Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fighting the Future of News: The Uselessness of 'Should'

Imagine for a moment that you've become either the boss, the parent or the Supreme Deity of every news consumer in America.

Take a moment. Drink it in. Feel the power.

Now you can begin to pronounce:

* You should buy newspapers because they provide an indispensable service to a free society.

* You should get your news on paper because: A, that's the way we've always done it; B, we have the existing infrastructure and employees to print and distribute news and need cash to support both; and C, that's still how we get most of our ad revenue.

* Even if you read news online, you should pay for every bit of it because otherwise: A, we'll all lose our jobs; B, if A happens, you won't know anything about what's going on in the world; and C, because online ad revenue just doesn't cut it.

Ah, didn't that feel good? Now take a deep breath, and let it go.

The truth is that no one in the newsgathering business has the slightest say over what any individual news consumer does with his or her time or money. Once, perhaps, the first pronouncement might have held some sway, but these days, the moral authority of the mainstream news media has been severely eroded in the minds of much of the public, so I wouldn't count on that one to save anybody's bacon.

Spending even a nanosecond thinking about what people "should" do is a waste. All that matters is what people will do or won't do, and that comes down to basic human nature.

Now, I'm no psychologist or sociologist, but I am a human, and I do know what I will and won't do (your results may vary).

* I generally won't pay for stuff if I can get it for free (unless the free stuff is junk, or I'm staring over the donation jar at a very sympathetic museum guide who has those big puppy eyes -- or one who just scares me into dropping in a couple of bucks).

* If forced to pay for stuff I used to get for free, I will, in the majority of cases (and especially in the current economy), learn to live without said stuff, unless: A, it's extremely good stuff (in which case, one wonders why it was ever free); B, it's stuff that has become integral to my daily life; or C, I suddenly get a big influx of ready money.

There are moments where I, like most other human beings, will fork over for otherwise free stuff out of the goodness of my heart, a desire to earn points in heaven or to impress someone else. But counting on that happening is not a very good business model.

So tossing all of this useless "should" stuff over the side, I'm left with two bedrock reasons why people will pay for news:

*They'll buy news on paper if it's cost-effective, easy, and that paper contains information they can't easily get anywhere else or that is superior to similar information they can get for free (a quality neighborhood newspaper vs. a pennysaver, for instance).

* They'll pay for news online if they can't get it for free, if it's relevant and integral to their daily lives, and if it's superior to blogs that they can get for free.

If all the news that flows into my Google Reader on a daily basis for free suddenly dried up, to be honest, I'd just do without most of it.

(Look at the cable TV model for a minute -- some folks are starting to drop cable, because they can get some of the shows online, and network shows are available in HD over the air for the price of an antenna. Cable has been vigorously fighting to keep its top shows off the Internet, but in the end, it's probably a losing battle. Pressed for cash, many people are deciding that whatever they get online is good enough, and whatever extra shows or information cable provides is not worth the expense. And since cable -- and newspapers -- live in a bundling world instead of an a la carte or on demand world, it's something to ponder.)

But I would probably pay for a couple of sites that I felt offered the best and most comprehensive coverage of the news I cared about the most. Then, as time went on, I'd probably feel I was missing out and might add a couple more. Or I might not. Depends on the outcome of the cost-benefit analysis.

I'm a journalist. My continued employment is connected to the future of news, whether on paper or online. I understand all the economic arguments (my paycheck depends on them). I love news. I consume news in one way or another during the majority of my waking hours. But I only have so much time, so much money and so much attention to spread around.

People want what they want, when they want it, the way they want it. That's a sea change in the attitude of consumers, birthed and encouraged by digital distribution. The horse has not only left the barn, he's out the gate, down the road and grazing in the neighbor's pasture (who leaves his gate open -- how nice for our horse!).

The newsgathering infrastructure does (or, at least, is supposed to) provide an indispensable service to a free society. It should survive and thrive.

But that doesn't mean it will, and hope is not a strategy.

Click here for a fascinating, recent study on the attitudes toward news.

Click here for weekly conversations on the future of news from the Newseum.

Click here for a recent PBS special on the future of news.

Click here for the spring 2010 edition of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which is dedicated to the future of news (and look, is available for free online!)

Of course, journalists could also just become wards of the state. Or not. Or really, really not.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Future of Media: The Beginning of the End of the End of the Beginning

Is this a photo of dawn or sunset? Without knowing what direction the camera's facing, how could you tell for sure? It's amazing how much alike the beginning and end of the day can look.

I've talked before in this space about the impact of technology on how people consume their news and entertainment, and, of course, Apple's new iPad tosses a fresh element into the mix.

In many of the conversations I hear, though, it's about, will we get our news from TV OR print, or from print OR online, or from online OR TV, or from a laptop OR an iPad ... and so on.

But the reality is, we seldom have just two courses of action in any situation. There are just too many variables.

Take, for example, you're in an alley and an armed, masked mugger appears. Your choices: Hand over your cash or be killed.

Or, you could pull out your karate ninja skills and take the guy down; or you just pass out, and the guy takes your stuff and runs away; you could throw up, skeeving the guy out, and he runs away; or the guy hears a noise, loses his nerve and runs away; or you start screaming your head off, and he shoots you (or loses his nerve and runs away).

A car could appear in the alley, causing him to either shoot you or run away; or an explosion in a nearby building could startle you both, and you both run away; or the sudden appearance of participants on a bicycle race scares him off; or he suddenly realizes you're his long-lost aunt, high-school crush or third-grade teacher, and he takes off.

Or you give him your cash, and he shoots you anyway.

No matter what you think your choices are, you never really know how it will turn out -- and that's perfectly normal.

There's no doubt we're at a crisis point in the evolution of delivery systems for news and entertainment, but the idea that we all should pile onto one option or just die is ridiculous. In the history of human communication, new methods have regularly popped up, but they never entirely displace the previous method(s).

We still have wall painting and graffiti, just as they did in the Stone Age and Ancient Rome; we still have campfire storytellers and town criers (if you count those dudes with the sandwich boards or the arrow-twirlers on corners); we still have pamplets and fliers and word-of-mouth; and we still have -- in the order they were invented -- newspapers, movies, radio, television and the Internet.

None of these things has disappeared, they've just changed their focus to whatever they do better or more economically than the other delivery systems. This isn't to say that individual outlets haven't disappeared, of course they have. That's the normal economic evolutionary process of creative destruction.

There wasn't always a Rocky Mountain News; there may not always be a New York Times. And do you remember the DuMont TV network? That's OK, hardly anybody does.

There will always be news and entertainment, and people will always need ways to get them. But if more energy is expended to preserve a delivery system for these things -- such as printing papers, mounting a nightly network news broadcast (or even maintaining a broadcast network) -- rather than focusing on the quality and appeal of the content, you may wind up saving something that nobody wants anymore.

After all, when the auto became dominant, lots of farriers and harness makers and wheelwrights lost their jobs. Would you have rather we had preserved the horse and buggy to keep them employed? I'm sure they would have been in hearty support of that if you'd asked them at the time, and who could have blamed them?

Doesn't mean they were right.

It's never pleasant to be the one smack at the pivot point of change, but someone's got to be. Fighting the future is not only pointless, but it siphons energy and creativity away from efforts to adapt to the new reality.

So what will that reality be? I guarantee you that, right now, nobody knows. We're all guessing, and in the end, at least some of us will get it right.

For example, imagine this scenario for news delivery (hardly the only possible one and likely not the best or even most probable one) ...

* Small newspapers could thrive in communities, neighborhoods and towns, with intensive local reporting and targeted local advertising, serving the needs of a specific audience in a cost-effective, efficient way.

* National news is relegated to television and online incarnations of a few national publications, such as the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, etc., which may or may not continue to print on paper (or they may only print weekend and specialty editions). Why should a local newspaper waste space on national stories, unless they're giving a local perspective on how that story affects their readers?

* International news can be gotten online from the nation of origin or on television. Why should I read about the British elections in the Boston Globe when I can read about them in the Times of London? Again, local and national publications, whether on paper or online, could offer perspectives on the effects at home of international stories or help to put them in context.

And all of the above might be gotten on a phone, an iPad, an eReader, a television, on paper, on a laptop, through a corneal implant or in whatever other way suits the needs of consumers, who will ultimately decide which sorts of information they prefer on which device(s).

I don't believe any of this is an either-or decision. It's more a both-and, or better yet, an all-of-the-above.

As Marshall McLuhan famously observed, "The medium is the message," but if the message isn't there, who cares about the medium?

Of course, we come back to that sticky issue of getting people to pay for it all. Honestly, sometimes I think if IBM or some other corporation had created and evolved the Internet, rather than the government and universities, somebody would have figured out a way to monetize it right quick, and we wouldn't be in this situation.

Information is not free ... of cost, that is. If it were, universities wouldn't need to charge tuition, teachers and journalists wouldn't need salaries (and I, for one, need my salary) and publishers would just toss books to people on the street or sneak them into their Kindles in the middle of the night, just out of the goodness of their hearts -- after they gave them the Kindles for free.

People must pay, because people must be paid. But that's an argument for another day, and one that's taking place all over the media world every day. The good news is I'm convinced the new technologies will eventually add to the media marketplace instead of destroying it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Imagining the Death of Print ... and the Birth of, Well, Something Else

In two previous posts -- click here and here -- I asked some questions about the future of traditional print media and the larger implications for all news reporting.

With the release this past week of Apple's iPad, a whole bunch more questions and proposals came up, and this one and this one (and now this one) sounded a little familiar.

But, enough about me, what do you think about ... news on paper?

Using Twitter, Facebook and email, I put out a question: If you knew that news would no longer be available on paper in, say, one year, what would you do?

The respondees include folks not working in media but also quite a few who do (obviously, the one constant is they all use computers to one degree or another, as that's how I asked them the question).

You will draw your own conclusions once you read these replies -- and I'd love to hear from you in the comments -- but my immediate takeaway from this is that few folks working outside of media really comprehend that online news is either largely a product of, or dependent on, content from traditional print and wire sources (and while those working in media know this, many just read stuff online for free and hope for the best).

Even fewer have internalized the fact that their enjoyment of free news is heavily dependent on revenue from those "backward" folks who still buy paper news and magazines and thereby contribute to the calculation of advertising revenues, which are still greater in print than online.

It's like standing on the shoulders of giants and thinking you're just really tall.

But human nature is what it is. As infomercial king Kevin Harrington said on my other blog, "I'm a consumer, and I want what I want."

That still leaves the problem of how to pay to give consumers what they want in the way they want it. The issue is being studied widely, including by the Newseum, and by the makers of this upcoming documentary film (who had an awesome trailer on YouTube, which they have inexplicably removed).

As always, the people have the final word, as they do here.

Here are the responses from Twitter:

* It's strange, but even though I started my journalism career writing for newspapers, I haven't read one regularly in maybe a decade.

* What are newspapers going to do if we no longer read them in print?

* Honestly, now that you've got me thinking about it, I realize that I so rarely look at news on paper, I wouldn't much notice.

* Tweet one: Does that assume evything now in print wd be online? Or that print sub & ad revenue wd disappear, taking many outlets with them?
Tweet two: Yr tweeps, I suspect, are assuming that cd still read evything they can today online, for free. Wd that it were so.
Tweet three, responding to my tweet that the assumption was that it would be online (don't know about the "free" bit, though): Then I wd be grateful for the miracle that enabled that to happen. Tho sad for my mom, who has no computer & lives in 3G dead zone.

(Above from a working magazine journalist)

* Start my own newspaper or magazine.

* If news was not available on paper tomorrow it wouldn't affect me at all. I all my news on the web. Sunday newspaper = coupons.

* I would not care. The only thing I would miss is the NY Times crossword puzzle. All my news comes online or TV.

* Nothing. I rarely read the newspaper now.

* What's paper???

(Above from a wiseacre reality-TV star)

* I barely read the paper as it is. So not much.

* Hoard print like a mother f---er.

* Probably nothing. It's been forever since I regularly read the news in hard copy.

* Subscribe to Yahoo news feed online -- not a big deal.

* I'd worry about the potential job losses, but it wouldn't really impact me, personally.

* It would not bother me. I get my news online already, when I want to read the news. Too much misery nowadays.

* TV, online, vids, etc., to get news if newsprint ws ... too sad to even contemplate.

* Hey, Kate, it's already happening at my library. We get more & more journals online. I honestly dunno what I'd do re: news.

* I'd be devastated. I love reading the paper every morning.

From Facebook ...

* Read it online or on my Blackberry, like I do now, but still lament the lost of the tactile-ness of paper.

* Not even notice.

(Above from a working online journalist)

* Have (my fiance) continue to watch CNN and keep me posted.

From email ...

* The computer is the devil.

* Since I generally read newspapers and magazines for the tactile experience and ease of reading (especially longer, in-depth articles and books), I would be disappointed, but would generally adapt to reading news online at specific news sites. I also might consider purchasing a Kindle, Apple iPad or something similar.

* I wouldn't be happy. While I know that news in the paper in the morning is already out-of-date by the time I read it with my dinner in the evening, still, that's when I have the time to read it. I get NY Times updates throughout the day, when something important (and sometimes not-so-important) happens, and that's good enough. And I do check the local TV-station websites for weather, etc.

* Nothing. I don't read it in print anymore, anyway.

(Above from a working newspaper journalist and blogger)

* MYOP (Make Your Own Paper) Subscribe to a daily customized online digest of everything I actually care about. Local news and style pieces from the (Washington) Post; community doings in the Gazette; think pieces from the (New York) Times and the (Wall Street) Journal; entertainment news from Cuppa, and woo-hoo! No more sports! Add in some weekly features from the Economist and The Week, and I'm a happy woman. That, or just keep listening to NPR.

* I would do my best to find an online news provider who actually PAID reporters to report the news. A news provider with an editorial staff -- meaning not only copy editing but content editing. I want lackeys reporting to bosses! I also would like to PAY for this service, because otherwise I don't see how these editors and reporters are being paid. I'd most likely access this news from my computer, because that's where I am all the time.
I still haven't found an ereader that has caught my fancy. I guess I'd start looking for one I could read while lying on my back on my couch or in my EZ Boy chair. This laptop thing requires that I sit bolt upright like a student or, like, say, a television writer writing.
I want my news to come from the pros. Even the pros I hate and rail against. I've had it with the amateurs.

(Above from a working TV writer/producer)

* What, you mean people still read print?

* I'll absolutely have no problem with that. I'd do nothing special except for, maybe, sorting out more carefully where to go online for the latest info.

* I'd get pretty annoyed, as I still like my weekend newspapers (no need to boot up, no terrible consequences if I spill coffee on it). But I'd continue watching the evening news on TV, on a local station. I don't get much news on the computer. If I am online, I am busy doing something else besides perusing the news.

* I'd be sad, since I'm a tactile person, and newspapers are kind of comforting. However, if we decided to spare the trees, I'd read the news online. Although, sitting on the porch on a summer Sunday with a cup of coffee and a netbook somehow wouldn't have the same charm.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A World of News in Your Hand -- Cheap

With the Consumer Electronics Show underway in Las Vegas as I type, e-readers are the hot topic. With Amazon's Kindle (left) and Barnes & Noble's Nook having generated most of the buzz pre-show (they're primarily designed for reading books, natch), the new talk is about larger e-readers, ones that can show color, etc.

In other words, these are e-readers tailored for the reading of newspaper- and magazine-style content, which traditionally is a much bigger page than books, with color photos, pie charts, graphs and so on. Some even have touchscreens or let you take notes.

I don't have an e-reader, mostly because they're pretty pricey, and I have quite enough pricey electronics with short shelf lives in my possession right now. But, I might be persuaded ...

Back at the beginning of this blog early last summer, I explored the future of news, asking questions about what might become of the traditional news delivery systems (inky newsprint, in particular) and why people paid for them.

So here's the question I've been asking myself about e-readers -- why would I pay $250 and up (and up) for a device that still made me pay for additional content? I'm cheap to be sure, but as of yet, the cost-benefit ratio just hasn't worked for me.

But, what if I could get an e-reader for less than $100 (I like $50, but again, cheap), if I also agreed to an extended subscription for a local newspaper? It's much like the deep discount offered on mobile handsets in exchange for an extended service contract with the mobile provider.

Perhaps the deal could be sweetened with access to the newspapers' sister publications around the country (for example, I work for Tribune Company, and we have several newspapers, along with some specialty publications). Perhaps deals could be struck with magazine publishers to bundle in a few of those at a bargain price. And there could even be original content produced just for e-reader subscribers.

I would then have an e-reader on the cheap, with a ready-made cornucopia of content. Of course, I could download books and whatever else I wanted to the device. Having a device that could only display the subscription content that was part of the original deal would be, well, stupid.

And of course, I would want the ability to see all the cool multimedia content offered on news sites.

You may say, "But Accidental Futurist, I can read all this stuff on my laptop, or on my netbook or on my mobile device!"

Yes, you may, provided the newspapers keep giving their stuff away for free on the Internet.

But even if they do, one upside of e-readers is that they make reading print on a screen as easy on the eyes as reading on paper. And once you've loaded the content into them, you don't need an Internet connection to keep reading. And you won't go blind from peering at tiny screens.

And all this might be worth it, if they were CHEAP enough. And it just might allow e-readers to have a longstanding niche in the market (if you believe some reports, that's far from assured).

Would you buy fancy mobile phones and PDAs if you had to pay the full list price? Look at the list prices once in a while and compare to what you paid. You may faint.

Look, I'm no genius. This idea is already being floated out in the world. My question to you is -- would you bite? And if not, why not?

BTW, when I floated this idea on Twitter, somebody told me that she's just old-fashioned and prefers the feel of a newspaper or a book. Fair enough -- if you believe that both of these things will survive in their current form.

Good luck with that.

UPDATE: E-readers beware, it looks like Steve Jobs' new Apple Tablet is aiming to be one-stop-shopping for print AND TV. Click here for more.

UPDATE: This is why I said a discounted ereader, not a free one.