Image courtesy of The Lexington Leader
27 years ago this January, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina releasing Mosaic, the first fully-realized Web browser and, in one of the few times in which this phrase is actually not hyperbole, changed the world.
Now of course you can search for information, reach a book, watch movies or TV shows, chat with whoever you want, get weather information, check your email, get traffic updates, and do any of a hundred other information-related tasks from a hand-held device you can carry with you at all times, almost anywhere on Earth. In the Hindu Kush, for all I know. I mean, that’s changing the world. In my life there have been a very few times when I’ve watched something happen and known it was history and felt the shiver of the realization run down my spine. Watching Apollo 11 lift off; being shown the Palm Pilot for the first time (for me, the iPhone was Steve Jobs gluing a Palm Pilot to a cell phone; a brilliant combination, but the Palm Pilot was the real innovation); and watching Mosaic being demonstrated by my friend Nate. I saw the world changing right there on his desktop.
We all know what this has brought to us as we text our friends across the country while in a virus lockdown. Hell, I talked about it in a blog post just a week or so ago. Not everyone recognized it for what it was at first, of course. I had a head start as a nerd, and of course Nate showed it to me. It took music companies a notoriously long time to adapt to online downloading, and only really got a grip once Apple came out with the iPod and Steve Jobs used his famed Reality Distortion Field to convince them to do it his way long enough to get things going. TV and Film companies eventually took it well enough to create what is now being called “The Golden age of television.” Eventually the world tends to adapt to new tech, even the Amish if they so wish. (They use roller skates, after all.)
25 years after wide adoption, however, print media is still flailing.
I’ve been watching almost since the beginning, and frankly it’s made me pretty angry. I love newspapers. I’ve been reading newspapers since I were a wee lad, growing up under the shadow of the Nixon administration just outside of DC in Alexandria, Virginia, during the Watergate era, reading the Post and enjoying four pages of comics. I love them. When I left home, I made sure my dorm subscribed to a newspaper. I moved 12 times during my years in Santa Cruz, and the first thing I always did on moving was to subscribe to a paper. And I continued that policy after getting married, and after moving to Austin, lo on up into the 2000s.
But the print media, they didn’t adapt. They just…didn’t.
Print media, historically, is a bit…well, weird. In ye olden days, it was built around one rich guy. Think Citizen Kane. I know that’s a fictional film, but it resonates because it’s based on a true story, specifically that of William Randolph Hearst and others of his ilk. A rich guy would start a newspaper, usually with a particular agenda, and would publish it and “encourage” stories and editorials of his liking. Later, papers evolved and they became less supported by one rich guy and rather a combination of subscribers and advertisers. Later, advertisers because a much bigger part of their cash structure, and rich guys less. Much later came corporations who consolidated papers, so that dozens of local papers were owned by one giant company, who continued to fund them from advertising (both local and national) and subscriber fees. But the important thing here is, advertising was a big component in paying for your news.
Now, a knowledgeable person would tear this to shreds in the minute details, but this is an overall picture, so just bear with me here. The key point stands: Advertising made up a huge percentage of a newspaper’s income.
With the coming of the Web, suddenly you’re able to publish online for very little. No more did you need giant printing presses, tons of paper, lots of ink, fleets of trucks, and a bunch of paperboys on bikes. Now—just like me here at my laptop—you could file and send out a story by typing it and pressing a button, and literal millions could read it on their laptops. Advertisers, naturally, didn’t want to pay as much for online ads. The amount papers got in advertising money totally cratered.
So okay: Print media needed a new model.
And that’s what the situation has been for 25 years! The music industry—reluctantly, kicking and screaming, crying poverty the whole way—adapted. The TV and film industry adapted and are making spectacular amounts of money. What is the print media doing?
Well, starting in the 90s they began holding meetings. Convening think-tanks. Having conferences. Suggesting solutions. Making recommendations. And they came up with an idea: Pay walls.
Tech people had already tried this model. In tech, we had been doing online content for a while—I’d been doing it since 1991 or so—and we’d found it didn’t work. People hated it. You needed to do something else. But print media was convinced they could make it work. So for the last 25 years they’ve been trying it, in various flavors. (eg The NY Times pay “wall” is more like a sieve; there’s any number of ways around it. Some other media sites let you access current content but not old content. Others make you see advertising if you don’t subscribe but turn it off if you do. Some let you see X number of articles per month for free then you have to subscribe. Etc. No consistency; it various from site to site.)
It hasn’t worked.
The industry has been contracting severely over the last 25 years. There’s been mass layoffs consolidation. Dozens of local papers have closed. Media people—high-visibility media people such as Rachel Maddow—have now taken to begging publicly for people to please, please subscribe to their local papers to help keep them alive. We need our local papers, people like Rachel say; they’re critical to the health of our country!
I couldn’t agree with Rachel more. But unfortunately, begging for people to subscribe based on their altruism is not a viable business model. It’s going to be even less successful than paywalls. I’m not saying this to be a harsh jerk; I’m saying it because it’s obvious and true.
Print media needs to do now what it seemed incapable of doing for the last 25 years: Seriously examine it’s business and make the changes it must in order to continue to survive. And the most critical of these is: No one is going to save it except the people themselves. The journalists and editors and reporters. Not the subscribers, the advertisers, the executives, and certainly not the publishers, who notoriously are rich jerk-weeds like Jeff Bezos. It’s the “individual contributors” (as we say in high tech, of which I am one!). You folks have to save yourselves.
And as I’ve always hated people that kvetch without suggesting things and, while I’m not a journalist, I do have a few thoughts. These are the thoughts of a naive technonerd, a non-journalist, who is well aware of his lack of journalism training. But I am trying to help, okay? Really. And yes, I do subscribe to a number of media. So here we go.
First, it seems to me are quite a few areas of cost that maybe you could lower in your current model. For example, what is the profit and loss of your print runs? Do you actually make money by maintaining all those printing presses, delivery trucks, drivers, paper boys, and what not? Seems like a lot of overhead to a nerd like me, who does his own publishing by pressing a button.
Another thing I often wonder about is coverage. Does every paper really need to have a White House reporter, a DC bureau reporter, a London bureau reporter, and so on? Can’t the various papers & magazines band together on this kind of reporting, especially the international reporting? Why the heck are there 200-or-whatever White House reporters? That’s just absurd. To be perfectly blunt: It seems like that huge corps of reporters only exists for the ego of the reporters themselves. Couldn’t the salary of one Jim Acosta be better spent on three local reporters covering city halls? Nothing against Jim Acosta, who I like, but do we need 200 Acostas?
The same thing goes for any bureau at a paper. Do you all need duplication of science desks, entertainment desks, etc? Wouldn’t it be much better to have those folks out covering local news? I’m hearing all these journalists begging for subscribers to local papers. I’m down for that, so long as local papers are covering local stories. Local government, local entertainment, other local stuff. Anywhere there’s duplication, that seems like wasted effort to me.
I’m sure some of these ideas are dumb because of my ignorance of the business. My goal here is to get these journalists thinking outside their standard model a bit. That model has been in place an awful long time, and when you’re in a bubble that long, it’s hard to think outside it. In tech, we don’t really get that luxury. (eg the White House press corps is ridiculously big; from the outside, it just seems stupid and redundant.) Because I’m serious: After 25 years, if the best you have is to beg for more subscribers, you’re screwed.
To hell with your advertisers, your publishers, and your executives; figuring this out is up to the members of this business. I love the industry. I don’t want to see it die. We can’t save it for you. So buckle on your damn thinking caps, journalists, and get thinking on how to save it for yourselves and us!