Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Butterfly of Change

A number of very good posts on the future of News (and media in general) out in the past week. Struggling newspaper SF Gate offered this summary (via columnist Mark Morford) The Geek gurus all weigh in on the end of dead-tree media. Are they wrong? It's not a bad question, despite an opinion piece full of what seems like bitterness or frustration. After all Clay Shirky's article, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, and Steven Johnson's speech at SXSW, Old Growth Media and the Future of News didn't seem to be a "...pile on the I-hate-mainstream-media bandwagon..." that Morford insinuates.

But it is certainly reasonable to look at all the Morfords (and Alan Mutters) out there and all the Shirkys out there and ask - how can these two groups of very smart people be so opposed to each other on the basics and how can anyone understand where this is really going?

To this debate I offer a visual aid, the butterfly graph which I have thus named because you could see each of the loops on the left and right of the image as wings and because I like the idea of catching the winds of change... allow me a little poetic license.

But here is how to read this graph -- The red line is the "old way" of doing things and the green line is the "new way." The slope shows that the old way declines in efficacy as the new way increases. At some point the pace at which the old way is declining accelerates and then flattens again as many niche uses hang on over time.

The blue bar in the middle is the period of confusion during which the old way is still working, so adherents can claim that there is a path ahead for their existing model of how things should work -- and their claim is bolstered because the new way isn't yet clear and working.

One of the really interesting characteristics of this blue period is that the old way will take on attributes of the new -- which will both hasten its demise as well as suppress the emergence of a new way that works. An example in the news business is the "free content" which is so hotly debated now amongst the two sides of the future of news argument. Early on in the process, the economic rationale of providing free (advertising supported) content made sense to newspapers eager to build online audiences. So instead of radically re-examining their businesses (and maybe creating craigslist or newspapers continued to pursue the product logic of the printed world but with a digital distribution. So for this reason every online paper reproduces the print version horoscopes as one example.

But as the "old way" declines -- in this case physical paper distribution becoming less desirable to consumers than instant online access -- having adopted the model of free content and retaining the bundling logic of the physical media, prevents newspapers from radically rethinking their model - they simply don't have the economic wherewithal to experiment. And at the same time the continued flood of free high quality content is dampening entrepreneurs ability to accelerate new models effectiveness. It will take many more Rocky Mountain News and Seattle P-I failures before the slope really shifts and we start to see a crossover of new experiments working and the old recognizably being dead and done.

So to Morford's reasonable complaint to Clay Shirky that he "...has no idea what will replace newspapers and professional journalism." I would answer that Morford himself as a stakeholder in the future of journalism has a better chance of answering the question than Shirky the professor -- answer by stop supporting the old print media and start experimenting in the new digital media. Yes as in other periods of revolution there will be a period in which many of these experiments fail. But the seeds of the new are already planted and growing and the strong ones will fully replace the old over time. And I don't agree with the pace -- I think it will be years and not decades.


Kaps said...

Several thoughts:

1) It's not completely true to say that people (readers) are moving away from newspapers -- subscriptions perhaps are down, but that's not why the Rocky Mtn News or Seattle P-I have stopped the presses; it's because the publishers ran the businesses into the ground, and then (as you correctly pointed out) had no room to innovate. But that doesn't mean people don't want to read papers.

2) This is still a one-winged butterfly... think the SF Gate's main (angry?) point is that pundits like Shirky are great at describing the corpse and terrible at figuring what's next. What seems to be needed at this point are some business ideas and models that might work... or more focus on the ones out there that are attempting to do new things.

Ted said...

In reply to Kaps - on the first point, "Many Would Shrug If Their Local Newspaper Closed" (Pew) -

On the second point - yes exactly! We are right there in that blue band of confusion where the old stuff isn't working and frankly, their thrashing about is making it harder to see which of the new stuff might work. And what is needed for there to be "new stuff" is lots of experimentation. You may not like the prescription from Dr. Shirky but it is a valid one - take two experiments and call me in the morning :-)

Eric said...

None of what anyone has said alters one fact.

Newspapers were a commodity with artifically high held advertising rates via an effective monopoly.

Remove the monopoly.... watch advertising become a stark commodity.

Watch ad revenue drop.

Watch those publications overly beholdin to ad revenue wither and die. that most of them, so yes a new model willneed to arise. Just not from the elders.

Dan Brekke said...

One other thing fueling the ire of many "elders" is this: In the old newsrooms, they felt insulated from the business. Now, that insulation from bottom-line concerns has been stripped away. They (by which I mean "me and the people I worked with, mostly") felt free to report, write, edit, lay out and publish without thinking much about what the ad sales department was doing. We'd notice when the news hole was small. "Ad sales are down," we'd think. "Our story on the drought is getting trimmed or held. Hope we have more space tomorrow."

But, for some good reasons and for some that were purely convenient and circumstantial, it appeared that the bottom line was someone else's problem to figure out that business end. From most editorial folks, you heard little about the business end of things (except gripes about the size of paychecks), and virtually nothing about the economic structure of the business we were in. In that way, maybe newsroom folks have a lot more in common with car execs and autoworkers who were happy to go along with their companies and build SUVs while market conditions changed; whose idea of competing was telling U.S. consumers to buy American.

But of course, the business was always in the newsroom. On just the most superficial level: You need that screaming front-page headline, and that story about the drought, and the one about Princess Grace driving off a cliff, to get the eyeballs to attract the advertisers to pony up the cash to pay for the newsprint and so on.

I think a certain part of the anger and the resistance to change comes from resentment that engaging in the craft one loves--and performing a public service, too, for cripes sake!--has been overwhelmed by the sordid realities of finances, marketing, and new technologies.

Or maybe I'm just speaking for myself.;>