So, after another week of soul-searching, career re-invention tinkering on my part, I’ve started to develop my plans for what’s next. Don’t expect me to detail it at this point, just suffice it to say that before much longer, I’ll have something up and coming, something not currently being done by any of our local media in, hopefully, a new, and infinitely more useful way than the old days of what we had become accustomed to (or more accurately, settled for) before technology and the economy combined to lay its death blow on tradition and paying exorbitant prices for hard copy material that has lost both so much market share and effectiveness in the past decade. I’m excited, and with any luck, you will be too, businesses and readers alike. But for now, it’s hush, hush. Competition, you know. And to all of you who have replied to my previous call to action, thank you. It’s very encouraging to know that there are so many of you out there who are as fed up with the status quo as I am.
So, for a special Easter Sunday post, before I get to the ham, potato salad, deviled eggs and the butter pecan cake with coconut pecan frosting I made earlier this morning, here are a few links that I’ve been engrossed in reading during this long, holiday weekend. And isn’t the weather just grand, by the way? Can you believe that just 6 weeks or so ago, we were all armpit deep in snow?
I’ll begin with this one from a media-following pundit favorite of mine, Clay Shirky. This is an intriguing piece comparing the current disruption in long-standing publisher business models with a 1988 book by Joseph Tainter called the Collapse of Complex Societies. Basically, the gist is that there are times when resources are plentiful enough that institutions grow ever-more complex and all involved benefit from that complexity. But, eventually, the law of diminishing returns kicks in (this was a favorite phrase of an old boss of mine, by the way, when discussing circulation, print and distribution expenses and the quest for ever-larger advertiser pools) resources dwindle and those same complex institutions reach a point where their inflexibility causes them to collapse. It’s a very interesting parallel, and a strongly recommended read. I also happen to believe we’re at the starting point of that very collapse for publishers who’s vast, complex and expensive infrastructures make it all but impossible to downsize to a more manageable, digital age equivalent.
Here’s a brief snippet. See if you think this sounds like any industry you know:
“Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some. The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse.”
Which brings me to my next link. This one is a round up a state-of-the-media conference recently held in Japan. Like many such events held around the world over the past few years, a stark disconnect between established old-media types and emerging new media supporters was evident. Even in the face of direct statistics showing declining readership and advertising losses long before the current financial mess hit, the old-media folks still held to the belief that the problems currently be experienced are completely due to the economy and things will get back to normal when that finally turns around. They say that denial is one of the stages of grief, followed soon there-after by bargaining, which in current publisher lingo means paywalls. “If people will just pay for this stuff, then we don’t really need to change what we do or how we do it.”
These guys, like their American and British counterparts, also hold to the belief that charging for online access will solve the problems of the web for publishers despite the fact that there is almost no evidence to support that assertion, and ample evidence that directly contradicts it. Shirky touched on this point in his piece, as well, with guys like Rupert Murdoch, et al virtually begging people to pony up when the reality of the web is that they don’t have to because the information you’re hocking is available in many other places at no cost. Their Japanese counterparts even exhibited the same dismissive attitude toward the new democratization of information on the internet, snidely commenting on key social networking elements like Twitter and Facebook. What was that line I printed earlier about elites resisting change to the point of collapse?
And here’s another one. In this piece, the author details nicely how publishers sat on their hands and watched the strengths they had cultivated for decades subverted and outright swiped out from under them by elements of the internet culture. He even has a nice little chart showing point for point how each of the formerly useful newspaper sections can now be more than adequately found online with much less hassle, cost and waste than buying the printed paper. He even points out how the last bastion of usefulness for the newspaper, detailed local coverage, is quickly being eaten up by digital equivalents while they continue to cut corners and increasingly use much cheaper, canned material to fill the space between their dwindling number of ads. Again, inflexibility and collapse. Get it yet?
Even when publishers do try to adapt, they are still running into the same resistance from the reading (what they seem to irrationally believe are also the buying) public. Just look at this. Apple’s new iPad sales have been off the charts thus far, but are the people buying them lining up for the new subscriber-based paid apps that media companies have been hailing as a potential savior? Nope. This shows pretty clearly that it’s the free apps that people are sucking up. People will happily buy the new platforms, but if you don’t make the content compelling, they’re still not going to pay. And adding some fancy graphical bells and whistles to dress up the same old stuff they didn’t want to pay for in the first place isn’t going to get it done. Just how many times do publishers need to learn the same lessons before it sinks in? Apparently, they haven’t reached that number yet. Of course, when they do, there’s liable to be so many digital-native businesses out there who caught on long ago that reclaiming even a small portion of their former market share might just be impossible.
And that’s the one bright side of the collapse. It opens up a much bigger field for the rest of us not hung up on yesterday. Happy Easter!