Thursday, May 07, 2009

Ink Will Win

You probably think this blog has a staff of one, me. You're wrong. I employ thousands, maybe tens of thousands. I don't pay them and most of them don't even know I am their employer, but I exploit them ruthlessly. Say, for example, I link to this story - it is chosen at random. I employ the journalist who wrote it and his contacts book and I didn't even pay his expenses. I also employ the editors who put it in the paper, the sub-editors, the layout guys, the photographer, the lawyers who check it for libel, the printers who print it and the web guys who put it up on the web. Since it is from a newspaper site, I also employ the marketing and advertising departments, the distributors and the newsagents. Each time I link to Ink I reckon I employ a hundred people or more and I don't pay them a penny.
I say this because I saw the great and good Andrew Sullivan on Channel 4 News talking about the even greater and even gooder Rupert Murdoch, who in his infinite wisdom puts low carb food on my table, and his intention to charge for access to News Corp's web content. This, needless to say, produced some sneering from would-be technocrats - sorry, love, I employed you for a moment there. Anyway, Andrew got everything right until the last moment when he seemed to imply the blogscape and the web as a whole are standalone, autonomous news organisations. They're not. Andrew employs millions in the same way I employ thousands. Guido repeatedly makes the same mistake. I don't know the thinking behind Great Rupert's remarks but, say, for example, he plans to take all his content off the web - very unlikely I know. I, then, wouldn't even be able to link to me and I wouldn't be able to free-ride on his investments. He saves large amounts of money and advertisers and readers have to go back to dead trees. Everybody notices and everybody starts to do the same. Large parts of 'citizen journalism' would collapse overnight because they only exist by exploiting the work of the hundreds of thousands employed in mainstream media
The truth is that if the web makes no money or, at least, not enough to sustain proper news operations - and it doesn't - then you will either get no proper news or just none on the web. Think on, as they say where I come from, you need Ink, all of you, and one way or another you will have to pay for it. But think on further - Ink may not be free but it makes you free.


  1. You're right to note the significance of what Murdoch has been saying this week. But the wily Digger is facing more than one way, as this little web piece points out. He's a pragmatist trying to negotiate his way through a very challenging business environment. Google - and to a lesser extent Amazon, Twitter and Facebook - are defining the future, a future of ink and non-ink combined in increasingly symbiotic relationships. Google is far more profitable than News Corp. I strongly agree about the importance of good journalism but wishful thinking won't wash, not here, not now.

  2. You need only read Lao-Tzu's "Daodejing" to know that "unhewn wood" is far better than dead trees. Let them grow, and let all ink flow...virtually.

  3. Where is the evidence that without news organisations, new new kinds of news networks would not arise?

    I am sympathetic to your cause Bryan,but I feel the main problem is that the crap out guns the quality by so great a measure that it threatens to kill the quality.

    Another fact is that most of what is reported as "news" is not "news" its comment, which the web is very, very good at.

    And without getting into a debate about so called torture and real torture, take this for instance, last week i had to read about 20 articles about the Gitmo memos to establish as "fact", which news is supposed to be about, that water boarding was in fact only done on three people at gitmo, and the boxed insects idea was never carried out. Be it right or wrong the "meeja" tends like bankers to herd and establish narratives.

    How did the media do on the running up of risks in the financial industries? How did they do on warning of the rise of Islamism in the run up to 9/11? I am not asking for predictions but a few red flags should have been raised?

  4. the genie won't go back in the bottle. there's putting a price on a thing and then there's selling it.

  5. If Murdoch thinks this plan will work then the only answer is "suck it and see" and good luck to him. Maybe it will work. The next few years may easily see the internet grow unreliable because of congestion and more expensive because revenue-chasing governments begin to tax it, making traditional hard copy a little more attractive.

    I'm a bit doubtful, though. Murdoch's idea sounds more like retrenchment than bold new strategy. It makes perfect sense to reduce costs during hard times but when the good times roll again wiseacres will immediately say that hiding behind a paywall is missing out on mushrooming advertising and classified revenues - and the cycle will start again. A trap?

    The internet has taken a great deal from traditional papers that simply isn't going to go back to them, I suspect, just as it has from many other things. What the hyperlink gives it also takes away. In addition, staying behind a paywall makes you no friends so you will need something very exclusive to offer which folks can't get elsewhere. Other than financial pages for the City crowd, what is there?

    Another answer might come if or more likely when Apple releases a kind of iReader that does for e-books or e-zines what the iPhone has done for mobiles. The present electronic ink industry is full of big companies that can't write decent software or make stylish, friendly gadgets to save their life, so this is good territory for Apple at a guess. One of these gizmos plus a subscription to a newspaper which is constantly updated over wifi might work if a gadget like this becomes as ubiquitous as the mobile phone is today.

  6. The adverts employ them all, Bryan. Where the ads go, so goes the money.

  7. Mongoose is dead right of course. And point completely taken, Sean, the ink guys got very sloppy, which is why they don't have any idea what's hitting them now. The key debate for me is between Steve "people don't read any more" Jobs and Jeff Bezos, who's busy proving otherwise with the Kindle, at least for a significant, moneyed minority.

  8. Steve Jobs is half right about the e-book reader idea. People don't read enough to justify the high unit cost of an e-book reader and Apple is a premium product with a high price tag. A net-book with the right screen might make me shell out but none of the current models make sense.

  9. Roger LancefieldMay 08, 2009 7:12 pm

    Bryan, if you believe that Murdock's idea is not only financially feasible but also morally justified, then why don't you follow suit and set your fellow journalists an example?

    I'm sorry you've discovered that the world's largest public computer network is not an ideal place to purvey news and control the distribution of *information*, but short of applying authoritarian and arbitrary restrictions on its (i.e. the Network's) use, there's not much that can be done about that. It's the nature of the beast.

    I think you're probably right, for the time being the home of much viable paid content is in print, but the numbers of people producing that content will only be a fraction of those that have hitherto been employed to produce it. But then of course this is no longer a prediction, it's a reality that is unfolding around us as we speak.

    The idea that no one of intelligence, integrity, writing ability and with a large address book, will publish on the Web is simply wishful thinking on the part of ageing, often embittered, members of the traditional, professional media.

    "Good is good enough", "the perfect is the enemy of the good", etc. When we want "perfect", we'll drop Murdoch a few quid for his glossy, weekly News Review mag (for that's the best he can hope for, I'll wager). That's assuming of course people can tolerate not only the cost, the staleness of any "news" content, but also its proprietorial bias.

    As for the idea that conversations on the web are driven by professional media, that's easily disproven and you must know it. Most of the intelligent, informed people in my RSS feeds are (non-media) experts and professionals in a particular field, with a day job, who blog about their thoughts and experiences in their spare time. Their blogs may be extensions of their company's marketing strategies, or the motivation and resource may come from private means. Either way, they are subject to one process which is surely the biggest threat to trad. media (because it ensures requisite veracity), namely peer review, and the "right to reply" (and "ability to reply") of critics, supporters and augmenters, who will include both "professional" and "amateur" commentators. Like science, peer review is merciless and the facts will come out in the end.

    The open source software development community has a saying, "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". When you apply the logic behind that metaphor to news reporting and analysis, it becomes clear that the problem for traditional paid content is not freetards, it's the the hundreds of thousands of educated, professionals, with personal web sites, who can write acceptably (or very) well, who have a story to tell, news to share, informed opinions to offer, etc. etc. Many are at the relevant coal-face, and are not pop-in generalists, like many professional journalists. These people are your real "enemy", and they are not going to go away.

    Besides, if it were true that the Web depended for its news content on the professional media, then that professional media wouldn't be pleading with government for protection from everyone from Google to "citizen journalists". They would instead band together, form alliances, protect their content and watch the web "go dark". They would be sitting pretty, smiling smugly and threatening to pull the plug on the freetard party. But we all know that no such plug exists, and even if it did, pulling it wouldn't make the slightest difference to the Web or its content. It's like a plane full of experts dieing in a crash. On the surface, it sounds like a disaster for whichever field the experts weere in, but the reality is that life closes up around and quickly fills the hole. Pretty soon it was as if they were never there. It's a bad analogy, because the professional media that would take part in any Web "pull-out" would leave no discernable hole whatsoever, such is the oversupply of news and analysis.

    So dream on. Much of the content you are claiming the prof media has pilferred by free-loaders isn't theirs to protect anyway, even if the means to do so were available. Your disparaging and condescending use of the term "citizen journalism" reminds me of professional word processors (when the term also referred to a *profession*) making equally condescending remarks about the amateurs "knocking up" sentences and paragraphs in 10 and a half points, Times New Roman. What did they know? Did they understand the subtleties of layout, the importance of choosing the right font-size for headings, etc. It turned out that most of the time such fine-tuning was simply not required for the majority of documents. Perhaps for marketing blurb, and corporate reports, etc. but most docs just required the basics. And this, in part, is analogous to the problem professional news is now facing.

    Going back to the subject of pilfering and piggy-backing, I've lost track of the number of times I've seen the Telegraph, the BBC News site, The Guardian, etc. run stories that were all over the web 24-48 hours earlier. The timeliness of the Web is unbeatable, something else of which you professionals are acutely aware, and many professional news orgs sponge off many of the free news and entertainment sources. Just subscribe to many professional journo's Twitter feeds to see plenty of evidence of this! It's hugely disingenuous to pretend that content "lifting", borrowing and cross-fertilizing is a one way street. Besides, who actually *steals* content? Most are simply commenting on stories that broke elsewhere, and this is not stealing, it's having a conversation, which is what the Web is designed to faciliate.

    Anyway, good luck with the plan to return to ink. Don't foget about your old mates when you've earned your millions.

  10. Roger thanks, good points all. There's only old ink brand that has really impressed recently and that's the one I linked to for the Jobs/Bezos debate. The New York Times really gets it, it seems. But I've only started to feel that the last three months. Not enough time now (or fees) to spell out all the details.

    On the poverty of most print outfits living off past glories there's no better example this week than the deliberate Wikipedia hoax by an Irish student on the death of Michael Jarre. Nobody it seems checked, so the erroneous quote went straight out onto paper, the world following London following the man in the Dublin bedsit. Though, to give them their due, News Corp didn't seem to buy the dummy in this case.

  11. Sean,

    Columbia Journalism Review has a thorough list of stories that appeared in major news outlets prior to the economy's collapse. It's available here.

    I'd be interested to hear what kind of reaction these stories had when they were published. I'm sure some of the outlets were labeled as "anti-capitalist" or some such nonsense.

    (Keep in mind, financial models that we now regard as "crazy" were once "normal" and envied.)

  12. But it's curious that your randomly chosen story is just a rewrite of press releases from Raymone Bain and Michael Jackson. There's better coverage based on original documents at various fan sites. Anyone paying the Times for the story would be foolish.

  13. No one will pay for something which is not scarce. Information in a digital world is only scarce up until the point it is published.

  14. Brian McConnellMay 10, 2009 5:35 pm

    You might be interested in this article on O'Reilly Media. It makes a related point, though is more focused on how to make money on the web. It is possible, it's just that publishers have yet to figure that part out yet.

  15. My thoughts have just caught up with this one. I think some newspapers will go bust leaving the rest to take a bigger proportion of a larger pie. Not very exciting but there you are. Here's the argument at its full and sumptuous length.

  16. Hi,
    Thank you very much indeed for another thoughtful and well-written post. Keep the good work up.