Why Smart People Are Still Pondering This Old/New Media Thing

You already realize I’m a bit of a science geek.  But you may not know I’m also a history geek — not insufferably so, but I’m looking beyond what I thought I knew to find new insights.    On my bedside table, along with my fiction books and books on how to not be a crappy parent, there usually sits something by Joseph Ellis or someone equally readable.

I tell you this as context for when I say that, even for me, the piece in the January 26th issue of the New Yorker, Back Issues: The Day the Newspaper Died, is a bit of a slog (See: Does Google Make Us Stupid? Let Me Count the Ways).  But it’s worth at least zooming through for the parallels between newspapers as our founders envisioned them in the First Amendment — as opposed to our new vs. old media whinging today.

The piece essentially begs the question:  what’s the value of having an organized free press, with reach and access, to really go after our government?

Some of the value can be seen in the lengths a government would go to avoid that free press.  In the New Yorker story, we’re reminded that President John Adams tried to have his critics arrested for treason with the Alien and Sedition Acts — which he also helped create and pass.  I doubt he would have outlawed a TechCrunch, or a small paper writing about the local 4H results — both evolving and thriving aspects of our current media landscape, I’d venture.  But a John Adams, today — would he outlaw the New York Times or Washington Post for breaking the story of Guantanamo, or the White House emails?  To quote one potential White House resident, you betcha.

I bring this up because every five minutes on Techmeme, some blogger hits bigtime clickthroughs by proclaiming the imminent death of old media.  But we need newspapers.  And blogs (see: Twitter, the New York Times and the Guantanamo Video).  What is this ridiculous psychodrama where someone has to be dead?
It gets a little bit Social-Media-Echo-Chamber-y.   For example,  I’m normally an avid reader of Clay Shirky’s blogs. I just like literally how he thinks.  But last month he got picked up in BoingBoing and ReTweeted umpty galillion times for throwing the Guardian-UK this tired old bone:  that the New York Times is on its last legs, and that’s a harbinger for the category: “I think that’s it for newspapers.  Why pay for it at all?”  After awhile, Erick Schonfeld (whose work I also follow and  respect) and TechCrunch (and all their commenters and fans who want to be liked by TechCrunch) chimed in, and it got absurd.
Has it occurred to anyone that the economy could also play a tiny role in these “decaying fortunes?”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and reading everything I can on the subject — from the kinda-wacky-kinda-brilliant game(r) theory of Jeff Bercovici at Portfolio.com:

Here’s how it would work: As you browse FT.com, you have a small status bar at the bottom of your screen, akin to the “life bar” in first-person shooter games that shows you how healthy or injured your character is. In this case, the status bar shows you how many free page views you have left.

Now here’s the fun part: If you want to exceed your quota but you don’t want to pay, there are other ways. In video games, you can usually replenish your life bar by collecting floating gold coins or stars or mushrooms or what have you; why not do the same on a newspaper site?

to the practically reactionary suggestion of  former Washington Post editor  Peter Osnos — who outright suggests that Google save newspapers, and argues that it’s in the company’s best interests.  An excerpt:
If the past is a guide, there will come a time when these behemoths essentially are monopolies, and society will rise up in protest, to the relief and, usually, the benefit of everyone except them…
There are a lot of ideas circulating for saving the news business…but getting Google (and its smaller competitors) to share revenue with creators of content would be a money stream that essentially does not now exist.
to the altogether different take by The Long Tail (and Wired EIC) author Chris Anderson, who wrote in a recent piece that “free”  may not be sustainable as a business model in a recession.

Media isn’t broken, to paraphrase a comment I recently saw on Chris Brogan’s blog — it’s just not fixed yet.  Just because we haven’t imagined the next form it’s going to take, doesn’t mean it’s “dead,” or that new or old journalists must prostitute themselves with “content marketing” in some form  (not that there’s anything evil about that, but blurry lines don’t help anyone).

What do you think? 
Do you have ideas?  Share them in the comments!
P.S. — for more excellent ideas, see the comments on Matthew Ingram’s post, “Google Is Not Your Sugar Daddy.” (link in comments below)
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4 Comments

Filed under Media, saving newspapers, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Why Smart People Are Still Pondering This Old/New Media Thing

  1. The economy clearly is having a chilling effect on the newspaper industry. As much as we like to deride ‘old’ media for being old, and as challenged as it is, the bigger issue is that the business model of advertising is in complete flux. No one in any mass media seems to know how to value media consumers — it’s almost never been about the content, and now that’s even more true.

    Chris Anderson’s original arguments in favor of ‘freeconomics’ seemed badly flawed at the time — I seriously doubted that he would have published the same ideas from someone else. They make even less sense now. At the same time, we’re on the brink of seeing elements of a barter economy return. Of course, bartering doesn’t help companies stay in business.

    But then, I’ve never been a fan of the idea of free stuff. I’m biased — I draw from personal experience on the ills of free content. When I was at redherring.com and we developed our ‘breaking analysis’ approach to the news, we gave it away. Hugo Dixon started Breaking Views at about the same time, and charged for his content. Breaking Views is still around. Red Herring has died twice.

    There are other organizations that charge for content, and do not give things away on the Web. I think they will be best able to get through the recession. If that’s right, they’ll be the ones to develop a model for content. They may be able to amass the capital needed to take over the best of today’s newspapers and make them work. There will still be lots of freely available content; the mixed model adopted by the Wall Street Journal and the Economist will probably spread. And I’m sure that some of the big blogging sites will find ways to profit, especially those that can develop young, inexpensive talent (as I’ve said before, it’s a great time to be a journalist, just a lousy time to have kids and a mortgage).

    • alittleclarity

      Michael,
      As always – very thoughtful input. I agree that sometimes we just deride old media for being “old,” and that the economy is at least one factor. (I’m encouraged that even Chris Anderson, if you go to his piece, says that Free is maybe unrealistic in this economy.)

      I’m feeling guardedly optimistic that the free market and great minds being brought to bear will yield a solution — some kind of hybrid, partially-paid, partially free, or micropayment-based answer that will let all aspects of publishing thrive.

      Of course, that’s what the editor of Publisher’s Weekly wrote, and then she was alid off the following Monday.
      Thanks for the comments – so smart.

  2. alittleclarity

    I wanted to draw attention to a post written in response to Peter Osnos. “Google is Not Your Sugar Daddy.” The post itself is provocative, if a little self-righteous — but the discussion in the comments will give you more new ideas, no matter on which side of the argument you fall. http://gigaom.com/2009/02/03/google-is-not-your-sugar-daddy/#comments

  3. Pingback: Old/New Media: Bring Out Your Dead! « Alittleclarity’s Weblog

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