Three Reasons Why SOPA Must Be Stopped (and why something like it is probably inevitable)

image Tomorrow is the day that a sizable portion of the internet is going black in protest of the egregiously bad, supposedly anti-piracy legislation SOPA. I thought I’d throw my thinking on the subject out there to kick off the much-needed protests.

There are three main reasons why I believe it’s imperative that SOPA, and its Senate equivalent PIPA, be stopped dead in its tracks. Just to be clear, my reasons have nothing to do with so-called piracy. For one thing, as I’ve repeatedly asserted, what’s being defined as piracy by the various media industries is anything but and, secondly, this legislation does absolutely nothing to prevent the real thing. Unless, of course, you consider making the whole of the web totally useless to the vast majority of people a means of fighting piracy. In that case, it’s certain to be wonderfully effective.

Reason 1- SOPA epitomizes the reality that Americans are no longer represented by our government

There is absolutely nothing in SOPA that benefits your average American at all. It is a bill who’s entire purpose is to shelter the media industry at the expense of the whole of the nation. It will cost jobs, it will stifle free speech, it will wipe out competition to legacy monopolies and directly lead to higher costs for just about everything. About the only thing it won’t do is stop piracy. No one outside of disrupted media companies thinks this is a good idea. If this bill were put up for a general referendum vote, it would lose by a landslide of epic proportions. On top of all that, the entirety of the tech industry is virtually unanimous that SOPA will threaten the very fundamental foundations of how the internet functions.

So, with so much destructive possibility and so much united opposition, how is this bill even still alive? One word–graft. Our legislative process is horribly compromised. The one and only reason SOPA exists is because media companies and similar entities have dumped millions upon millions of dollars on representatives’ doorsteps through lobbying and campaign contributions. The will of the people has become almost totally meaningless in the face of this kind of obvious purchasing of government favors. This detatchment between the interests of the people and the legalized bribery of the U.S. Congress is, alone, reason enough to stomp it out.

Reason 2- SOPA provides a framework for media companies to reconstitute their monopolies and eliminate wide swaths of independent competition

One of the worst aspects of SOPA is that is puts the onus for monitoring potentially infringing content on the host sites. This means that sites that use significant user-generated content will have to either pre-scan virtually everything posted there or face severe consequences if so much as a bad link slips through. The cost of this requirement will be prohibitive. But then, I suspect that’s the point. There’s even been several venture capital firms who have come out and said, in no uncertain terms, that if a bill like SOPA becomes law, they will no longer put so much as a dime toward any internet startups. That’s sure to do wonders for our struggling economy.

This imperative will make it significantly more difficult and expensive to operate social networking sites or any sites with independent content from users. It could, conceivably, kill popular services like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, blogging hosts like WordPress, even self-publishing options at sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble would be at risk. Eliminate or significantly increase the barriers for entry for independent content on the web and guess who benefits? The very media companies lobbying so hard for this bill.

The consequences of being linked to infringing content could be expensive and severe. Worse yet, there’s almost no due process in the proposed system at all, and the entire burden falls on the host to prove innocence after the penalties have already been handed down. Given that some media companies barely admit fair use even exists (at one point, the Associated Press said that quoting as little as four words from one of their articles required a license fee) this is a system that seems almost designed for abuse.

Nothing threatens the future of media companies more than the new-found capacity of independent content creators to market and distribute their work. Eliminate or severely hamper the sites or services they use, and traditional media companies effectively wipe out that threat. SOPA has nothing to do with piracy and everything to do with stifling or outright eliminating competition.

Reason 3- SOPA provides a legal framework and process for goverment to stifle opposition and dissent

The past year has seen several remarkable developments in the capacity of citizens to organize in opposition of their governments. The Arab Spring, protests in Europe and the Occupy movement here are all clear examples. It is significantly more difficult for propoganda to go unchallenged than at anytime in history. If you don’t believe these developments are of the utmost concern to governments around the world, including our own, you’re kidding yourself.

The same provisions of SOPA that benefit media companies by squashing independent content also benefit any government looking to deceive or control its people. This bill would provide effective legal cover for our government to stifle dissent and make it much more difficult for citizens to exercise our Constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and assembly.

And consider, when the legacy media once again controls the message, how we are informed, or even if we are, comes into question. If you need any proof of the dangers of allowing legacy media to control the conversation solely once again, look no further than their performance on SOPA itself and the equally questionable NDAA act recently signed into law. These are enormously important issues that threaten the fundamental nature of liberty and our nation yet they have both been largely ignored by the mainstream press. And once the media is given that control back thanks to this government regulation, what are the chances that they’ll significantly challenge anything it does in the future? Their very existence would depend on government stifling legitimate competition. Not only would the media industries be corrupting government by buying this legislation, they’d be compromising themselves by becoming dependent for survival on government regulation.

I can’t imagine a worse turn of events. Freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly all hindered dramatically and further cementing in place a system representative of the highest bidder over the best interest of the people.

Any one of these three reasons would be ample justification to kill SOPA and anything like it. Taken together, there can be absolutely no doubt that this effort needs to die a quick and dirty death.

Unfortunately, these very same reasons are why I’m almost certain a version of this will reach the President’s desk at some point, my guess being after the November election. The media companies will continue to throw massive amounts of money at representatives. Their only alternative is to adapt and compete in the current atmosphere, which many of them have already proven unwilling or unable. Their very survival may depend on changing the nature of the game, consequences to the rest of us be damned.

Government will continue to have a double motive. They will suck up all the money they can in lobbying and contributions. And as people get louder and louder in their discontent with the status quo, as is sure to happen, their motivation to stifle organization and dissent will only increase.

No, it will take a massive sea change in our government to prevent something like SOPA from becoming law eventually. Of course, this kind of far-reaching, self-serving and imminently destructive legislation may be the final impetus that spurs that much-needed change. We can only hope.

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What’s It All About? Occupy Wall Street confusing to status quo supporters

Apparently, the media pundits haven’t yet gotten on board with the notion that the average American is currently pissed off about everything!  The people protesting in New York and around the country are showing their contempt for a system and a status quo that is totally corrupt from the top down on all levels, and the best our supposedly free press can come up with is confusion about why they don’t have a specific, detailed list of policy demands for them to dissect to death and to the point of total irrelevance like they do with everything else in their sheltered, talking points little world.

NPR says they’re not bothering to cover it because they aren’t enough people, and no one of significance involved.  That should tell you all you need to know right there.  Regular people are pissed at the political class, but their anger doesn’t merit attention unless some of those same politicians show up to co-opt and neuter the whole movement, you know, like what happened to the Tea Party.  Regular people don’t count or merit press attention, I suppose.  Somewhere between 700 and 1,000 protesters were arrested during a march yesterday.  Is that enough people yet?

The whole damn system is obviously broken, but apparently, unless your protests kiss the system’s ass and play by their crooked rules, you don’t get attention.  The last poll I saw showed the approval rating of Congress at a whopping 12%.  12%!  That’s roughly similar to the approval rating for watersports (and I’m not talking about skiing) or old Pauly Shore movies.  What good are specific policy demands when the entire process for enacting them has been corrupted beyond repair?

Another poll recently showed 65% of Republicans support raising taxes on the rich.  In congressional terms, that’s called a super majority.  Two thirds of your party supports it, you would think there would be
a large GOP group in congress getting behind the idea.  But nope, good luck finding even one.  Representative democracy my ass.

Read full article on Living With The Apocalypse

The Flood Waters Are Rising For The Media

So this morning, during my internet perusing, I ran across this, Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacomm, making the bold prediction that the ink business, led by Rupert Murdoch, will be out of business in two years.  Following a rather lengthy diatribe about Murdoch, Redstone continued his description of print media as a dead man walking, then put this little gem out there:   “Ink is going to go away, and movies and television will be here forever, like me.”  Nothing like blind devotion to your job while ripping someone else’s.  I was going to argue that his prediction of print’s demise in two years was just wrong (I give it at least five, maybe ten if you’re a magazine), but then I got to reading about the Nashville floods.  You know, the answer to the question what would happen if there was a major national catastrophe and no one came?

Oddly, the national media largely ignored this event for several days, leading to a pretty significant outcry from people there who might be able to use a little help of the sort generated by massive media efforts in New Orleans, Haiti and various other natural disaster scourged places around the globe.  When Katrina hammered New Orleans, I readily lined up with those who criticized George W. Bush for the slow response to the obvious devastation.  Well, the media deserves just as much criticism for ignoring this story.

It apparently got so concerning that someone even started a Facebook page entitled “Hey National Media- Where are you while Nashville is flooding?” With all of the reading up on media I’ve done in the past year, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people in the business express the opinion that our media is of vital importance, that our entire democratic society would crumble without it.   In this day and age of almost instantaneous communication, how it’s even possible for the mainstream press to sleep on this story for a matter of days is beyond reasoning.  I mean, are they truly this out of touch?

You have guys talking out of one side of their face about how valuable the media is, justifying their continued existence now that their business model is suffering.  But when you get scooped by the Fugly Horse of the Day blog, I think that pretty much has to call into question the validity of your entire enterprise.  One of the people who posted on the Facebook page showed another problem the press has today, they just don’t have people’s attention like they used to.  “This flood destroyed much of the areas that were home to me for five years and I found out from Facebook instead of the news.”  And how exactly are paywalls, subscriptions and iPad aps supposed to fix this glaring hole in their plan?  It seems pretty clear to me at this point that the media seems to exist in a world outside of where people actually are.  Look at it this way, newspapers are for sale at the local convenience store.  What happens when a string of new stores opens on every other block in your neighborhood, but the newspapers only stay available in the one?  For an industry that relies on exposure for everything from single-copy sales to setting ad rates, this is very, very bad.

So I set out to argue against the premise that print only has two years of life left in it, and I think I may have come to agree with that.  Maybe Redstone isn’t as crazy as he seems after all.  Of course, his precious television hasn’t handled its business any better than the papers.  He may be right after all, just too limited in his scope.  The ink business, as he called it, is indeed in trouble, but television and possibly even movies, may not be far behind.  Just ask the market dominant recording labels.  Well, you could, if there were any left.

And to close, here’s another one.  If you haven’t heard, and you probably have because Wall Street took a nosedive on this news, so the mainstream media was all over it, unlike Nashville, The European Union just bailed out Greece to the tune of $145 billion.  Big deal, I say, we gave more to GM.  But, apparently, this could be the beginning of a possibly major financial meltdown in Europe, with Italy, Portugal and Spain all potentially lining up to be the next EU country saved from collapse.   Some have even suggested that this could signal the end for the Euro as currency.  This, of course, being the Euro that everyone had been dumping money into because the dollar looked weak not so long ago.

Anyway, here’s a roundup of the bailout that appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network website.  Why site the story on the CBN, you ask?  Well, the entire piece reads very gloom and doom for Europe, until the end, when the writer, almost gleefully, closes with this:  “Still, Europe’s misery will mean good things for the U.S economy: attracting more capital, strengthening the dollar, lowering interest rates and the price of oil.”  What a very Christian thing to say.  Sure, Europe’s heading to fiscal collapse way worse than our own, but at least we’ll benefit from it.

Musings on the Future of Advertising

So, in my contemplations of upcoming events, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about advertising; namely what exactly is it and how does it work?  We have this long-standing image of advertising as little boxed-off squares printed in the daily paper or your favorite magazine, or as the sometimes annoying-sometimes amusing interruptions in our favorite television shows.  There are other forms of advertising; billboards, radio, bumper stickers, tee shirts, flyers tacked up on telephone poles, etc.  Some work better than others, and some cost significantly more than others, but it’s the image of the print ad or the TV commercial that has reaped the lion’s share of the reward for providing marketing possibilities to people and businesses.  Unfortunately for both of those platforms, the emergence of the internet as a competing platform for information–and infinitely more expansive, convenient and, in many cases, cheaper competitor–has eroded the audience for their core advertising platforms.

With all the talk of the poor economy, and it’s responsibility for the fall-off in revenue from these two groups, among others, there’s very little talk from within them that the reason revenue is declining may have more to do with the fact that their products simply don’t attract the same number of people as they used to, and as such, the marketing advantage they used to sell so extensively–and often, exclusively–has eroded.  Certainly, some people are walking away from advertising because of the poor economy, and being bank-account challenged, but a large portion may well have more to do with the basic reality that your print ad just isn’t making the phone ring like it used to.  Looking to complicated explanations for the decline, like trying to gauge the economy, can be a convenient excuse to avoid a truth you don’t really want to hear.  All along, advertising only sells at the price structure it does because the people paying for those ads had the expectation of gaining that money back in sales, and significantly more over time.  But what happens when the results no longer meet the cost?  This is the question publishers should be asking, instead of whether paywalls that will further cut the number of people in your viewing audience, or an iPad app that, if designed to, will keep the paying user confined within the little slice of the internet the publisher wants them in, are the keys to the future.

I talked about this a bit last week here, where I essentially challenged the notion that replicating advertising from the forms of existing media, as in video snippets and boxed chunks of space with a logo and an address in it, are really the best way to take advantage of this new medium, be it at the desktop or on you phone.  After all, while the marketers revel in their targeted metrics, technology that keeps their well-placed ads at bay keeps progressing, as well.  And exactly how much annoyance will people put up with if alternatives sans the crush of ads continue to exist, which they undoubtedly will.  And if there’s any single trait that we should be aware of in 21st century America, it’s that people will go along with anything they think has some value at the moment just so long as they aren’t inconvenienced.  Make those special ads too intrusive or too much of a pain, and people will walk.

Some very intelligent people are working on this problem, but still, we haven’t seen the revolution in the forms of advertising that we’ve seen in the means of distributing information.  The smart money should be on the folks who figure this out, how to provide the traditional benefit of advertising using the new realities and tools we possess, which are far, far different from the previous platforms, in a way that can turn a sustainable profit.  Someone will get it, eventually.  I see bits and pieces of progress nearly every day.  But the days of selling the equivalent of that 3 column by 5 inch block who’s most difficult decision is whether to buy spot or process color have passed.  Slightly adapting that form to new media isn’t getting the job done.  We need to throw out the forms altogether and invent new ones.  Then, and only then, will we see truly viable online business models for much of what publishing does so well.

Published in: on April 17, 2010 at 4:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Future? Who wants the future, we’d rather stay in the past

So let’s talk a bit about the future.  There’s a few things going on today in the publishing world.  One is yet another convention of talking heads discussing the how’s and why’s of what we should do next.  This might have been a practical exercise five years ago, but at what point do you shut the hell up and actually do something?  And what’s this twirling landscape of redundant talking heads called, you ask?  Well, it’s the ASNE NewsNow Big Ideas Summit. What’s the old joke about the term “military intelligence” being a contradiction in terms?  A newspapers editor’s group meeting with “big ideas” in the name probably meets that same level of skepticism for most.  After all, if the newspaper industry had any genuine big ideas, you’d think they’d have rolled them out before losing half their business in the past four years.  Besides, the only big ideas I’d heard from newspaper people lately have been about cutting expenses and holding on until the economy gets better.  That’s not a big idea, that’s business model suicide.

One highlight of the conference so far was Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s speech.  Google, as we all know now, is the great Satan to the news industry because, according to them, linking steals our business.  Of course, it’s a business the newspaper industry wasn’t really trying to get in the first place before Google and others  started making big money on it, but don’t let that get in the way of a good scapegoat.  Schmidt had lots of fine and complimentary things to say about newspapers, of course.  After all, if he had said what he really thought, this group might have stoned him to death.  Even still, you can practically hear the snickering underlying his comments.  Here’s a couple good ones:

“I love newspapers. I love of reading them — that when you’re finished, you’re done, and you know what’s going on.”

Translated:  You’re done, and then you can get online, do a Google search and find out what’s been going on in the 24 hours since you printed your limited and outdated info.

“We’re not in the news business, and I’m not here to tell you how to run a newspaper. We are computer scientists. And trust me, if we were in charge of the news, it would be incredibly accurate, incredibly organized, and incredibly boring. There is an art to what you do. And if you’re ever confused as to the value of newspaper editors, look at the blog world. That’s all you need to see.”

Translated: That’s all you need to see, because with a Google search, people can be their own editors and find all the info they want in far more detail than you’re shrinking news-hole allows.  Sure, you’re an artist.  A soon to be starving one.  And I’m not going to tell you how to run a  newspaper because we make billions of dollars, and newspapers are a sinking ship.  Why in the name of all things holy would I want to do that?

“A Ralph Waldo Emerson quote is, “Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions; life is an experiment.” On the Internet, there is never a single solution…. The fact of the matter is there are no simple solutions to these complex problems. And in order to really find them, we’re going to have to run lots of experiments.”

Translated:  So quit bitching about me, get off your lazy asses and do something already.

Not to be outdone, and never missing a chance to chime in with some anti-Google rhetoric of his own, everybody’s favorite media mogul Rupert Murdoch made an appearance at the National Press Club where he threw out this little gem:

“When asked how he would overcome public attitudes against paying for most online news, Murdoch replied: “I think when they’ve got nowhere else to go they’ll start paying and if it’s reasonable—no one’s going to ask for a lot of money.”

Uh-huh.  Okay.  And given the fact that the amount of information being generated independently from traditional news organizations on the web is growing exponentially by the day, when exactly will that rosy online world where you’re the only game in town come about?  This should tell you all you need to know about how Rupert views the internet.  If he had his way, he would limit available information to only a few sources, thereby forcing all of us to pay for it.  By the way, if that did, in some mythical fantasy land where it was even possible, come to be, does anyone actually buy that a news publisher like Murdoch with an online monopoly wouldn’t be charging as much as he possibly could, being that, as he puts, you don’t really have a choice?

I’ll close here with some more excellent analysis from Alan Mutter. In this piece, Mutter shows have newspaper’s online sales have grown at a much smaller rate than online spending overall.  Worse still, being the self-professed bastion of news to the world, their percentage of the online ad market is a measly 11% and, much like its print counterparts, falling.

The entire piece is well worth a read, as it discusses the ways in which the industry largely missed the boat on virtually every possibility to get into a market that they seemingly should have dominated from the get-go.  He closes with this, which, to me, sums things up nicely:

“Given that there is no shortage of intelligence and talent at America’s newspapers, the only explanation for the industry’s failure to embrace the new paradigm is that it really did not want to change.”

Of course, given the massive cutbacks and layoffs, some might question whether that intelligence and talent he refers to is still in abundance, but his conclusion is dead on.  And it wasn’t the people with those traits that led them down the garden path to irrelevance, anyway; it was the management structure protecting past glory over what is increasingly looking like any possibility of a future at all.

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 4:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Publishing Links For Today: Ad Annoyance and Litigation Abounds

Here are a couple themes for today:  One is the premise that improving ad spending online is simply a matter of changing the conditions.  And the other is increased legal challenges that protect larger media companies but work to the detriment of the rest of us, their customers.

Right upon the heels of unveiling the largely popular iPad, and a new operating system for the iPhone, Apple has rolled out an ad service platform called iAd. Basically, this is a pretty self-serving attempt to eat away at Google’s dominance in online advertising dollars.  Here’s a quote:

“In his presentation, (Apple CEO) Steve Jobs expressed a sentiment that even many mobile ad evangelists concede as well: “We think most of the mobile advertising really sucks. We thought we might be able to make some contributions.”

But the main contribution Jobs is talking about involves making the iPhone app experience a little less vexing. As Apple explains in its release, when users click on mobile ads, they’re almost always taken out of their app to a web browser, which loads the advertiser’s site. Most of the time, that process completely cuts users off from what they were originally doing in the app. So, iAd’s solution is to offer advertisers a full-screen video and interactive ad content without ever leaving the app, and letting users return to their app anytime they choose.”

Makes sense, but leaves out the one little sticking point that I have never been able to get past:  Readers actually have to click on an ad for it to be of any use.  As we’ve seen with so many of the advancements in technology over the past decade or so, people don’t like ads.  And they especially don’t like them we’re they’re shoved in your face.  DVR’s became so popular so fast largely because it allowed viewers to cut out the commercial breaks.  Personally, I’ve moved on to watching TV shows on DVD or in other digital means simply because the experience is far, far superior without the intruding block of ads every ten minutes or so.

We also saw it with pop-up ads, as web browsers starting building in blockers specifically to head off those annoying little things before they even opened.  The reason the cost rate for online ads has been steadily dropping is not because of a lack of possible customers, but because very few people actually click on the ads, or even recognize that they are there.  Advertising worked so well in outdated models like print because we couldn’t avoid it.  The new platforms allow us, the reading, consuming public, before-unheard of power to stay away from annoying advertising.  Like most industries today, the internet has forced what should be a shift from the way things used to be done for advertisers.  But has it?

Read any article anywhere about online advertising, and all anyone is talking about is better targeted ads, that is companies harvesting your personal browsing data so they can throw ads for things they think you might want at you at every turn.  Does anyone out there really think people want that?  How many people are going to leave an iPad app they are currently using to click on a full page distraction of an ad, no matter how flashy and interactive it is?  Superbowl commercials are the holy grail of advertising, sometimes seeming almost a bigger show than the game itself, but if the audience actually had a choice between watching a random camera sweep over the crowd or the newest Pepsi commercial, what percentage do you think would actually choose the commercials?  This is a major problem.  Times have changed.  When people want a product, they’ll look for it.  Experience and technology have proven time and again, that when given the opportunity, people would avoid ads in a far larger percentage than will welcome them, no matter how targeted they are.  Advertisers, like publishers, had better adjust and soon, or else they’ll end up spending large amounts of money on promotion that really is just going in the pockets of the people selling you the platform.

My second point for today is about lawsuits.  There are two that caught my attention recently.  The first is a legal challenge ensuing over Great Britain’s recently passed Digital Economy Act.  I’ve touched on this previously here. To it’s credit, a major ISP in England, Talk Talk, has come out strongly opposed to some of the provisions in the new law, specifically those requiring the disconnection of service for people accused of copyright infringement.  I had a problem with this as well, primarily because it puts the burden of proof on the accused to show that they are innocent.  Here’s a quote from Talk Talk:

“If we are instructed to disconnect an account due to alleged copyright infringement we will refuse to do so and tell the rights holders we’ll see them in court.”

Here, here.  If only all companies had the balls to stand up to this kind of legislation bought and paid for by industry to protect its own interests at everyone else’s expense.

Speaking of which, the movie rental kiosk operator Redbox has recently filed suit against Universal Studios and Twentieth Century Fox on the studios’ new policy of requiring the $1 rental places to withhold new releases for 28 days, ostensibly to support flagging DVD sales.  The online, mail-order rental company Netflix, unfortunately has acquiesced to this demand, making me glad I canceled my subscription a while ago.  The wait for new releases was bad enough as it was, but adding an extra month to it, when you can still, inexplicably, rent them same day at actual brick and mortar stores like Blockbuster, makes that monthly subscription fee a whole lot less useful.  Reportedly, Netfilx negotiated a big discount from the studios, on the level of 50%, for agreeing to the delay.  No word on whether they’ll be cutting their subscription price, though, to accommodate the real victims of this policy, their customers.  Don’t bet on it.

At the heart of this matter is the belief that the inexpensive rental places are undermining DVD sales.  Like the music industry before it, the studios don’t seem to get the shift in how people consume their products.  They seem to believe that forcing people to pay high DVD prices will suddenly bring back the profits they’ve lost due to the changing habits of its customer base.  Not only won’t this work, but as happened with music, it’s likely to alienate their own customers, leading to further sales declines.  But then, they’ll find someone else to blame.  As is the case with all media companies in the face of declining profits and revenue, it’s everyone else’s fault but their own.

Beware of Fatal Distractions

I was talking to my sister the other day, and she found herself in a bit of a quandry.  For the past three years, she’s put considerable time and effort preparing for a course of action that would lead to her future.  Then, only days from cementing that move down the path, an email appeared out of seeming thin air that offered a different path, one that, on its surface, looked to be attractive, possibly more so than the one she was all-too-ready to take.  “So what should I do?”  she asked.  My answer to her was , “Ignore it.  It’s an illusion.”

How do I know that, you might ask?  Well, because I am fresh from making a similar choice myself, and I did pick the path that appeared out of nowhere at the last minute, and it ended up being, undoubtedly, a distraction.  Let me explain.

I picked up the term Fatal Distraction from this piece I read online a week or so ago. In it, Salon CEO Richard Gingras used the term to describe the iPad’s allure to publishers:  “I think the iPad is a fatal distraction for publishers. They have this view that it will save them and help bring back the old model. That’s not going to happen.” When I read that, I couldn’t help but compare it to my current experience.

Almost a year ago to the day, I was preparing to head down a new path.  I had been working toward it for quite a while, and was quite literally a few days from making the final preparations, putting out the cash for the initial expenses and moving in the direction where I best thought my future would be found.  Then, out of the blue, I got the phone call.  “Would you like to come do some work for us?” I was asked, by a publication in my previous area of expertise.  The job subsequently offered appeared to have better financial security than the path I was heading down, and it seemed to include the professional challenges I needed to stay interested.  I debated the pros and cons, and took the last minute offer, tossing my previous plans aside, and putting a roadblock on the path I had been all-too-ready to walk down.

Well, one year later, it is painfully obvious that the professional challenges never materialized, the financial security was anything but, and the last minute, seemingly attractive offer was a temptation of the worst sort; a comfortable, familiar way to earn a living in a manner I had been used to.  The problem is, I had already psychologically moved past those ways, not to mention that the industry itself, and the world in general, had severely mitigated the value of those ways in the first place.  All of the reasons I had for starting down the path I had ignored didn’t disappear with a more regular paycheck or a job that was similar to past employment.  It just allowed me to pretend like I was still moving forward when, in fact, I was re-living yesterday.  It was the worst kind of distraction; one that didn’t give me any real tangible benefits and one that took a year of my life away when I would have been better served making the riskier choice.  Would that path have led to success, either financial or professional?  I don’t know, but there is no doubt that it wouldn’t have been a waste of time.

Which brings me back to my sister.  Her chosen path involves some risks and insecurity.  She will incur a large amount of debt, and have to relocate far away for years.  But the possibilities for the future are great.  The last minute choice doesn’t involve the massive debt, nor does it involve moving, and on the surface, it appears to offer some pretty intriguing professional benefits now and for the future.  It’s a similar circumstance to the one I was in.  But look a little deeper and the immediate risk and security issues that seem to be avoided with the new choice doesn’t really avoid them, it just pushes them back a year or two, and the potential long-term benefits pale in comparison to the riskier move.  There’s little doubt in my mind that the seemingly secure choice that so suddenly appeared is a distraction from the path she should be on, just as the safer and more secure choice for me was a distraction from the path I should have been on.

At the end of the day, the safe choice is rarely the correct one.  It can be if you’re willing to accept less than what your potential can offer, but she’s a lot like me in that regard.  If it’s not a challenge and it’s not interesting, then it’s not really secure.  It’s just a distraction.  And a potentially fatal one to your future, at that.

Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 1:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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