizable but not huge groups. Yet almost all of the chart – and indeed it goes completely off the right side of the chart – are myriad specific topics that in aggregate interest huge numbers of people, although no single one of those topics interests huge or even sizable numbers of people.

Any geometer will be able to tell you that the area in those specific interests is a whole lot larger – the demand greater, the opportunity greater – under that specific interest tail than in that common spike.

The reason why Google and Yahoo! are the most used sites online is because people are hunting and gathering to find the specitic topics that match their myriad and individual specific interests.

Look at your own behavior online. Raise your hands if you don’t use a search engine many times every day you’re online. Right! None of you.

Google and Yahoo! understand this. They know that billions of people are gravitating online to satisfy specific interests or even group interests, interests that traditional Mass Media can’t satisfy because of analog editorial practices.

That’s why Google is working on iGoogle and Yahoo! on MyYahoo! They’re aiming to provide services so that those billions of people don’t have to hunt and gather, services that deliver to each and every individual the information that satisfies that individual’s unique mix of common, group, and specific interests. The unique mix of information that is relevant to that individual. They know the world is entering an era of mass customization of information.

That is the extra dimension.

For half a millennium until 1992, anyone who wanted to convey or publish information had to make a choice:
He could produce something that reached everyone at once, but he couldn’t be customized to each and every recipient’s unique mix of interests. Or he could customize something, but you could only do it for one person at a time. Mass production at once or customization one at a time. Mass reach or single individualization. Two dimensions.

An analogy is the choice of travel media for millennia until 1903. You could travel either by land or by water. Each had complementary advantages and disadvantages. Each had its own vehicles. Moreover, each of those forms of travel – land or water – was natural because we can naturally walk or swim. Then in 1903, two mechanics from Ohio invented a totally new transportation medium – one entire dependent upon advanced technology. A new medium that overcomes the earlier transportation media’s complementary disadvantages. A new medium entirely dependent upon technology (after all, we can’t naturally fly).

So too have we now invented a new medium for communications, one entirely dependent upon advanced technology. One that rises above the two mutually complementary dimensions of mass reach or single individualization. One that overcomes the mutual disadvantages of previous media.

Am I pronouncing the end of Mass Media?

No, there will always be a need for media that satisfies the most common interests. That will always exist in some form. Just as radio wasn’t totally replaced by Television, so too won’t New Media replace Mass Media.

However, the era of Mass Media’s primacy is certainly over. Though radio still exists, it is no longer people’s primary source of news, entertainment, drama, comedy, etc. We’ll always have Mass Media, but it will no longer be people’s primary source of news, entertainment, drama, comedy, etc. Or even people’s primary source of daily changing text, audio, and video.

But New Media isn’t simply putting Mass Media content put online. It isn’t ‘shovelware.’ It isn’t because transplanting traditional Mass Media’s analog editorial practices online. That’s not why consumers go online. It isn’t what consumers want online.

Shoveled online, Mass Media analog practices just create versions that used less frequently and less thoroughly than even the traditional Mass Media that billions of consumer are leaving.

What billions of consumers want is information that unique matches each of their uniquely individual mixes of interests, services that deliver whichever contents are uniquely relevant and interesting to each different individual.

Fortunately, we now live in a time when that can be done; an era when the digital technologies now exist to do that. Thanks to content management systems and extensive markup language, we have the capability to deliver each pieces of relevant content to each person for whom it is relevant and interesting. No more distribution problems. (I get my soccer stories.)

Individually customized delivery of content can be easily done today online. Yet hardly any publishers do it. They don’t understand that is possible. They are still stuck in the old way of thinking, stuck delivering exactly the same package of content to everyone.

Moreover, individually customized newspapers are now possible. The press manufactures are now manufacturing digital – not analog – presses. Huge digital ink-jet presses fed by rolls of newsprint and controlled by computers programmed with each and every user’s unique mix of interests. Indeed, there is a newspaper conference in June about this.

What tremendous opportunities for publishers — provided that they format their content so that machines can deliver it! I could go on about all this. In fact, I teach a 15-week graduate level course in Syracuse University. But in the interest of time this morning, let me summarize the main points:

It’s obvious that during the 21st century, news and information will be delivered broadband, wirelessly, and in multimedia format. This will be pervasive worldwide. News and information likewise will be delivered that way, as well as on-demand and available in archives.

But more importantly, what will be produced and delivered with be individualized to match each and every user’s truly unique mix of common, group, and specific interests.

Publishers (and broadcasters) must stop using only analog editorial practices and immediately begin adopting the technologies of mass customization. All of those technologies now exist. The pieces of technology are there, the
publishers merely need to adopt and assemble them.

Moreover, publishers will need to work together – to be not just competitors but cooperators. The reason for that is that the change must be industry-wide. The industry can make the change most quickly only if it works together.

The opportunities here are tremendous, but you cannot be cavalier about the what you must do to meet these changes underway. In fact, you cannot be cavalier at all. Because horses in use!

Thank you.

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