The Greatest Change in Media Made Newspapers Obsolete

I’ve overwhelmingly tempted to quote words written for the Michael Corleone character by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola in their 1990 movie and novel The Godfather III:

“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”

Except that I’m no gangster, and I’ve somehow always expected to get back into blogging.

During 2008, however, I’d come to the conclusion that my time spent blogging, twittering, or interacting in other casual and small ways with people online was counterproductive to solving the serious and huge problems nowadays facing the news industries — the focus of my professional consulting and teaching work.  I reasoned that, like anyone else, my waking hours each day are limited, so blogging or twittering about la question de jour, and responding to blog comments, and getting involved in the casually chattering echosphere that much of Social Media has become, erodes my time to work on full solutions to the huge problems.

Many aficianados of blogging and twitter will assert that those practices are, are becoming, or will be, integral to solving the world’s great problems. Ask why, and most of those aficionados will be at a loss to tell you (except that it must be true because they do it?) More probative digerati will raise the premise of the Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve other friends who think that  major problems can be solved through Samoan Circles and other novel or New Age means. I understand all the threads of promise in those premises, but I think that in everyday practice they tend to unweave and distract more than they sew.

Whether online or in person, if people from the problemmed industry assemble and talk, they’ll almost certainly progress no further than the latent conventional wisdoms that led and keep their industry in the problems. I teach my university students that the Wisdom of Crowds can help reveal truth but it can just as easy sustain falsity ((go ask the bloggers who still maintain that Elvis lives, that extraterrestials live among us, or that Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq had something to do with the September 11 Attacks). The ball & chain of Groupthink is just as prevalent, if not more, in Samoan Circle exercises than in corporate boardrooms. History clearly shows that breakthrough solutions arise from one or— at most— a remarkably small number of people who aren’t in power delving very deeply into the problems, rather than any large groups of people throwing ideas onto their chalkboards and seeing which proposed solutions might stick (hint: what sticks most often isn’t a solution) or any assemblies of the people under whose managements the problems occurred.

What block formulation of solutions at industry and academic conferences, Samoan Circle exercises, and on most of the blogosphere and twittersphere, are latent conventional wisdoms. Conventional wisdoms are generally defined as concepts and ideas that are generally accepted as true by the public or by experts in a field. Conventional wisdoms are difficult enough obstacles to overcome, but even more intransigent are latent conventional wisdoms — concepts and ideas to which people don’t realize they adhere. (For example, ‘Newspapers aren’t working in print, so how can we create newspapers online?’ in which the concept that the package of information known as a newspaper must be transplanted and maintained is the latent convention wisdom. Likewise, many newspaper journalists fear that the demise of newspapers may mean the end of journalism. Their latent conventional wisdom is that newspapers — journalistic vehicles that have evolved over centuries — are the best of any possibly means for journalism.)  The solutions to any serious, huge problem requires thorough analyses that delve to any root of the problem and doesn’t become seduced by either la question du jour or latent conventional wisdoms.

Moreover, most of my waking hours nowadays are devoted to teaching. I believe that I can have more affect solving the news media industry’s problems if I teach tomorrow’s leaders, rather than spend time casually blogging, tweeting, and otherwise interacting with the industry’s current leaders (very many of who are contributors to the problems). Call me cynical but, based on my experiences, I place more hope in the future than the present. Provided that tomorrow’s leaders aren’t taught today’s leaders’ latent conventional wisdoms, hope abounds.

Thus in 2008 I largely quit blogging. (I say largely because I’d occasionally post something about the death of colleagues, or twice a year post the syllabi for the university courses that I teach, so that professors at other universities can see those.) Indeed, I stopped blogging despite having posted the first parts of a series of essays in which I proposed the real root of the problems in the newspaper industry and was about to propose the solutions.

Because the newspaper industry’s huge problems require full explanations and detailed solutions, I refrained from blogging but continued writing towards the solutions. I intended to refrain from publishing until I was finished in full and detail. At nearly 20,000 words, in several sections, my work isn’t yet finished. I hope it will be this summer (Northern Hemisphere). I plan to publish it not in the form of a printed book but as either its own Web site or the major part of this site.

Yet I now realize that though my premise that blogging, twittering, and otherwise engaging in small interactions are huge distractions from solving huge problems is correct, my avoiding those small interactions helps only to make those problems worse, if even in small ways. There are things from my unfinished writing that I should be contributing to my industry’s discussions, even if my contributions are only in the forms of blog posts, short essays, or tweets. I should be contribute to prevent, wherever possible, my industry’s errors or drift.

Hence, I resume.

My unfinished writings focus on the one root cause of the media industries problems nowadays and how that root cause also contains the materials from which comprehensive solutions can be constructed.  My larger work will detail that root cause, but my semimonthly Digital Publishing column at ClickZ.com on Friday briefly described it (I’d initially titled the column, The Greatest Change Made Newspapers Obsolete, but this root cause affects all media industries).

That ClickZ column begins:

Ask most people who think of themselves as new media experts what the greatest change in the media has been in the past 35 years, and you’ll hear such answers as ‘the Internet,’ ‘social media,’ ‘search engines,’ or ‘iPhones.’

They’re wrong.

The greatest change has been that people’s access to media has changed from scarcity to surfeit. It’s an even bigger change than Gutenberg’s invention of a practical printing press, the invention of writing, or even the first Neolithic cave paintings. It’s the greatest change in all of media history. And it occurred in only 35 years — half a human lifespan.

This unprecedented change (in effect, a reversal) in the balance of Supply & Demand for information is totally reshaping the media environment.  It’s why so many major daily newspapers in post-industrial countries are going out-of-business; why listenership and viewership of general-interest broadcast stations are eroding and their network affiliation structures are beginning to implode; why the numbers of sales of musical albums and of tickets at cinemas are declining; and why consumers, rather than publishers and broadcasters, are not only taking control of media but redefining how prices are set, what local and community mean, how news is packaged, and how advertising will be done.

None of that should create problems for industries that want to adapt to this change, and adapting to the change creates more efficient media for consumers and publishers and broadcasters and marketers. The problems arise because most components of the media industries don’t want to adapt. They don’t want to adapt because doing so requires systemic changes, rather than cosmetic changes (such as ‘convergence’ or repurposing of existing content), and also because these industries’ senior executives are either too myopic to see the change reshaping the media environment or else too fearful that their stockholders will begin to realize it was obviously these same senior executives’ lacks of foresight that led their companies into the problems (or, as Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”)

If the unprecedented change in the balance of Supply & Demand for information — from scarce supply to surfeit supply or even information overload — is the root cause of the problems that media industries now face, how does the root cause contain materials from which comprehensive solutions can be constructed?

The solutions lay in understanding how this change affects pricing, packaging, the power balance between content providers and consumers, and even subjects such as what is local or what is community.

For examples, anyone who’s ever shopped in a bazaar, a flea market, or a souk knows how Supply & Demand affects power balancepricing and packaging. When something is scarce but in demand, its seller has more power over the transaction than the buyer does. The seller controls the price and packaging (‘If you want that, you also have to accept this,’ etc.) of the transaction. But when something is in demand but is surplus, then the buyer has more power over the transaction than the seller does. The buyer controls the price and packaging. All this about Supply & Demand is just as true in the media industries’ markets as in souks, flea markets, and bazaars. Few executives in the media industries understand this. They fail to understand why consumers who online nowadays have access to the contents of every news organization in the world won’t pay for the package of information (much of which is international and national news) that those same consumers would pay in the past when its printed version was their only available source of that content.

Moreover, very few media executives understand how Supply & Demand affects the definition of local news. When daily changing information in text format was scarce, the sellers of that information — newspaper publishers and their editors — controlled how local was defined. For the convenience of their businesses and practices, they defined local to mean their town or city or metropolitan  or some similar single geo-demographic area. However, nowadays as consumers have gotten access to more sources of information — including local news via local bloggers and local news operations that are being started in those localities — the definition of local is beginning to shift out of the publishers’ and his editors’ hands and more into the hands of the consumers. (Control hasn’t passed the fulcrum point into primarily the consumers’ control, but it is becoming shared control rather than be unilaterally controlled by the publishers and editors.) Consumers have begun redefining local to mean something much more local than how the publishers and their editors defined the term. Consumers are refining local to mean something that those publishers and editors could understand by the terms hyperlocal or microlocal news.

I’ve compared usage logs from news sites that offer local news offered according to the publishers’ and editors’ definition and that being offered by hyperlocal/microlocal sites. The latter are much more popular among consumers than the wider geo-demographic definitions that the publishers and their editors had used. And why not? What occurs closest (i.e, on their street, in their neighborhood, along their commute)  to consumers’ life  is what interests them the most.

I’ll be blogging bits here and there about my larger thesis. I’m not resident at Syracuse or Rhodes universities (I’ve been teaching at Rhodes earlier this Spring and will again in late July and August, and teach at Syracuse the rest of the year).

Φ

Speaking of academia, during a faculty meeting last year at a media school I know, a question arose about whether or not to teach students a course in numeracy. Because media professors tend to possess more verbal than mathematical talents, it wasn’t surprising that the question was voted down. One veteran professor who teaches writing noted, “Our incoming freshmen already have high test scores for math, so we don’t need to teach them that.” I bit my tongue and decided not to respond by noting that those incoming freshmen also have high verbal test scores and thus, according to that professor’s logic, the school shouldn’t need to teach them to write. However, I showed the faculty a copy of John Allen Paulos’ 1997 book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaperand mentioned that so many journalists are innumerate that there’s actually a book written about the problem.

I thought of that today when I today read an Editor & Publisher magazine story about how, despite salary freezes, the average salary at U.S. newspapers was actually rising and last week when I read a posting on the Newspaper Association of America’s Web site noting how subscription churn rates at those newspapers has markedly declined. Both those stories appear to be positive: salaries are rising at U.S. newspapers despite layoffs and salary freezes and subscription churn rates have declined a lot. However, do the math:

  1. As newspapers let go of their more marginal staffers and keep their more essential—presumably more veteran—staffers who are paid more than the marginal staffers, then mathematically the average wage at newspapers has to rise. The mathematical function is fairly obvious: as newspapers reduce all of their department staffs until only the most integral remain, the remaining staffers are likely to be those higher paid because they indeed were integral. Thus, staff reductions tend to increase the salary average. If the publisher were to let go of everyone but himself, you’d see a whopping increase in the average salary.
  2. Likewise, as newspapers’ circulations continue to decline, subscription churn will decline because those newspapers are losing so many marginal subscribers that only the most loyal are left

No surprises, except to the innumerate. Nevertheless, these types of stories get publicity because they superficially seem like good news amid all the bad. The industry associations’ public relations departments spin out press releases touting these ‘good’ things — one can’t blame the PR departments for that: it’s their jobs —and the journalists who report about the industry delve any further than that into what the numbers mean . Indeed, public relations departments often rely on overworked trade journalists not delving beyond and instead taking the ‘good’ spin verbatim.

PaidContent.org was where I first became aware of the story about the average wage rising at U.S. newspapers. It’s the site I use most to find news stories about the New Media business. It’s unusually competent because its staff of journalists most often does delve beyond the spin in press releases and reports issues by the public relations departments of media companies and trade associations.

Φ

Speaking of competency or its lack, in a backhanded remark one year ago May, I disparaged the Newspaper Association of America’s annual Connections conference about New Media. I was incompetent doing so. I was commenting on one of PBS’s Web blogs about why I’ve largely stopped attending the annual New Media conference that Editor & Publisher and MEDIAWEEK magazines hold, and I made a remark about NAA’s Connections conferences (now know as MediaXchange) being even worse. I soon received an e-mail from Randy Bennett, the senior vice president of business development at NAA, who wrote:

I read your comment on the Mediashift blog about NAA’s interactive conferences being worse than E&P’s event, and, presumably others.  I was dismayed by your evaluation given that you have not been to the NAA event, as far as I can tell, in several years.  At minimum, a guy like you who champions the truth should have disclosed that, in fact, you had not attended an NAA interactive event recently and that your judgment was based on, perhaps, previous experience from several years ago or from hearsay.

I certainly don’t begrudge any criticism (although your comment was not particularly constructive), but in a public forum I would expect that you would have been more forthcoming about your perspective.

He is entirely correct. I hadn’t been to the Connections conference in several years and so shouldn’t have been judging whether it was better or worse than another. I didn’t respond to Randy, instead meaning to post a correction (what I’m writing now) here that day or the next. However, by happenstance that May was when I basically stopped blogging for the 19 months .

Now that I resume blogging, it’s only right that I post that correction now, albeit unconscionable a year late!

Moreover, Bennett is one of the most competent executives in the U.S. newspaper industry. For some reason, he and I never really quite got along (perhaps it was my strong personality or because since 1995 I’ve been very critical of the U.S. newspaper industry’s path). But make no mistake: he’s done phenomenal work over the years, despite the titanic forces of change that have gone against his industry. While working in Africa earlier this season, I was dismayed to hear about the NAA cutting almost half of its staff, but I was glad to hear that he was not among those cut.

Ω


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *