A Call To Arms: Independent Competition Key to Rejuvenating Publishing

So this week, there’s been some big noise being made around the industry on a number of fronts.  Yet they all seem to be congealing under the concept that large media outlets will continue to cut back, consolidate operations, lock up some or all of their content behind paywalls and cut mega-deals with Microsoft among others, to fragment and attempt to control internet search.  There’s even been more from my favorite media titan, Rupert Murdoch, on how he’s going to take all of his content out of Google, sue the BBC for copyright infringement and, possibly, challenge the concept of Fair Use in court. Good luck with all that, Rupert.  I said a while back that maybe what we need to do is develop alternatives to Rupert’s stuff and cut them out ourselves, but it looks like he’s going to do it for us.

First off, the cutbacks.  Despite all of the positive news that was being bandied about a few weeks back about how we’ve hit the bottom, a recovery is on the way, advertising is beginning to rebound and all, the daily news is still littered with reports of layoffs and closings.  Just today, we have this and this. Literally, every day there are two or three more reports of layoffs coming along from all over the country.  If, indeed, things are starting to turn, my question is will it be fast enough for there to be any industry left when the good times roll once again?

Then we have these types of opinions from industry insiders who believe that all of this cutting is a good thing in disguise because it will winnow the field of competition down and make it more likely that the survivors can thrive in a atmosphere with fewer (!) news sources.  Here we have Chyrstia Freeland, managing editor of the Financial Times in the U.S., talking about the benefits of less competition. Of course, The Financial Times is in the rare position of controlling a clearly monetizable, difficult to replicate flow of information.  Obviously, less competition looks attractive to them.  But I’ll get back to that.  And here we have Chief Exec of WPP Martin Sorrell saying the same thing, even going a little further in espousing the view that consolidation will be a savior for the industry. Apparently, Martin has missed the part where the industry is drowning under the weight of the debt it incurred consolidating virtually everything in print over the past twenty years.  And that doesn’t even mention the creative damage done to numerous once-thriving publications by being homogenized into larger corporate ventures.

What these two views (and Murdoch’s, too, for that matter) have in common is an attitude of superiority for existing legacy media, and a continuing disrespect for the independent media that is growing and thriving out of their control.  For someone like Freeland, who is obviously an intelligent woman, to actually believe that failing legacy media will lead to less competition is pretty astounding.  I guess simple observation of the changes in the world over the past 10 years or so is lost on her.  As the traditional players in the industry have dropped like flies of late, independent sources of information, from pure amateurs to laid-off professional journalists, have propagated at a previously unforeseen rate.  By my count, even with constantly failing and lessening traditional media outlets, there is more competition for readers (and advertisers) than ever before.  A few less old-school newspapers or magazines isn’t going to change that.  In fact, newspapers currently control less than 1% of page views and time spent online. Even if they all closed up shop tomorrow, losing less than 1% of the market for information online would hardly be noticed.  If anything, it will further serve to embolden those of us out here who see the opportunity to play on the same field with the big boys, something that the massive financial burden of print has made virtually impossible in the past.

Of course, that ability for nearly everyone to compete on relatively equal footing is the root of the concern for the established industry.  They simply don’t know how to deal with competition that isn’t exactly like them.  I think it’s like the American Revolution and the battle tactics of the long-established and vastly superior (in manpower and resources) British Army against the upstart Colonists.  The British lost the war because they couldn’t adapt to changing circumstances.  For them, war meant two armies lining up on opposite sides of a field and trading volleys of fire until one side won out, traditionally the side with more raw material (i.e. soldiers) to spare.  The Colonists, on the other hand, took some key lessons from the Native Americans and refused to fight traditionally.  Hit and run guerrilla tactics were very successful against the stodgy British, and something they were institutionally unable to deal with.  We have the same situation today.  Legacy Media is the British lined up on one side of the field shooting off volleys of fire in the general direction of where they think the opposing force should be according to their world view.  But we’re crouched in the gullies, hiding in the trees, sneaking up from the flank and taking our shots where we can get them.  Superior resources have very little meaning in today’s media atmosphere, and things are trending toward further whittling away those resources, making things even more difficult and frustrating for the fading powers-that-be.

A relatively new front on this battle is the fight over internet search.  Traditional publishers are undertaking negotiations with Microsoft and their new search engine, Bing, with the intent being to fragment their material, taking away what they believe is some of the influence of Google. Maybe they will cut a favorable deal with Microsoft and have their material strictly indexed under Bing and not available through Google.  Maybe they’ll get everything they want; a nice fat licensing deal, and a search engine looking for a boost in market share willing to help them lock content behind pay walls.  But to what end?  This still ignores the fundamental issue at hand, as in the actual online behavior of readers.  Will people follow the Wall Street Journal to Bing?  Some might, possibly, but if those links lead only to a two-sentence excerpt and a credit card prompt, most won’t.  The basic inescapable fact of the matter is that people in large numbers don’t want to pay for subscriptions to general news sites and, when coming in contact with pay walls, will simply go elsewhere.  If Bing’s big draw is a contract with lots of links to legacy media pay sites, well then, that’s not really much of an attraction.  And the massive loss in traffic will gut online ad revenues.

They know this, too, that’s why there’s lots of big talk but no one will act because it only works when everyone colludes.  But even if all of the old-school legacy companies agree and all uniformly take this road, anti-trust issues aside, it still only serves to leave the booming independent online media an even bigger field to play in.  So, all you media titans out there, go ahead, take your ball and go home behind your pet search engine and your pay wall.  Please.

So what does all this mean?  It means anyone who’s interested in getting involved in the media should do so immediately.  Start a website, get yourself a nice little niche to cover and run with it.  There might not be much money in it today, but that will change.  Big media is a dying enterprise that seems somehow bent on self-annihilation.  And speaking as a writer, big media hasn’t been all that positive a force for us, anyway.  We had to make ourselves subservient when they completely controlled the lines of information and distribution.  And we were paid relative peanuts, by and large, for the material they only too readily gloat about.  But think about it.  One side of their mouths are talking about how great and valuable and irreplaceable their content is and the other side is firing the very people responsible for that by the truckloads.  To them, the content is valuable.  It’s just that the people who produce it aren’t.  We’ve long been seen as interchangeable pieces.  Why should we continue to give away our material, use our well-honed talents to make guys like Murdoch even more money while we wait and hope for a few crumbs to fall from his table?  We shouldn’t.  Not anymore.

Unlike any time in the past, the ability for individuals to reach mass numbers of people with little or no cost is a reality.  Start-ups, both online and in print, and a fragmentation of existing publishing companies back into many smaller, independents is the path to the future, not consolidation and protectionist efforts.  And whether big media likes it or not, the Colonists are here to stay and unless they want to be driven off the shores of our internet, they’ll figure out how to play along.  Otherwise, Bing just might end up as the search engine where old publishers go to die.

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