Second Annual Global Conference on Individuated Newspapers

[My opening keynote speech at the Second Annual Global Conference on Individuated Newspapers, Denver, Colorado, June 26, 2008]

Some of you here know me. Since 1993 when I began working full-time in newspaper new media, I’ve given approximately 100 speeches at conferences. I’ve given speeches at E&P, WAN, Ifra, INMA, and Seybold. But this is the speech I’ve been waiting for all those years. I may not have known it then, but I know it now.

In it, I’m going to say some heretical things. But please remember that I’m a fifth-generation newspaperman. I literally grew up in a letterpress-era newsroom, can read teletype, work a linotype, cut press plates, and run a press. I’ve sold ads. I’ve driven delivery trucks. I’ve reported, edited, and general managed a daily. I’m a professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. If I speak what sounds like heresy or I criticize this industry, know that it is because I love the newspaper business. It’s my family and my life.

The reason why this is the speech that I’ve been working up to all my life, is it distills all I know about this business and its future. The culmination of all I know as a newsman, newspaper, and professor. We’ve a bold agenda today.


You’ve all been to many media conferences since the turn of the millennium.

You’ve heard of multimedia and convergence. You’d heard about Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 and even Web 3.0. You’ve also heard about the ‘Blogosphere’ and ‘Citizen Journalism’. All those things are important in their own right.

But they are trivial compared to what I’m about to detail and why we are here.

My agenda this morning is no less than to cut the Gordian Knot of New Media.

  • 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’ll explain why the so-called fragmentation of audiences is an illusion. How cohesive audiences were instead the real illusion.
  • I’ll explain why traditional newspapers’ and news magazines’ circulations, and news broadcasts’ viewerships, must ineluctably decline. And the reason why is not because people don’t want news.
  • I’ll explain why most newspapers’ and news magazines’ and news broadcasters’ Web sites won’t save their companies. (In other words, why simply doing in online what you’ve done in print will never result in revenues anywhere near what newspapers had earned.)
  • And I’ll explain why people can be even better served by New Media than by Mass Media – if we are successful at this conference. In other words, why the change today is even greater than that during Gutenberg’s era.

That’s a very ambitious agenda, so let’s begin.

If you think you’ve seen change during the past 15 years — you ain’t seen nothing yet.

That sounds trite because everyone talks about change. But let me give you a clue about how quickly things can change. A clue to the type of changes you’re going to see during the next dozen years.

Think not of Denver in 2008 but of Denver in 1908. In 1908, the streets outside this building and all the streets of Denver – as well as those in New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo, and every other city in the world — were full of horse carriages and horse carts.

Although the 20th Century was new, people nevertheless knew that it would be a mechanized age, despite the abundance of horses. The early automobile 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 the city’s population, its horses, and its many newspapers.

Moreover, quantum mechanics had been discovered by 1908 and 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 are little changed since Marconi’s time.

Nevertheless, we know the 21st 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 have only recently been discovered and invented, and we’re starting to have a clue about the things that will shape the 21st century.

The horses were gone from Denver’s streets by 1920, and the streets of every other city — in only a dozen years’ time.

Likewise, the changes between now and 2020 will be phenomenal. If you think you’ve seen change during the past dozen years, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

If you think you’ve seen changes during the past 15 years, understand that we’re only about 15 years into a 30 or 45 year change that will be bigger than the change wrought by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439.
Here is Gutenberg in Strasbourg. A statue in bronze, which today is a target 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.’

Etcetera.

Don’t get me wrong: Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press sparked the Renaissance.

But I’m here to tell you that the change underway today is even larger than that which Gutenberg sparked.
The change now underway is bigger than mass production was for the medieval calligraphers and scribes that 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 quantum and intellectual jump in how information is distributed to people and how they find information.

It’s like a jump from two dimensions to three dimensions. Unfortunately, most newspaper publishers don’t understand the new dimension.

The problem starts with Johannes Gutenberg He wasn’t originally a printer, but a metalsmith from Strasbourg. Johnnie invented a device for mass producing innumerable copies of the same thing.

He inked a reversed, metal analog of what he wanted to print, and then used a screw to press it into paper.
Gutenberg’s analog technology created the editorial practice that editors used for the next 500 years. A practice to create editions that are the same for everyone.

That’s the key to the problem: Because analog presses are capable of manufacturing only the same thing at one time for everyone, editors for 500 years have selected stories according to two criteria:

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

A common edition manufactured for the many. The same edition for all. The one to many.
The general-interest newspaper came into existence shortly after Gutenberg, due to the analog technology he invented, and it had the same production limitation due to that technology. The production limitation of printing the same things for everyone at once.

In the 400 years since the first newspaper was published, that analog technology has fundamentally changed little every since.

Yes, James Watt’s steam engine speeded up the presses. And Thomas Edison’s electricity made the presses run even faster. But the newspaper industry still manufactures its products that same old, early Industrial Era, analog way. The Mass Media editorial practice is still the same as it was during Gutenberg’s era — produce the same edition at once for everyone.

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

It’s a huge problem because I’m a soccer fan who subscribes to The New York Times.

The New York Times almost never publishes stories about soccer- except for a few weeks every four years during the World Cup. They did publish a story today about the game between Turkey and Germany in the Euro 2008 Cup, but the story was about the political implications of the game; it wasn’t a story about the game itself.
Soccer is the Number One sport in the world, but The New York Times hardly ever publishes any stories about it!

However, I know The New York Times newsroom receives soccer stories every day. Because I was the Reuters executive who — at that newspaper editors’ request — sold them the soccer 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.

Yet The New York Times doesn’t print any soccer 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 probably are hundreds of thousands of soccer fans in the 17 million-person New York City metropolitan area. Probably more soccer fans there than live in some European countries’ capital cities. But those fans won’t see any soccer stories in The New York Times because of that newspaper’s analog production practice. The same is true for every other American newspaper.

At root, this is a massive distribution problem: The stories that specific people may be interested in exist, but aren’t distributed to them due to the technological limitations of analog presses.

But newspaper publishers and editors can’t fathom there being any other way. As if these analog production practices were god-given or the divine right of kings! Publishers and editors forget that their editorial practices are based upon the limitation of technologies that were invented when horses were the only form of transportation on our streets.

Even worse, most newspapers today shovel those same analog practices online — even though the digital technologies of online don’t have the limitations of analog printing presses. Go figure!

Why is this criticism of analog editorial and packaging practices – hallmarks of mass media – pertinent to this conference? Because more than 1.3 billion people on the planet have gravitate away from Mass Media and those traditional practices.

Why are more than 1.3 billion people – one of every six persons on the planet – now spending more time online than with traditional Mass Media? Moreover, why are they doing that when video is easier to view on TV, audio easier to listen to on a radio, and newspapers easier to read on paper than online? Why indeed?

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 us all, including everyone who’s not in this room? The weather perhaps. Or whether there’s been a new 9/11-type attack. Or whether George Carlin was really god?

If you think about it, there are very, very few topics that interest everyone. All people share few common interests.
Some groups of people do share some group interests. You’re newspaper people listening to me here. There are probably a few fans of the Rockies baseball franchise. Or groups of you who are golfers.

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 all of you in this room, there must be more than a thousand – if not thousands – of myriad, 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.

There are very few topics that are common and relevant to all people. Each person judges relevance according to his own unique interests. Relevance is judged by the individual, not by the publisher or an editor.

The analog editorial practices of Mass Media are wonderful at satisfying the very few common interests. They are so-so at satisfying group interests (you can read about baseball but not soccer). But the analog editorial practice of creating a common edition for all is frankly lousy at satisfying people’s specific interests.

Fifty years ago, studies showed that the average person read only 4 to 8 stories in each day’s newspaper. Today, that is still the same. There might be 50 to 100 stories in each edition, but a person will read only those few stories that satisfy the few common interests, plus maybe a story that fits one of that person’s group interests, and maybe he’ll get lucky and that say see a story that satisfies one of his very specific interests.

Mass media ably distributes only a few stories, not each and every story that a person might want.

Fifty years ago, newspaper circulation was in its heyday because people had little other access to daily changing information in text format. You read a printed newspaper to satisfy your few common interests, may find a story about one of your group interests, and in hope that that’s day’s edition might chance to have a story that satisfies one of his very specific interests. You had no other choice.

But look what has happened in the decades since:

During the 1970s came cable TV (and later satellite TV). Hundreds of topical channels. If you’re a tennis fanatic, there’s not only four purely sports channels but a 24 hour tennis channel. You no longer have to hope that there might be a tennis story in that day’s paper.

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 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, Exactly, 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.

Billions of people today are using their new-found cornucopia of access to information. Each person is using it to hunt and gather whatever mix of information matches his unique individual mix of interests.

And those billions of people are gravitating away from generic, analog products that deliver the same mix of news to everyone. They’re moving away from the analog newspaper.

That’s why circulation is declining. This isn’t a cyclical change. It’s permanent. The cornucopia of access to information that consumer now have isn’t going to go away. The traditional, analog newspaper is.

If you don’t believe me that it’s over, then look at this proof from Nielsen//Netratings. I know that many of you won’t want to see it. It lists the top 100 American newspaper Web sites and shows how many times each site’s average visitor visits per month; how many pages he sees all month long; and how much time he spends on the site that month.

To save time, let’s look only at The New York Times, the premier among those 100 American dailies. The average visitor to its Web site visited only 4.05 times per month. Think of that: that a visit only once per week. He saw only 29 of that sites pages all month (which means less than 29 stories because the Times spreads most stories over many multiple pages to maximize banner ad exposures). And he spent less time on the site all month than the average reader of the Times‘ newsprint editions spends in a day. The figures for most other American dailies are even worse. And I have these figures going back ten years, and those results are just the same.

New Media isn’t simply putting analog edition content put online. It isn’t ‘shovelware.’ It’s not about transplanting traditional Mass Media’s analog editorial practices online. Mass Media analog practices shoveled online just create versions that used less frequently and less thoroughly than even the traditional Mass Media that billions of consumer are leaving.

And why not? Do each of you wear exactly the same style of clothes? Do each of you drive the same make, model, and color car? Do each of you like exactly the same food? Imagine walking into a supermarket and every customer being handed the same bag of groceries.

You are each different. You each want choice. You each have different needs and interests.

Am I talking about total customization here? A newspaper in which there are only Britney Spears stories? No, I’m talking about shared control. Shared customization between the editors and the readers.

Give me the consumer the bulletins and urgents plus all the stories about which editors truly think everyone should be informed. But let the consumer pick which sports, teams, and topics fill the rest of the paper. Better that the childless bachelor gets stories about a car he desires than school lunch menus. Better a fashionable young woman gets the stories about the latest couture from Paris and Milan than sports or that AP story on page 7 about record wheat harvests in the Sudan.

Billions of consumers want 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.

Customization makes the daily newspaper more relevant to each person’s interest and needs. It will make the daily newspaper much, much more valuable.

Billions of people are leaving analog newspapers and going out to hunt and gather information that fits each of their own individually unique mixes of interests. Why should they hunt and gather?

There’s a huge business opportunity there. People talk about the missing business model for online publishing. Well this is it and always has been. And it’s possible online and now in print.

And, ideally, give consumers the choice of all brands, like in a supermarket. I don’t know who operates the cable system here in Denver. In my city, Time Warner does. Imagine if Time Warner’s cable system only offered PBS plus the channels that time Warner owns: CNN and HBO. Would anyone subscribe to that cable system? No, they want to choose from among all brands. All this is possible with XML and today Internet-based technologies. All the elements now exist and are practical.

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. Digital ink-jet presses fed by rolls of newsprint and controlled by computers programmed with each and every user’s unique mix of interests.

All this is what this seminal conference is about.

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.

By the way, 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.

However, publishers 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 are no longer in use!

Thank you.

[Postscript: I’ve read some criticism of the conference’s use of the term Individuated. I think it’s an excellent term. No one intends or is attempting to sell that term to the public. It’s an accurate industrial and academic term for what the conference was about.]

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