Back To The Past: Is the iPad a new revolution or a return to locked down media control?

Everybody loves the iPad.  The first weekend of availability produced 300,000 units sold and over a millions apps downloaded, according to Apple.  It’s a God-send, and we’ll all benefit infinitely from its arrival, everyone says.  Well, not quite everyone.  There’s a segment of people out there who are voicing a concern, justifiably so, in my opinion, that the iPad is a step backward from open and interactive internet to locked-down, strictly consumer controls of the past.  Here’s media pundit Jeff Jarvis’ take on the matter. He makes some very cogent points, the most important of which is his reasoning that big media is getting behind the iPad because its very nature turns the audience back into strictly consumers under their control again.  And if you don’t believe that there are many people within the media business who would like to put the web genie back in the lamp, and do away with the new-found freedoms everyone has with regards to controlling and creating their own content today, you’re kidding yourself.  Will it work?  In a word, no, but that’s not going to stop them from trying because they’ve had a decade and a half to figure out how to adapt to the changes in the marketplace and still can’t get out of their own out-dated business model thinking.

Here’s a quote:

“So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.”

Now, here’s another similar point of view from writer Cory Doctorow. He, also, makes some very nice points in the same vein, about how the iPad is a device designed to stifle some of the very freedoms that have opened the web to all of us and made it so very useful.  The part I like most is his reference to the Marvel Comics iPad app and how it transitions us away from some of the very behaviors that the comic book business was built on in the first place, namely the ability to share.  With this app, you can buy comics in a digital version, but you can’t transfer them, can’t share them, can’t give them to your fiends, can’t resell them, can’t do anything except the few limited things Marvel allows you to.  He talks a bit about the old days of pouring through comic book stores racks of back issues and used comics, and how that helped not only expand the business to other people, but made it all that much more exciting to its fans.

I’ve often had a similar feeling with regards to digital music and movies.  Over the years, I’ve spent a small fortune buying CDs and DVDs, amassing large collections of each.  The one positive to all this was that, in occasional periods of hard times, I could sell off some of my inventory to pay the  bills.  I did this about a year and a half ago, for instance, parting ways with a sizable number of DVDs because I needed the money.  With these kinds of new digital age products, the entire after market ceases to exist because, even though we actually have paid for these products, we don’t actually own them.  We are allowed to use them, per the terms big media sets, but that is all.  Anything else is deemed infringement and is probably illegal.  This is an enormous step backwards  that takes away much of the power of the consumer, not to mention that it does direct harm to the creators.  Big media companies have never seen the value inherent in the after-market for their products, primarily because they weren’t getting a direct cut of the pie.  But that exposure and availability of used material opened up their products to a wider audience, expanding the pool of fans and product consumers for their next release.  These kinds of limitations destroy that after-market, and with it, a significant portion of the potential business in the future.  But in order to appreciate those affects, you have to be able to see past the immediate point of sale value of today to long-term brand value.  Most media just doesn’t get that.

I often cite The Grateful Dead when I talk about this kind of stuff.  The Dead built their legacy on the open and free distribution of bootleg copies of concert recordings made by their own fans, hauling their own recording equipment into shows, and traded freely in the parking lot.  The Dead didn’t find success because of any great recording industry marketing machine, but from a vast network of fans who spread the word on their own in a network of community that any internet junkie today would be proud of.  With the kinds of restrictions on recordings that are being foisted on us today, that never would have been possible.  And that’s the way Big Media likes it.  After all, total control of distribution is how they make their money.

Here’s a quote from Doctorow:

“So what does Marvel do to “enhance” its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvelous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites.”

In essence, the iPad may be a cool little gadget.  It may be a nice way to consume content, in much the same way you consume content on your television or used to with your CD player, but in that sense, it’s not really progress, but is, in fact, a high-tech means of transitioning back to models that were important two decades ago.  Will it be popular?  Seems like its started out well, but is it something that’s going to forever change us back from an innovative, self-creating culture that the web has propagated to one where we just buy what the media companies see fit to sell us?  I don’t think so.  Besides, as I’ve pointed out before, technology is advancing far faster than most of us can keep up.  Today’s iPad is tomorrow’s coffee table coaster, soon to be replaced by something else that takes the best of what it offers and builds upon it.  And that creation will be specifically in opposition to the controls, not because of them.  That’s as it should be.

As one final note, here is a take by Alan Mutter on what publishers can do to benefit from the iPad. It’s some things I’ve heard before, and he ends with this point:

“Publishers who want to take full advantage of the iPad will have to do better by creating content that is media-rich, interactive, viral, transactional and mobile. In other words, this is no time to cut corners.”

While I agree with much of what he has to say, I can’t help but think that this is the same old song and dance for publishers. It started with websites years ago when publishers just dumped their print material onto their sites to their own detriment and all the pundits said, “You have to do things differently than you always have.”

Then it was mobile devices, smart phones, etc., and they created apps that just dumped the same material onto your phones, and the pundits said, “You have to do things differently than you always have.”

Now it’s the iPad and the like, and publishers are following the same pattern.  He references the Wall Street Journal’s app, which is little more than an electronic version of the paper, and  I read an article that sited Time Magazine yesterday, who’s iPad app was basically a PDF of the magazine, and so on.  I’ve even seen some people hailing the iPad’s effect of making a page in an eBook actually look like its turning as a good thing rather than a cheap attempt to imitate yesterdays material.  And in many circles, the pundits are already saying, “You have to do things differently than you always have.”

As transformative as this new toy may end up being, by this time next year, we’ll be two or three generations beyond it, and I’ll be willing to bet the pundits will still be saying to publishers, “You have to do things differently than you always have.”

An Easter Roundup

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!

Let’s Get Started. The Future Is Our’s To Make

Anybody out there want to get something started?  This is a call to anyone and everyone interested in exploring some of the possibilities of the new emerging media landscape.

For a long time now, we’ve been saddled with a somewhat ineffective and unresponsive media more concerned with its own ability to generate nice working margins for its corporate masters than any particular use or value to us, the people who buy, read and pay to advertise in their products.  I’ll be the first to tell you that the last five years have been brutal for traditional media.  In the past, I’ve mentioned how this half-decade has seen the industry itself contract to the tune of nearly half its size.  And with that, we’ve seen deeper and deeper cuts to the very elements that attracted us to them in the first place.  And let me ask, how many of you were satisfied with the performance of these publications before this happened?

I can recall hearing complaints about some of our local print entities for as long as I’ve been able to read.  At this point, how much legitimate long-term value do they still have?  And how much longer will they be able to maintain even that lessened state at the current and still-ongoing rate of loss?  Even the most optimistic projections are expecting quarterly losses well into the double digits for at least the rest of this year, and probably longer if some magic pill doesn’t arrive and fix our ailing economy and somehow manages to re-sell everyone on print advertising at the previous rate structure that has lost so much of its luster due to new, different, much more efficient and significantly cheaper alternatives.

Like it or not, our newspaper and publication industry is nearly entirely dependent on advertising to support its high cost structure, and advertising and marketing opportunities and getting more plentiful every day, and that pressure is driving the pricing structure consistently downward.  Even if the ads return, which is far from guaranteed, they won’t be at the prices they had been in the past, which means even more salespeople will need to be hired, even more ads will need to be sold, even more pages printed and distributed, and even deeper cutbacks in non-direct revenue generating areas like content necessary just to stay in business.  This is the very definition of a death spiral, ladies and gentlemen, and barring some great unforeseen savior, such as the sudden ability to print reams of material completely free of charge, there’s no stopping it.

And make no mistake, the reason why these large publishers haven’t already migrated to more mobile, internet dependent formats is because they can’t.  The costs are far too divergent for any kind of transition to be practical.  Basically, it would be more useful to shut the place down, sell off anything not nailed down, and start over than to do any kind of effective migration.  These are business people, after all.  If they could have pulled this off, they already would have.  How many industries have you seen lose half of its business inside of five years and not respond in any meaningful way other than cut expenses and try to wait it out?  Well, industries that didn’t ultimately end up shuttering the doors, anyway?  To me, it’s like standing on the deck of a sinking boat and hooking up a bilge pump, hoping it can pump the water out faster than its pouring into the massive gash in the bottom of the hull.  It may hold out for a while, but eventually, that pump will burn up and down you go.

So, as a community, we’re left with a choice of continuing to support fading institutions or doing something about it.  Me, I’m on the side of doing something.  Which is why I’m looking for anyone who might be interested in joining in.  And by anyone, I mean anyone.  Writers, artists, graphic designers, photographers, videographers, musicians, salespeople, financial backers, businesses, civic groups, government organizations;  anyone, professional or otherwise.  All that’s needed is some enthusiasm, a desire to explore what’s coming next, and a belief that you can bring something useful to the table.

For a long time, the local paper has done its best to represent the community, sometimes more successfully than others.  But in the past couple of decades, there have been some unfortunate occurrences for publishing that have left many of us without a key element in our lives, or at least the leftover remnants of what once was.  The first was the trend of media consolidation that gobbled up so many of our local institutions, turning them from unique, responsible members of our communities into cookie-cutter money-makers for the giant corporate entity that owned them.  And these large monsters didn’t just buy up one or two papers, they bought up papers throughout entire regions, controlling the main means of communication for millions of people without even the slightest thought to us other than the revenue we could generate for them, revenue sapped from our local communities to the corporate office sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The second problem is the emergence of the internet as a direct competitor for communication.  Certainly, not everyone is wired in yet, but the possibilities are virtually boundless.  And much like previous technologies such as telephone and electricity service, high-speed internet is quickly becoming a utility in its own right, soon available to all, and very likely soon without the massive infrastructure in wires linking everyone.  This has changed the entire ballgame.  And unless we want the coverage and information of our communities to disappear along with the newspapers when their failing business model finally dies, and the giant corporate institutions discard them and move on to the next industry to rape and pillage for profit, now is the time to do something about it.

I don’t like seeing newspapers reach this point anymore that you do.  I have been a dedicated reader for years.  I used to stop at the small convenience store in my neighborhood growing up to buy a paper every morning before going to school.  It’s why I started working in the field I did; I was so proud the first time my name was on a byline in an actual printed publication.  But even I can’t leave the blinders on any longer.  As much as I would like for newspapers to reclaim their positions of the past, I can’t ignore reality.  They are obsolete, becoming more so with each passing day and improvement in technology.  And what’s worse, they’re expensive to produce, and almost solely dependent on a revenue source that itself is moving on to other ways of doing things.  We can either climb aboard the sinking vessel and pointlessly help them bail, or build a better boat.

So, think about it.  If you are a creative sort of person, the possibilities for things that can now be done must excite you.  If you are a business, the possibilities to better promote what you do has to be attractive, especially with declining ready cash to pay for expensive print ads that are producing less and less value for your money.  If you are someone who simply wants to know about the things going on in your community, the possibility of a genuinely open and engaging world of information must seem like a dream come true.  So many things have changed lately, and so many more are yet to come.  If we don’t want to be left behind, we have to build the future for ourselves.  Lord knows the government’s not going to do it, the corporate publishers aren’t going to do it, no one is going to do it if we don’t step up.

So drop me a line to watershedchronicle@yahoo.com.  The future is just waiting for those who want to take it.  Otherwise, all we’ll be left with is the hollowed out shells of what used to work yesterday.  Think about it, and let me know.  All are welcome.

Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 4:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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