Binks Is Here

Commentary on the World

Publishing and the Internet

On one of the blogs I follow, there was a link to this article, which covers publishers and how to deal with the Internet.

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

Such a quote seemed very familiar indeed.

Over the last few years I’ve regularly been cornered by nervous publishers or broadcasters or journalists or film makers and asked about how I think computers will affect their various industries. For a long time most of them were desperately hoping for an answer that translated roughly into ‘not very much’. (‘People like the smell of books, they like popcorn, they like to see programmes at exactly the same moment as their neighbours, they like at least to have lots of articles that they’ve no interest in reading’, etc.) But it’s a hard question to answer because it’s based on a faulty model. It’s like trying to explain to the Amazon River, the Mississippi, the Congo and the Nile how the coming of the Atlantic Ocean will affect them. The first thing to understand is that river rules will no longer apply.

The second quote is from an article Douglas Adams did back in 1994 - if you’ll care to remember, that’s the time where you probably had a computer at home, and it MIGHT have had dial-up internet.

The first article, at its core, is basically saying, “Look, your model has to change in a fundamental way - you can’t keep pretending”, which somewhat miraculously is exactly what Douglas Adams is trying to say in his own article, written about 15 years earlier.

The other conclusion that both these articles come to (though I find Douglas Adam’s to be shorter, more to-the-point and more entertaining as well) is that it’s not the newspapers that are important, but instead the writers and the content are what is irreplaceable - the “unthinkable scenario” from the first article, and the thing that must “drop out of the model” from the second is the same - people no longer are willing to support a structure that is entirely dominated by the notion that getting your words to people’s eyeballs is a hard thing indeed.

I think we’re in a brave new world right now; and though the old model is broken, it’ll be quite some time until a new model is created to help us deal with it. One thing can be said for sure, though - to say “no one saw this coming!” is a lie, and to suggest that the consumer is to blame for pulling the rug out from underneath publishers is disingenuous. The model has been broken, and will be broken, for quite some time. I suspect we’ll see the full weight of it in 20 or 30 years, when baby boomers stop buying papers in ernest.

It will be an interesting day indeed if/when the New York Times shuts its doors for good; but it will be fascinating to see, ten or twenty years after that, what has moved in to replace it.