By Dan Meadows
I wrote a piece a while back about how the prevailing attitude toward print publishing is that is dying a rapid death. In that piece, I refuted that point, claiming that print is not, in fact, dying but undergoing a fundamental shift from the monopolized world of old media and large conglomerates to one of smaller, more reader-centric companies that will lead to a rejuvenation. Since then, I have read much on the plight of media companies struggling to find a way to turn the tide. Here is some of what I’ve learned, all of which supports my theory that those who refuse to change will die out.
If you haven’t heard, there was recently a semi-secret meeting in Chicago between top publishing executives to discuss how they could conspire to force us all to pay for the consistently declining quality of content they’re producing. The main points of agreement seemed to be that they should move their content behind locked down pay-walls and extort fees from search engines such as Google for having the audacity to link to their content. I say go for it. If these companies want to sequester their content away from the open internet, expecting people to pay for what they already get for free, and remove themselves from open searches of the net, then more power to them. All the better to hasten their demise and move aside for those of us who might actually be able to use the tools of new technology to find a way to make a buck.
There are several competing possibilities for how big publishing can achieve this, most of which following an iTunes-like approach of collecting publishers together under one banner and selling access to their content in a number of ways, ranging from overall subscriptions, bundled content, and micro-payments per article. One particular effort, Journalism Online LLC, touts the value of this kind of makeup not to better service readers or advertisers, mind you, but to allow publishers to collect vast amounts of personal info about readers and exploit that to create massive rate increases for the publishers themselves. Yeah, that sounds like a winner.
A consultant for Journalism Online LLC, Merrill Brown, actually went on to say, and I quote, “We would argue that very few high quality products have ever been delivered for free.” Considering that I’ve spent the past twelve years producing high-quality free distribution publications, let me be the first to tell Mr. Brown exactly where he can shove his argument.
Providing Tons of Filler
I also ran across an article about Dean Singleton, the chairman of the Associated Press, you know the organization that provides tons of filler so your local reporters don’t have to, threatening to go all Digital Millennium Copyright Act on websites and search engines who so much as quote an AP article. This from an organization who does little more than pick up articles from its subscribing members, slap an AP copyright on them and pass them on to other members. According to the AP, to quote even five words out of one of “their” articles, you owe them $12.50. Never mind the concept of Fair Use, or the long-standing journalistic tradition to properly site and build stories from other’s work, you quote the AP, according to Mr. Singleton, you’re a thief. Even just printing the headline of a piece is enough to “steal the essence of the article.”
Then there’s this collusion meeting, and let’s call it what it is, collusion. Certainly, there are highly paid anti-trust lawyers who will argue otherwise, but when the heads of the largest companies in the industry gather together to discuss how to collectively market and charge for their work, that is the very definition of collusion. One publishing executive at this meeting, Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time Magazine, actually said, and again I quote, “paid content models are necessary to protect creativity.” I had to read that sentence three times, in fact I’m snickering right now just typing it, and had to drag myself off the floor wiping the tears of hysterical laughter from my eyes. The very people who have consistently devalued creativity for decades during their enormous profiteering efforts are now the defenders of creative freedom? Wow, these guys truly have no shame. According to Moody’s Investors Services Senior Analyst John Puchella, on average, the largest media companies spend a paltry 14% of their budgets on content. The very products by which they hope to make these enormous sums of money, and they can only manage to invest 14% in its development and production. Maybe that’s what he meant by protecting creativity. “We want you to make products that people will willingly shell out for, we just aren’t going to give you any resources to do it. Be creative.”
Now let’s talk about boxing for a minute because I think there are some interesting parallels between the former Sport of Kings and the path the newspaper industry is taking right now. There was a time where boxing was one of the biggest things going. A big fight was like the Superbowl. Then, in the mid to late 1980s, with the emergence of cable television, they made a bad choice. Where other sports, most notably the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, took advantage of the new media technology that was growing every day, boxing chose to put its major events almost exclusively on pay-per-view. Locking their products behind a hard pay wall may have made them a quick buck, but it cost them dearly in exposure and interest. Boxing no longer holds any relevance to our society outside of a small and shrinking minority of fans. Quick, name the heavyweight champion of the world. Don’t feel bad, I don’t know, either. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that if boxing ceased to exist tomorrow, most of us wouldn’t even notice. And it all happened because the sport chose to erect pay walls around its products rather than adapt to a changing media world. Sound familiar?
The Kindle, Another Pipedream
The Kindle is another pipedream that newspaper publishers are grasping at for hope. For those of you who don’t know, the Kindle is a tablet style reader produced and sold by Amazon ostensibly to provide a platform to sell digital books. Recently, Amazon released a new, double-wide version of the reader that some have clutched onto as a means of distributing electronic newspapers for pay. Why someone would pay to read what is essentially a scanned copy of a newspaper is a little confusing to me, plus the Kindle updates things only twice a day and has no open internet access, which means no dynamic functions, links or anything that makes the internet stand out from a static newspaper. The device costs nearly $500, which pretty much prices out most of the country. But even at that, distinguished newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are offering Kindle subscriptions to their work. Unfortunately for them, because Amazon controls the entire process and owns the rights to the primary device, they collect upwards of 70% of the subscription fees from the papers just for the right to use the device. And this is what passes for a positive development for newspapers today.
My entire point is that pay walls won’t work, shutting out or extorting huge fees from search engines won’t work, stretching the copyright laws to stop people from even referencing your articles won’t work. What these efforts will do, however, is to further shrink these companies relevance and usefulness to our society. They seem to think that they hold such an important place in our lives that people will happily fork over more money just because they demand it of us. Well, just look at this area. There are no fewer than 10 websites and blogs, including this one, who cover local issues in this area, and some of them do it very well, sometimes more in depth than the supposed professionals. And this is just a small corner of Maryland. Imagine the vast network of sites that exist in a place like New York, with more coming every day. The idea that local coverage will vanish if newspapers go away is just foolish. And it’s arrogant. But what can you expect from corporations who have owned a virtual monopoly on coverage for so long?
Industry is in Full Panic Mode
None of this is particularly surprising. The industry is in full panic mode, unwilling and unable to find a means of adapting to rapidly changing conditions, and they are going on a last ditch offensive. We all know how well that worked for the music industry before they were forced to conclude, after years of rapidly declining sales and profits, that maybe selling digital music online is actually a better idea than suing your customers. So I say again, adapt or die. If the largest players in the industry are so locked in to the notion of control and pay walls, then enjoy that. It will only hasten their demise. And for you publishing executives who are so frustrated and upset that people aren’t willing to do whatever you tell them and have the audacity to refuse to pay whatever you demand of us to support your profit margins, don’t go away angry. Just go away.
Thanks Dan for allowing us to publish this piece on old media. This is an important topic to us at Someone Noticed and your insights are appreciated. Here are a few links to some earlier submissions by Dan