Talking tech since 2003

In my last article, I talked about what the newspaper industry is doing to stay afloat. Their biggest worry now is monetizing their content, which is understandably hard on a medium designed specifically to facilitate the easy transfer of information. Currently, their strategy revolves around pay-walls, but pay-walls heavily favor primary sources over smaller news providers, not to mention slow the flow of information and irritate the average user to no end.

The most obvious alternative to pay-walls would be micro-payments, but that system is currently underdeveloped. (I think the fact that newspaper companies can’t get on board with a system developed years ago for other media, showcases just how infrastructurally encumbered they are.) The problem is micro-payments still require the user to sign up and log in. The log-in part could be easily circumvented by associating accounts with IP addresses. The advantage to this is networks like those on college campuses can easily get general access to newspaper articles, and of course only have to pay according to what their students actually read. In addition to this, they could have networks of newspapers, where you can sign up all at once for several news sources, cutting out a lot of the hassle. I could easily see News Corp. enabling general purpose accounts for all of its newspapers.

Of course, there are only patches, because they still put up a barrier between the news source and the reader that will cut down on the flow of information, and readers. One of the ways to fix this that first popped into my head came from thinking about complaints about The Huffington Post. The general complaint being that news aggregators like them make most of their money by just linking and capitalizing on the free articles on The New York Times and others. It’s easy after all, to make a profit when your margin is based on zero expenditures. This is a legitimate complaint, as much as I like and use aggregators.

The solution of course would be to stop “punishing” the readers, and instead charge the aggregators. Sites like The Huffington Post should be able to eliminate the pay-walls for their readers by paying an elevated subscription fee to the sites they link to. This way it becomes the burden of the aggregators to monetize the content, while still allowing users to freely access information. The complaint I’ve heard about this, is that it would kill outright most, if not all of those sites. The Huffington Post, even with its growing clout, at the end of the day only makes a profit because it’s contributors are volunteers, and its reporting comes free from other sites. The moment they had to pay for any of it, they would be in the red.

Which gets me to the point I’ve been wanting to make this whole time: why the hell do we even need newspapers? I’m not trying to be all “screw the man,” but… screw the man! Centralized reporting, like all centralized industries of the past, needed to exist only because of the massive infrastructural demands of actually distributing news. Who here really thinks that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein really couldn’t have done what they did if it weren’t for the great magical power of the Washington Post? Newspapers don’t have contacts, reporters do, and whatever legitimacy that newspapers provided reporters to lean on is fast disappearing. Reputation is something individuals, as well as organizations, have. The great miracle of the internet is that it allows large infrastructures to develop and exist, solely as a byproduct of normal interactions.

The reason publishing companies, newspaper and otherwise, were needed was because of the need for printing presses, and if there’s one thing technology has removed, it’s that need. This happens to every industry, and when it does, the old forces can literally crumble over night, as exemplified by how sites like Travelocity destroyed the travel agent industry. (You know there’s something big happening when an industry is taken down by a lawn gnome and William Shatner.) The point is, newspapers may be dying for a good reason, and not because people are “stealing” from them, or whatnot. Many, industries are in the process of decentralization because of the internet, and the news industry, being based around information itself, is the canary in the coal mine. People have to face the fact that newspaper companies, unless they radically change themselves to the point where we couldn’t even call them that, are just to slow and cumbersome, and as long as they try to use their weight put through anything to keep their dominance – which, if things keep going as they are, they will have to do to survive as they are – they are actually holding us back.

A good example of this, is the fact that some of the best reporting, especially on niche issues, comes from sources besides newspapers. I’m not talking about blogs, though it’s applicable to them too. I’m talking about books. Many reporters want to delve into a subject, but their newspaper is uninterested. So, they go off on their own, accumulate the information on their own, and then publish outside of the newspaper. No one (well, much less) would need to do this if newspapers weren’t actively censoring their content. I’m not using the term in a negative way – though I do think a sort of intellectually lazy self-censoring has crept into the industry. They just can’t put out every story that comes across their doorstep. They have limited space, limited time, and limited resources, all constrained by the existing structures they’ve put in place. They publish stories based on what they think the demand is, and they pay reporters according to who best gives the predetermined supply. This is the nature of centralization: since they are constricted, they decide for us. (From the television show Jericho: “[. . .] People get the news they deserve.” “No. People get the news they’re given.”) Decentralized organization has fluidity, and more importantly, no overhead censorship.

Also, why should I have to pay for a whole damn newspaper when only a couple of columnists are actually worth paying? I know I talked about micro-payments, but this is worth revisiting. Newspapers pay many of their reporters much more than their worth, and others less. Over all, there’s a lot of financial bloat in the industry that they’re only now coming to grips with. And I can’t get a feed from the reporter I like. At least on The Huffington Post I can get an RSS feed from my favorite writers. Organizations also suffer from much higher overhead costs. It all just falls apart.

What I would like to see is a decentralized news industry, based around the reporters and columnists themselves, not the news providers. At the end of the day, what a reporter lacks by themselves is money, but that can be fixed by just self-monetizing their content in the ways I suggested, or other ways I haven’t. If newspapers can find a way to monetize it, then so can individual reporters, and blogging has a much better lag time than newspapers. One of newspapers biggest problems is their huge lag time in comparison to online reporters. I see a future where reporters publish articles on their blogs, which people can subscribe to, giving their money directly to the reporter instead of some overhead structure. I see a guild system that reporters join, like the freelance union, which provides legal services and the general things that newspaper companies do that are actually useful. In fact, these guilds may actually be the former newspaper companies. They’ll now be forced to concentrate on helping reporters actually provide their content, regardless of what it is, because now they are under the employ of those reporters, not the other way around.

A good example of how this sort of works would be a site like The Atlantic Magazine which, even though it is still a centralized structure, shows the potential of reporters working under their own motivation. Newspapers constantly belittle bloggers, saying they don’t provide real news, but the bloggers on The Atlantic still provide content that they went out and reported on themselves. The only difference is that they tend to provide smaller, more frequent articles, interspersed by long-term ones at about the rate of normal newspaper reporters. I know, it doesn’t quite apply, but what I’m trying to say is that the actual act of reporting – of going out and researching, and writing out the article – is not somehow magically bound to the newspaper industry. People are not suddenly rendered retarded without some Big Brother structure.

It may never go that far though. Most likely it will end up in some kind of hybrid, with Google-esque online-based news companies popping up and overturning the old companies. They’ll probably be less centralized, though not completely decentralized, and because their overhead is much lower, not having print, they’ll be able to self-censor less. There will most likely be much more of them, and they will be based on subject matter, not area – in essence more niche. In fact, long term when everything goes digital, there won’t be any difference between newspapers and magazines, and they’ll probably cease to exist as separate industries. It will be interesting to see.

It’s inevitable. You only have to look around at what’s happened, and is still happening to almost every industry. Instant communication has transformed them all, and in fascinating ways that we increasingly take for granted. But isn’t that the point? They should be granted. Newspapers are just holding us back, and I rejoice at their departure. I hope you do as well.

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