Monday, 19 October 2009

The New Media Nightmare

Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...Image via Wikipedia

This is a guest post contributed by online pal and fellow writer of books Robb Grindstaff.

Robb and I originally encountered each other on Harper Collins' authonomy peer-review writer's site thingy and we've been, along with a group of like-minded peeps, keeping in touch and bouncing stuff around ever since. By day, Robb's a newspaper editor in the US and, as he mentions in the post, we've been talking a lot about the future of writing, both in terms of fiction and daily news media. This is his take:

A conversation started recently among a group of writer friends with this article, which discusses the new distribution methods for music and books and the effects on the content producers (musicians and writers). The conversation then segued into this article about the Associated Press and News Corp telling Google and Yahoo! it’s time to pay up for the news content they aggregate and distribute.

From the news media perspective, particularly the newspapers where I’ve worked for my entire career, online distribution has become the death knell for newspapers when it should have been the saving grace that eliminated the high costs of 'traditional' printing and distribution.

In the olden days (say, the 1700s up to 1989), journalists held the power. Newspaper publishers were the kings of the hill in their cities, making or breaking politicians and business/industry tycoons with the power of the pen. They sold the newspaper for a nickel, or a quarter or a dollar, everyone read it, most cities had two or three major competing newspapers and many people read more than one newspaper. The newspaper owned/controlled the content and content producers (journalists), the publishing (printing presses), and distribution (paper boys and newsstands). To this great mass market of readers, advertisers flocked and paid lots of money to get their ads in these newspapers that were delivered and read each day by virtually everyone.

There are books that could be written (and have been written) on the in-between parts, how we got from then to now, but today it’s looking like this:

  • Journalists are unemployed in the thousands.
  • Aggregators of news, such as Google and Yahoo, are the new distributors.
  • Aggregators don't employ or pay a single journalist. They take content from everyone else. They have virtually no overhead in comparison to media. Their overhead is primarily computers servers which reach hundreds of millions for cents. They don't have to print and deliver a newspaper to every doorstep every day, pay reporters or camera crews or videographers or producers.
  • Readers are wired and the Internet provides instant news rather than waiting for tomorrow morning's newspaper. Readers can find newspaper depth to stories (as opposed to the typically thinner reporting prominent on TV), but delivered instantly 24 hrs a day (the advantage of TV). Even better as it's delivered on demand. You don't even have to make sure you turn on the TV at a certain time to catch a certain newscast or news story.
  • As readers have moved online, so advertisers have migrated to Google/Yahoo/etc., because that’s where the eyeballs are also aggregated.
  • In the meantime, newspapers are going broke, bankrupt, closing, and laying off thousands of journalists as they've lost advertisers to online. Even though newspapers also operate their own Websites, they are by definition mostly local (other than the New York Times and a small handful of others), and the Internet is global. Readers don't feel a need to make sure they get their news from their local newspaper or local TV news. World and national news has become a commodity, and readers expect it for free, at their fingertips.

This worldwide access to information should be a boon to freedom and democracy.

But what will the aggregators aggregate, what will the distributors distribute, and what will consumers consume when all the journalists are gone? And when the level of competent journalism has declined to a certain point, who will be the watchdog over the government and major institutions on behalf of citizens and taxpayers?

That’s the thought keeps me up at night as the new world of media figures out a business model.
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Paraglider said...

Greetings - I was slightly disappointed in this article because everything stated as fact is very familiar. We finally get to the point in the questions that form the penultimate paragraph, but they are left conspicuously unanswered, even by speculation. I suspect the answer, by implication, is that the information that will be aggregated will be sourced ultimately by government/corporate copywriters and other special interest groups. But I think that's pretty well known too.

rps said...


Very interesting.

I worked in the online information business for 25 years.

In the latter 10 years of that stretch, I ran my own business (14 people at one point), which was a half-way house between aggregator and original publisher (we abstracted and indexed full text articles from publications in 11 languages to provide focussed newsfeeds to clients in the telecoms & electronics industries for an annual fee). We were finally pushed out of business by free full-text aggregators who delivered non-focussed information to users. That being by way of background.

The over-riding motto when I was still in the business was "content is king" = even in an age where many of us recognised that form was becoming more important than substance.

We live in a world now which, as you say, is wired. But, form is king now. Presentation framed by ads and spin is king now. Although networking groups like fb and twitter (and blogging) might provide us with investigative (or at least critical) reporting and comments, the reach of these media is not as all-embracing as that of old-style newspapers was (disregard mass protests like the Jan Moir thing over here in the UK).

Our generation learned a lot from newspapers, that we were guided by those printed sheets, whose opinion columns we often valued above the items of pure news. The sad thing is, I fear, that they will become extinct.

However, newspapers made a mistake at the beginning of this revolution (and this started in the late 80s). They didn't embrace the new technology; and when they did, they moved to the internet with business models which echoed brick and mortar models rather than trying to create a new paradigm of their own. They killed their own cash cow by being late adapters rather than early adopters.


Phillipa said...

I need a newspaper to read while I eat my breakfast. Sorry Apple, Kindle et al, but it has to be paper.

The Perfessor said...

the day the government starts telling the news, we're cooked. The Boston Globe already is a "special interest group." That's one of the reasons why it's lost thousands of readers.

Anonymous said...

What I worry about is, who is checking the sources of all the online content?

My husband read his paper with breakfast everyday until recently. Our local paper went from printing seven days a week to only three. The rest of the days you have to read online. Luckily he has advanced from a PC to a laptop, pretty hard to luge that big processor around to all your favorite reading spots!

And I guess if the real estate debacle and the ensuing financial crisis doesn't, or didn't, get you then the www will. *sigh*

the real nick said...

I too need a newspaper to read while I eat my breakfast. It has to be paper because it is bloody difficult to wipe up the spilled coffee or cereal with my laptop.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

"What I worry about is, who is checking the sources of all the online content?"

well, that's always been the thing about all forms of media. How do we know that the Associated Press isn't lying to us about the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Anyway, a lot of major news sources (ie: the mainstream media) have reporters stationed overseas. As for alternative news sources, I'm not really sure. I don't trust mainstream media.

Phillipa said...

...and you need three hands if you eat your breakfast in front of a screen - one for your bowl of Cheerios, one to hold your spoon and one to move the mouse. See? It doesn't work...

Anonymous said...

...what if you had to LUG around your paper while you were on a LUGE. :-)

I need to learn how to type, or spell -- take your pick.

Robb said...

@paraglider - You're right. I'm just asking questions because I don't pretend to know the answers. I haven't found anyone yet who does. I'm most suspicious of those who claim to know, because if they did, they'd be quiet and start a business making millions.

@rps - and you're right as well. From inside the newspaper biz, I can tell you first hand no one knew how exactly the internet would affect news distribution, even those who thought it held lots of potential didn't have a clue how. It was the small start up businesses of entrepreneurs who found the keys that worked, and that was usually after 10,000 or so other tried something that didn't work. Large, established industries can't typically function that way. Risk averse.

@Sabina - while it's good to be skeptical (that's sceptical for my UK friends), if it comes down to trusting reporters in war zones to document the truth, or at least pieces of it, or accepting the government's version of what is happening, I'll take my chances with the media, mainstream or slipstream.

@perfesser - yup.

Bottom line for me is I'm fairly convinced it will all work out in the end, but during the transition a vacuum could be created.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. The real problem for newspapers is not necessarily the aggregagtion of their content, but the fact that there is so much content out their for free.

The Internet has created a world where everyone can be a journalists, and many people set up shop and claim to be. They report things as facts, and look professional. And they do this for the "glory" of being in print. Sort of like those who go the self-publishing route with books. It doesn't mean the content is necessarily bad; it just means it hasn't been vetted by professionals. So, these new people who often don't care about getting paid or work for pennies on the dollar for the "glory" of being published, cause a lot of trouble.

Second, if newspapers are so upset about their content being available for free, they have to stop publishing it for free. Being upset with Google or Yahoo is like being upset that somebody creates an address directory. If you've got the info out there, and someone chooses to aggregate it so people can easily find it, then that's just part of life.

I think the real problem is newspapers have never been able to get any traction in the fee-for-service method they used in the print world. The print paper costs money to buy. And they've never gotten that with online content. Those papers that have charged (like Wall Stree Journal), have done well. But, in this age where people think all things on the Internet should be free, newspapers apparently felt it was too tough to charge. I think that's where they've been hurt. They ought to make people pay for their online service, the same they do for the print service. That would help some.

But, unfortunately, it's a tough world on the Internet, because there are plenty of people out there willing to give away their content for free. And it's tough to compete with free, even when you're better.

rps said...

Unless I'm much mistaken, the Murdoch newspapers will soon be charging for their online content across the board. I think we need to watch this space. The WSJ was one of the first papers to go online & charge. Visionary. R

Douglas Clawson said...

Robb, you say you are 'fairly confident it will all work out in the end.'

Fair enough.

I guess the question for me is, how far out is that finish line?
It seems that with every innovation -- whether it be twitter or God knows what else -- we get farther and farther away from the finish.

Basically, it is the innovators who are driving the train. They come up with something new, the gun is fired, and we chase it like a bunch of dogs because it is the latest, greatest thing.

I am also coming around to the possibility that people just aren't interested in 'serious' content anymore.

They just want whatever they want right now and right quick.

When cable came along, it was supposed to be the end of network TV as we knew it. It wasn't of course, but it did change the quality of the network TV we were (are) receiving. The major networks, adapted and survived, by figuring out that there was no limit to how low the consumer would go -- what with all this reality drivel.

Alas, TV also discovered that many people would pay for premium channels -- HBO and the like. Perhaps, that is the model that will be used on the Internet?

Those with 'higher' standards will pay for the good, quality stuff?

I dunno. I mean I REALLY dunno.

But enough of this, I have a blog to write.

Robb said...

Doug, you got that right. I dunno. Quality isn't as important as convenience. Will people pay for higher quality, when they can get the "same thing or something that looks similar" for free? If you charge online for your content, you select your audience much more narrowly - devoted readers/users, but a thin slice of the total. So you make some money off the content, you have far less eyeballs seeing your content to attract the advertisers.

Don't know. And I don't even have a blog to go write. All I can do is steal free space on Alexander's.

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