MacArthur: Print shall return!

In following the plight of the newspaper industry over the past few years, I’ve seen many, many illogical defenses of the fading print segment from people often with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. However, the one I read last week from Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur may well take the cake. It wasn’t so much that he was totally and completely wrong about everything. He wasn’t. In fact, there were entire sections that echoed sentiments I, myself, have voiced numerous times. No, the problem I found was in his tone.

MacArthur’s pontificating came across as certainty. In his mind, it’s a settled issue that print has been proven far superior to the internet, and that this whole web craze will blow over soon enough, returning print to its rightful position at the top of the communication food chain. While some of his points have merit, particularly with regards to publications giving away the farm with no specific plan on how to monetize that, and the very real problems with web ads on newspaper sites, the notion that print isn’t really failing and that digital doesn’t possess some very strong and pertinent advantages over print seems extraordinarily naive. If anyone hasn’t caught on just yet, digital is very much a replacement-type of technology for print, not a supplemental one, and readers in consistent, vastly increasing numbers know it.

Here are a few of the comments from MacArthur, starting with his anecdote of a conversation he had with a group of internet folks he met in a restaurant one day. When asked how they, too, could get in on the internet boom, here’s his description of the exchange:

“It depends,” one of them said smoothly, “on what kind of platform you want to establish, how you want to present your content.” I said that I wanted to publish a magazine filled with sentences, not build a tree house, and the conversation came to an abrupt halt.

I wonder why? Here you are discussing the future with some people clearly excited about the possibilities of the web, and when they make a very pointed inquiry about how you’d want to exploit your material online, you reply with a dismissive crack that shows not only arrogance but ignorance of some of the fundamental points of internet media. If I was discussing the possibilities of online content and was faced with a similar attitude, I don’t think I’d continue the conversation either.

MacArthur may well believe his crack about “platforms” was pretty clever. In fact, later on he notes how much he hates the term “platform” when he mentions that Harper’s is available across several of them. Of course, his obstinance makes me want to run right out and sign up for the internet experience from a publication run by a man with such an obvious contempt for the medium. I’ve got news for him, though. Your beloved print magazine is a type of platform, too. Always has been, and was long before anyone even imagined the transistor, let alone a computer, smartphone or tablet. Magazines, newspapers, catalogs, fliers, etc, etc are all types of platforms, no different than websites, blogs, ebooks, apps or anything else someone can dream up as a means of communicating with people.

I told them the internet wasn’t much more than a gigantic Xerox machine and thus posed the same old threat to copyright and the livelihoods of writers and publishers alike.

This one really got me. His notion of the web as a giant copy machine is simply asanine. Sure, it does have some of that capacity in spades, but it is far more diverse and to label it as such dismisses the massive volume of material created and posted by regular people and professionals alike every minute of every day. Then he went on:

Photocopying had long been the enemy of periodicals…so I had good reason to beware.

Maybe I’m too new to this game, given the fact that I have no recollection of a world before photocopiers, but I have never, ever, not even once, for even the tiniest fleeting second considered copiers as enemies of publishers. I am, apparently, totally incapable of even comprehending such an accusation. I have never, at any point in my life, encountered a situation where I saw a copy machine used as a weapon against publishers. The only possible way this makes sense is if what he really wants here is a world where the only way to access the information in a printed work is to buy a copy. Imagine, for a moment, how incredibly destructive such a practice would be in actual widespread practice. It would also be massively counterproductive to people like MacArthur, too, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that particular point to sink in with him.

Of course, it could be that there’s an enterprising young pirate in MacArthur’s part of town who got himself a copier and runs off copies of each new issue of Harper’s, stapling them together and selling them out of a backpack on street corners. Because, you know, that kind of thing really happens, right? But it does speak to his mindset. Here’s an advancement in technology that has made things infinitely easier and more efficient in so, so many ways, and all he sees is a potential enemy. It explains quite a bit. If this guy still sees copiers as an enemy of publishers, then the web must look to him like a giant, roving, 500 ton beast, spewing fire from its six heads and crushing everything in its path. Somehow, though, I suspect Harper’s offices probably have a copier or two on the premises. And an internet connection, most likely.

It turned out that while web sites might be great for classifieds, they are in general a poor medium for display advertising.

Here is an example of his line of thinking that I actually agree with, to a point. I, too, believe that websites are lousy vehicles for display advertising, particularly when the advertising you’re pushing there is simply a replicated version of the exact type used in printed publications. He’s totally correct that ads like this are very easy to ignore, they’re a waste of time and money for publications to chase after, and, no matter how low the price, they’re not terribly effective for advertisers, either. I have never believed that display ad supported publication websites are the way to go for the long run.

That being said, this doesn’t mean that the web isn’t an effective vehicle for advertising and promotion, it undoubtedly is. Just not for trying to duplicate the exact process and mechanisms that have historically worked in print. The problem with his argument, to me, is that he seems to be saying that, because the one way they’ve tried to generate ad revenue online (the simplest and least imaginative way, not coincidentally) has been largely a failure, that means that ads on the web will never work and they should just give up. That’s the kind of thinking that has greatly contributed to the newspaper industry losing 60% of its revenue in less than a decade. Keep up the good work on that.

As the ever-more-demanding Internet God continues to bleed writers and publishers…the advantages of advertising in print become more obvious.

More obvious to whom? The advertisers who are fleeing print in droves? The readers who are doing likewise? The print salespeople who have increasing trouble earning a living on lessened commissions? I understand that this is what he believes and, in some respects, he’s right about things like inavoidability and adjacencies in printed material. But just because he believes it, doesn’t make it so.

The problem with this is that, even if he’s right, it doesn’t matter. The digital transition is well underway. No matter how great he thinks his print platform is, readers and advertisers are the ultimate judge and they’re speaking with their feet, walking away from print in steadily growing numbers. You simply can’t ignore that fact. While it may be true that he believes print is better, the people ultimately holding his purse strings don’t necessarily agree.

This is the crucial issue with why so many former print titans seem to have lost their way. There is no simple answer to how to generate needed revenue online, and they just can’t understand how something they believe is inferior can continue to grow while they languish. The pool of money is moving to digital, from advertisers and readers alike. We’re past the point of no return. You can have the greatest, most effective print platform in the world, but if all the money isn’t in print any more, you’re doomed to failure. You have to go where the money is and find a way to get people to spend it with you. And nobody cares how great you think print is if that’s not where they want to put their dollars.

Patrick de St. Exupery insists that the internet, whether paid or unpaid, doesn’t just reduce the value of writing, it destroys value. This may stem from a whole generation growing up never learning to distinguish between a blog and an edited, thought-out piece of writing.

Hmmm…maybe I’m suffering from this. Was MacArthur’s piece that I’m talking about here an edited, thought-out piece of writing? Is this? I’m writing on a blog, so does that mean this is simply a slap-dash collection of incoherent sentences? That’s ridiculous. It’s a totally dismissive opinion toward any and all writing that exists outside of the publishing gatekeepers. If your works appears outside of the established publication websites, then it simply must be inferior. Beside that, regular folks are apparently too stupid to distinguish genuinely quality writing approved by the gatekeeper class apart from the ground up mush produced by the rest of us.

I, personally, don’t underestimate readers like that. I wonder if he’s ever considered the possibility that, if readers can’t distinguish between his publication’s work and the work of people like me, maybe that’s an indicator there isn’t actually that large of a gap in relative quality, if one exists at all? Probably not, I’d imagine. Just to clarify things, by the way, I’ve thought out writing this over the past several days. I’ve also copy edited it, something I believe my 15 years of experience working for various publishers as an editor, no less, qualifies me to do. Does that mean I’ve cranked out Pulitzer Prize winning material here, or made certain every last syllable of every word in each sentence of every paragraph is a model of perfection? Of course not. But neither is his self-proclaimed edited, well thought-out piece.

The difference is that I’m not claiming that only pure gold drips off of my keyboard. This is an opinion piece where I’ve used my knowledge, personal experience and beliefs to contest what I believe was a shoddily constructed argument from an old guard print protectionist. His was exactly the same, only from a different point of view. I think his real problem is that his piece and my humble effort exist on the same plane, with the same availability to the same readers, and can have the legitimacy of his positions and mine judged not by editors, publishers or other gatekeepers, but by actual readers on equal footing. It’s an entitlement mentality, truthfully, one that stems from the internet undermining not only publishers’ ability to control who gets on the playing field, but their control of the very field itself.

He claims that the internet is undemocratic and exclusionary, but what institution could be more of those elements than the locked down print world of the recent past? These guys who make arguments like this one ultimately reveal the same bias in the end. They always show a contempt for the capacity of their audience to determine quality of material on their own. I think they secretly fear that the works they push really aren’t that superior and, given increasing opportunity, the readers they depend upon will see through their sham. Otherwise, if you truly trusted your readers to know quality when they see it and gravitate towards it, why would you have any issue with pitting your work against the supposedly inferior ramblings of us outside-the-gates barbarians?

To close, here’s another refutation of MacArthur’s opinions by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic’s website. I wonder if MacArthur considers it a well thought-out, edited piece? If I had to guess, I’d say probably not. After all, as he claimed at the very end of his screed, he is planning to translate his piece into a speech which he’s being paid to give later this year, so it must be of higher quality. I wonder if he realizes that paid speaking engagements are a type of platform, too?


The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire

After three years of closely following and writing about the trials and tribulations of the publishing industry, I decided it was a good time to do a bit of a wrap-up on the changes I’ve witnessed.  I’ve collected together some of the writings I’ve done on this site, added quite a bit of context and produced a book telling the story of the upheaval of the industry through my eyes and experience.

Perhaps most interestingly, the book has been published through my imprint, Watershed Publications, and is now available as an ebook through Amazon.  There will be a print-on-demand version coming along in a while, as well.  I thought it extremely fitting to tell the tale of the downfall of traditional publishing by using the very mechanisms of its disruption. 

To kick off the book’s run, it will be available for free from Amazon starting Christmas Day until December 29.  After that, it’ll be priced at the very reasonable figure of $2.99.  Check it out, if you like, by clicking at the bottom of this piece.

Merry Christmas to all, and I look forward to a grand New Year for publishing as the times keep rolling forward.  With change as big as those the industry is currently undergoing, some long-standing institutions will inevitably fall, but every ending for one marks a new beginning for another.

The Watershed Chronicle:
The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire


The publishing industry is currently embroiled in a state of flux never before seen.  It’s a battle for the very life of the industry, with forces from both inside and outside jockeying for position.  Technology has undermined many of the things that once made publishing the long-standing giant it was.  More than that, the same technology is allowing more and more individuals and smaller entities to forego the traditional routes to publication entirely.  It’s an all-out assault on what has been one of the most successful, profitable enterprises of the past century.

Author Dan Meadows has followed the past three years of this battle very closely, not with the eye of a pundit so much, but as a member of the industry just looking for some path to find a viable future for himself.  After 15 years working within publishing, he found himself suddenly on the outside looking in, with no clear path back.  With disruption everywhere, and experts on all sides of the fight speaking in sweeping proclamations, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s right and who’s wrong, or which way the future leads.

Over two-and-a-half years, Meadows followed and wrote about the changes sweeping through the industry on his website, The Watershed Chronicle.  This book is a timeline of that writing, and a description of his journey through exploring traditional work after the disruption, trying out new online alternatives and finally settling on what he believes is the best course.

The publishing industry has changed in the past five years in more ways than it had in the previous century, and it’s not over yet.  This book chronicles one of the most tumultuous periods in the industry’s history from the eyes of someone in the middle of it, one that has seen massive revenue losses, layoffs and a dynamic shift in the attitudes and reading habits of the public.  It is a period that may well be looked back on as the beginning of the end of the traditional ways of doing business.

Buy From Amazon

Looking Ahead: Predictions for publishing in 2012 and beyond

This year saw the emergence of several factors that could have a profound impact on the publishing industry in near future.  Newspaper revenues backslid into more losses, increasing through the first three quarters of the year, and digital revenues, while improving somewhat, are still far short of making up the difference.  A few papers found some success with semi-porous paywalls that encouraged more of their brethren to make the leap into subscription based sites, for better or for worse.  Ebooks moved up to nearly 20% of the overall book market in the U.S. and all signs point to a steady upswing in that sector.

Amazon encroached further and further into traditional publishers’ domains, and started a drive to lower prices and increased saturation in the tablet market.  Millions of new digital customers are set to enter the ebook market after Christmas thanks to robust pre-holiday tablet sales.  Traditional publishers, in conjunction with Apple, forced the agency pricing model on ebooks, driving their prices up 50% or more in many cases.  That effort also brought some backlash in the form of civil lawsuits and antitrust investigations in both the United States and Europe.  Finally, self-publishing and independent publishers made great strides toward establishing themselves as a viable player and overcoming long-standing industry bias.  All in all, 2011 was a year of great transition, and one that has served to set the stage for what’s yet to come.

Following the industry as closely as I have this past year, I’ve reached a few conclusions about what will happen now, and where the industry as a whole goes from here.  It’s nearly impossible to accurately predict the future, even the most educated guess is still just a guess.  All it takes is one new technological break-through and everything is thrust right back into a state of flux.  Some people don’t like that kind of uncertainty but, for me, I find it invigorating.

Newspapers Are Finished

I’m still amazed that there are people out there who believe that print newspapers have any kind of future at all.  I’ve even come to seriously wonder if news websites really have any kind of future, either.  The primary problem, as I see it, is that they are entirely too dependent on advertising revenue to support their business model.  We are only one more advertising shift away from this entire industry segment getting wiped off the face of the Earth.  I believe that shift will come soon, and the era of advertising supported newspapers will end abruptly.

There is not one single trait of the physical newspaper that gives me any belief that they have even the slightest capacity to survive long-term.  They are expensive, inefficient and extremely limited.  In short, they are an anachronism.  The most recent surveys I’ve seen indicate that the percentage of people in this country who get their information from newspapers is down to 14% and falling precipitously.

News websites are also at severe risk of obsolescence.  Paywalls, ultimately, won’t be anything more than a temporary block to stave off the inevitable.  I’m just guessing here, but I suspect we’ll see a combination of elements pick up the slack when the inevitable finally happens, including mobile apps, easily accessible streams and standalone digital publications.  All of this will be dependent on finding customers to pay for the actual content, and the innovative and best quality content will win out in the end.  It’s a shift that will decimate the larger industry players because total revenue numbers will plummet with the loss of advertising.  I also anticipate that we’ll see the rise of truly independent journalists producing and selling their own wares under their own banners rather than working for a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal.

I believe the long-view will see a reversal of sorts of the consolidation run that happened in the last few decades of the 20th century.  The industry will fragment back into many smaller and even individual entities that will create an extreme diversity in viewpoints, products and delivery mechanisms.  I suspect the small local newspaper will likely have a slightly longer shelf-life than the large metros or nationals, but even they will be on the clock eventually.

Basically, my belief is that, as bad as things have been for newspapers over the past decade, we haven’t come close to seeing the worst of it yet.  But out of that Armageddon will emerge the potential for a far greater, more independent, more democratic news and information ecosystem.

Print Books Aren’t Quite Finished, But Close

The way elements are lining up heading into 2012, if I were a book publisher who depended on 75% or more of my revenue coming from print sales, I would be scared to death.  Digital reader sales across all devices are up 200-300%.  Amazon alone has been selling over a million new Kindles every week leading up to Christmas.  Ebook sales were in the miniscule single digits as a percentage of the overall book market just two years ago and now, some estimates have that up to as high as 20% in the U.S.  Through agency pricing, major print publishers have pushed the prices of their ebooks up to three or four times that of the growing self-published sector and, simultaneously, brought antitrust investigations and civil lawsuits in both Europe and America down on their heads.

The big-box retailers they used so effectively are gone (Borders) or at risk (Barnes & Noble) after having weakened independent bookstores to the point that a rapid drop in print sales could be the final straw in wiping most of them out.  Christmas of 2012 is poised to see literally 15-20 million new ebook customers entering the retail market.  And none of this even speaks to the digital expansion into foreign markets that is coming but yet to really kick into high gear.

I suspect that losses in the print book sector will happen quicker and more severely than those of newspapers.  They won’t have 8 or 10 years to map out a gradual digital transition; more like 2 or 3 years, if they’re lucky.  All this being said, print books will not vanish entirely.  I expect there will continue to be a high-end boutique market for very high quality printed material.  The overall market share, however, will be miniscule in comparison to traditional levels.

What we have here is the beginnings of a vicious downward cycle.  Declines in print book sales will cause a loss of book stores and physical retail outlets which will cause more losses in print book sales which will cause more losses of bookstores which will cause more losses in print book sales, etc., etc., until this segment of the industry is virtually unrecognizable.  In the end, I suspect bookstores will be winnowed down a great deal, 80% or more forced to shut their doors.  The ones that are left will cater to the boutique end of the consumer spectrum, and will convert to more of a literary cultural gathering place generating revenue through principle means outside of strictly print book sales.

At the end of the day, I believe that we will end up with the creative destruction of the long-standing print book industry replaced by a much larger, vibrant, much more independent industry that exists principally in cyberspace.

Amazon Won’t Be The 10-Ton Guerilla For Long

Read any blog, news site or publishing industry pundit and you’ll hear all about how bad Amazon is.  I, as an independent writer, am perplexed by other self-pubbed writers frequently ripping Amazon and their business practices.  They have done more for us than any other entity in recent memory, possibly ever.  The argument that self-published writers should somehow support traditional publishers in this perceived battle with Amazon simply defies logic.  If traditional publishers could squash all of the developments and advancements Amazon has brought about for us in the past few years, they would do it in a heartbeat, make no mistake.  To now turn and ridicule them for continuing to press their advantages against traditional publishers is not only hypocritical, it’s short-sighted and potentially self-destructive.  Big Six publishers aren’t really our friends, and they don’t deserve our unquestioning support in this conflict.

Amazon itself, no matter how large or powerful they get, is not any more immune to the disruptive forces that exist than the traditional publishing industry.  This isn’t simply an age marked by a sudden dramatic shift from one paradigm to another.  We’re at the very earliest stages of an era of constant, ever-present disruption.  No one in the internet age is too big to tumble.  Long-term monopolies, like the traditional publishing industry maintained, may well be nearly impossible to establish in this new era, and the only way in which they would keep that control and influence is to represent the values of the people they aim to serve as best as possible.

I believe that retail alternatives will emerge as the ebook market continues to expand and mature.  Formats will become more standardized, or at least easily transferable from device to device.  They will have to; customers will ultimately demand it to be so.  I expect we’ll see some specialized, genre specific retail and self-publishing outlets emerge over time.  Take romance fiction, for instance.  Imagine a retail site that caters specifically to readers and authors in that genre.  Or mystery.  Or horror.  Or science fiction.  Or historical non-fiction.  Or journalism.  The possibilities are endless.  As long as writers and publishers maintain the ability to publish across all retail outlets and platforms, there truly are no limits to the retail alternatives that could and will come about.  Today, they may well be the dominant player, but the history and nature of the internet itself suggests that will not always be the case, especially if they get too large or too onerous in their business practices.

In the end, I expect what we’ll see is a few large retail ebook stores in the vein of Amazon, and many, many smaller, very targeted retail options all over.  I also fully believe that, as authors themselves fully realize the potential of maintaining connections to their own fan bases, there will be an array of direct sales possibilities developed, as well.

Following “The Rules” Will Be Even Less Important

If you read enough online about publishing on any side of the spectrum, you will see that nearly everyone is going to tell you about “the rules.”  There are rules for breaking into the traditional side and rules for breaking into to the independent side.  There are rules for how you should write, what you should write and what you should do with your material afterwards.  The main problem is that if you read enough of those, you’ll find most of the rules stated out there conflict with other rules somewhere else.  The thing is, we are well on the way toward a time when, basically, there are no rules.  There are an ample variety of ways to go about getting what you want done, and the only thing that matters is what you find works for you.  And even then, things are changing so rapidly that something that works today may not work tomorrow.  Hard-and-fast, overly rigid ways of thinking can hang about your neck like an albatross, wherever you stand in the current publishing ecosystem.

As I said earlier, we now live in an era of constant disruption.  Flexibility, adaptability and experimentation are today’s ultimate keys to success, and that will only get more important, whether you aspire to traditional print publishing or independent digital publishing.  The great thing is that writers are generally pretty creative people.  Who could be better poised to take advantage of a circumstance where all the lines have been blurred and there are multiple paths to your desires than the creatively minded?

The next few years will likely see the final death of the old, established ways of doing business.  The transition will continue and we’ll eventually have a system that is very different than what we’ve been conditioned to expect.  The future, in many ways, is very bright.  Change can be frightening, but it can also be liberating and exciting.  Don’t weep for the things lost to the shifting sands of progress, revel in the new and innovative possibilities instead.

Read more about the digital disruption to the publishing industry and what all the changes mean for the future with author Dan Meadows’ new book The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire, available now.

Published in: on December 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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Quit Complaining! All the arguing in the world’s not putting the self publishing genie back in the bottle

In a not altogether unexpected development, there seems to be a backlash brewing over the growing self publishing trend.  I say not unexpected because it was, in fact, very predictable.  Disruption in any industry goes through this same process, and in an industry as long-standing and entrenched as publishing, one can only expect that it will be worse before it gets better.

Coming from newspaper and periodical publishing as I have, I’ve already been down this road once before.  When independent blogs and online-only news alternatives first starting gaining traction a decade or so ago, they were readily dismissed within the industry.  Bloggers were portrayed as jobless losers spouting off meaningless drivel from their mom’s basement.  News sites were called out as thieves and opportunists who simply rode the coattails of the established press.  And most of all, this new development in mass communication was meaningless because the legacy industry was self-anointed to be obviously far superior, and it was only a matter of time before these two-bit pretenders shriveled up and blew away.

Well, newspaper publishers, with all their elite, high-minded proclamations and arrogant superiority complexes, woke up a few short years later to discover that the interlopers hadn’t faded away, but had grown exponentially in both numbers and sophistication.  And they also found that 50% of their annual revenues had vanished in a matter of less than five years.

The book publishing industry was largely immune to that disruption cycle for one primary reason; they still maintained a monopolistic access to the market and no true, viable, mass market alternative yet existed for their principle money maker– the printed book.  But now, with the proliferation of affordable and increasingly popular tablets, that barrier against the crashing tide of digital disruption is washing away more and more each day.  To make matters worse, for newspapers, there was no simple means for the writing talent in their employ to generate comparable revenue online.  With ebooks, publishers’ pool of writing talent has a vast network of possibilities at their disposal to do just that.  Uh oh.

Lately, I’ve engaged in a few such discussions on various industry-related blogs, and I’ve seen three main arguments made against the self published barbarians at the gates of traditional book publishers.  While there are grains of truth to each, all three are widely being misrepresented to defend the old guard ways and over emphasized to demonize the forces sweeping change across the publishing landscape.

1. Amazon Is Evil

This is a big one.  Amazon is being portrayed as The Great Satan by those in and around the industry.  It makes sense, from their perspective, as Amazon is the most visible entity leading the disruptive influences currently threatening the industry’s revenue streams.  But they’re not evil, they’re a competitor.  I know it’s been a while since traditional publishing saw what actual competition looks like, but come on!  Amazon understands the possibilities that now exist better than most publishers and they’re acting accordingly in their own interests.  Most of all, they’ve made the brilliant move of treating writers as partners in the enterprise rather than necessary fodder for their profits.  Are they doing this out of the goodness of their hearts or because they just love writers so much?  Of course not, but it doesn’t change the fact that what they’re offering today gives us the very real possibility of altering long-standing industry norms in our favor.

Amazon clearly isn’t perfect, but, as a writer, they’ve done more for us in half a decade than traditional publishing has in the past century.  Is it possible that, if they gain a stranglehold on the market, the arrangements with writers will be cut back precipitously?  Certainly it is, but that day is not today, and they’d have to cut back a helluva lot to get from 70% to the 15% or so traditional publishers pony up.  Besides, who says Amazon will ever get that dominant?  Remember, a decade or so ago, Microsoft was on the cusp of putting Apple out of business, and now, they’re saddled with three generations and counting of lousy operating systems and Apple is the most successful tech company in the world.  Things change fast in the internet age.

This is a totally false argument, and one completely self-serving to those who wish to perpetuate the status quo.  You really expect me to believe that it’s in my best interest to shun Amazon based on what they might do in some hypothetical future in favor of what are clearly one-sided deals with publishers that we unquestionably know are happening right now?  Really?

2. Self Published Works Aren’t Worthy

This is the book world’s equivalent of the bloggers as basement dwelling losers argument.  To be sure, there are heaps of not-ready-for-primetime ebooks out there and more coming every day.  But that was to be expected.  This is a major new development, folks.  Regular people have never, I repeat, never had the ability or the access to do the things we all can today.  Of course there is a flood of works being thrown out there.  It’s not a bad thing, in fact, it’s a necessary part of the evolution we’re undergoing.

This will sort itself out. The people putting these works out are gaining valuable experience in the process with their successes and, more importantly, their failures.  Some will learn from it and improve over time, some will lose interest and drift away, but just as the blogging world evolved and improved, so will the ebook world.

I’ve seen opinions recently that suggest only work that the traditional industry would publish should be suitable for self publishing.  These opinions are basically to the effect of, “if they rejected you, then your book sucks and how dare you subject the world to work the established industry deemed unworthy!”  What a load of garbage.  I would argue just the opposite.  If the traditional publishing world shut you down, and you truly believe in your work, that is precisely what self publishing is for. 

This notion that the publishing gatekeepers have somehow cornered the market on literary quality is bogus.  They don’t know what makes a bestseller anymore than you, I or the crazy homeless guy up the street spouting off about death rays from the crocodile people who live in the sewers.  It’s a volume business to them.  They select a variety of books that fit their preconceived notions of saleable material and throw them out there.  If one hits, it pays for them all and then some.  It’s like the lottery, in a way, and the quality of the material really isn’t at issue, possible marketability within their defined distribution networks is.

That market structure is different now and, as ebooks grow, it’s getting broader every day.  A sub-niche book that didn’t make fiscal sense for a large publisher in the past can make perfect sense to a small independent today.  And if you need the vindication of a self-serving corporate publisher for your worth as a writer, you may need to take a little time and work on your self confidence.  Publishers don’t vindicate writers, writers vindicate publishers.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t strongly encourage a level of professionalism.  At the very least, proofread, proofread, proofread!  Creative and artistic choices are one thing, but basic spelling and grammatical errors are an entirely different matter.  It’s in your best interest as a writer to produce prose as clean as possible so readers are judging your ideas and not your execution.  Self publishing is publishing, after all, and if you’re going to play with the big boys, you need to be vigilant and definitely sweat the small stuff.

3. Readers Need Gatekeepers

What list of industry self-justifications would be complete without a little underestimation of the collective intelligence and capability of your customers?  How in the world will the great unwashed hordes of people figure out what to read if publishers and reviewers don’t tell them?  And if you offer them too many choices, people will simply collapse in on themselves and huddle up in a tight little ball on their living room floor until someone comes along to take all those extra options away, right?

That must be why the pizza joint up the street has 27 different varieties of pizza on display to buy by the slice.  I recommend the Thai Chicken Pizza, by the way.  Do you think traditional pizza makers would’ve thought to put barbecue chicken and peanuts on a pie?  Or how about the fact that there’s 236 off-the-wall fruit concoctions right next to the traditional O.J. in the grocery store juice aisle?  I guess that’s because people are easily confused by too many choices.  If anything, the whole of American life these days indicates we want significantly more choices, not less.  Why would books be the lone exception to that?

One of the more arrogant developments I’ve seen of late is the characterization of Amazon’s offerings as “the slush pile.”  For those that don’t know, the slush pile is the less-than-endearing term publishers have long used to describe the stacks of largely unsolicited manuscripts they’ve accumulated and treat pretty much like three month old junk mail.  This descriptor used against Amazon is a term of derision directed as much at the authors of said material as it is at the giant retailer.  The general point of this is to suggest that readers aren’t interested in wading through the slush pile.  Interestingly, though, this seems to ignore two big traits:  people’s desires for ever-larger arrays of options, and the long-established book selecting habits of readers.

I’m a voracious reader.  Every time I go into a book store, I get lost in there for hours.  What am I doing during that time?  Well, I go to a particular section, scan along the shelves, pick up anything that catches my eye, read the description on the book jacket, maybe flip it open and try out a few pages and, if I like it, it goes in my cart.  Once I’ve exhausted that section, I move on to another, rinse and repeat, until I have an armload of new reading material.  How, exactly, is that any different from how I shop on Amazon or other online booksellers?  I search for some subject or genre, scroll through the results, click on any that catch my eye, read the description and, maybe, pop open a sample to check out a few pages.  If I like it, click, it goes right into my cart.  Same thing. 

In such an atmosphere, there is simply no such thing as too many choices, particularly when I can narrow down the field at will through basic search terms.  Thinking that readers need someone to winnow down the options for them is simply arrogant, and it flies right in the face of the clear behaviors of their very own customers. 

Book reviewers are another class of industry hangers on who seem to believe they provide a valuable and irreplacable service that readers would simply be lost without.  All too often, they cling to some of the same bigotry against self published works, frequently refusing to even consider reviewing them.  That’s fine by me.

I buy a lot of books, both print and online, and I honestly don’t recall the last time I actually read a book review.  I’m not totally convinced I ever have.  If you’d like an example of the lessened impact of critics, look no further than the film industry.  Every year, there are lots of movies that make tens to hundreds of millions of dollars while simultaneously being widely savaged by film critics.  Their opinions simply don’t carry the weight they once did, and have little, if any, bearing on the success of the movies they review.  But don’t say that to a film critic, you’re liable to get a big bucket of gooey buttered popcorn in the face.

People seem to be finding their way to the theater and figuring out which movies they want to watch just fine, thank you.  And they’re doing the same in droves with books.  Readers don’t need gatekeepers for one simple reason, they are gatekeepers.  The only ones that truly matter, in fact, and they know it.  Underestimating your customers and overestimating your own worth are two clear signs of an industry in trouble.

Anyway, the point of all this isn’t to argue that self publishing is a panacea that will make all writers millionaires, conjure up world peace and cure cancer.  It’s also not to declare traditional publishing deader than a 48 year old virgin’s social life.  It’s to point out that many of the criticisms making the rounds these days in defense of the established industry aren’t all that viable and they don’t  really matter, anyway.  They can say whatever they want, self publishing is here and it’s not going anywhere.  Traditional publishing needs to realize that this is the new reality and adapt to it, like it or not.  All the excuses and fancy justifications in the world isn’t going to stop what’s coming.

Newspaper publishers have already tried that and it cost them half their business in a relative blink of an eye.  Traditional publishers need to stop hating and figure out how they fit in to the market of tomorrow.  Otherwise, they, too, will wake up one day soon to an infinitely smaller slice of the pie.  And those barbarians they feel so superior to today will have evolved three or four generations ahead of them.

Get a load of this! Murdoch empire continues its slow, painful demise

I’ve never been one to believe the circulation figures of most publishers, specifically newspapers.  There are just too many ways that I’ve seen to manipulate the numbers in publisher’s favor.  And the circulation bureau audits are a lot like the financial industry ratings agencies in that they are financially dependent on the industry they are supposedly judging impartially.  But this story on the scam run by the Wall Street Journal’s European edition is a new low, even to my cynical sensibilities.

Here’s the latest in the recent unending, sad saga of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire.  Read it and weep. 

So the Wall Street Journal’s European edition cut deals with various organizations to exchange positive editorial coverage for them buying bulk copies of the paper for as little as a penny a copy to distribute freely at seminars and such.  The Audit Bureau of Circulation ruled that this practice was somehow legitimate and these copies would be counted as paid circulation. 

There are several problems here.  The first and most obvious is the quid pro quo for positive editorial coverage.  This is the Wall Street Journal, for god’s sake, giving away biased editorial coverage openly in exchange for favors.  The second is the circulation audit bureau legitimizing the scheme by declaring that copies at a penny a piece handed out freely as swag at seminars counts as paid circulation.  Even that, as obviously crooked as it is, wouldn’t be so bad if it was a modest number of copies.  But it accounted for over 40% of their daily circulation for over a year, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 copies per day!  That’s a helluva lot of seminars, don’t you think.  The first question that popped into my head was, “were all these copies actually printed?”  Given the sheer numbers involved here, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them never existed in the first place.

The whole point of this exercise was to boost the circulation figures of the Journal’s European edition to prop up ad rates.  How, in the name of all things good and holy, does this not constitute massive-scale fraud on advertisers?  Not to mention fraud on readers who now get slanted positive coverage of the groups that helped the journal perpetuate this scam on advertisers.  And what does this say for the audit bureau’s credibility that they legitimized this rip off?  But wait, it actually gets worse!

A company “buying” some of these copies decided last year that they weren’t happy with the editorial coverage they were getting, so they pulled out of the deal.  The Journal then promised even more slanted coverage to this group.  And, get this, they started funneling money through other third party companies, paid to the squeaky wheel, who then used that money to pay for these discounted Journal copies.  They were basically buying large numbers of their own newspaper at barely above free prices to prop up circulation!  Can I say it again?  This is the Grand Old Lady, it’s the Wall Street Journal, the most famous newspaper on the planet doing this!

There’s also the little matter of someone inside the company who ratted out this scam to the Journal’s parent company, Dow Jones, last November.  This person was ordered to shut up about it in December, essentially fired in January and now is painted by the company as the scapegoat for the whole fraudulent, unseemly affair.  Seriously, read the article.  If it doesn’t turn your stomach, you’re far more cynical than me, and I thought I’d heard it all.

And here’s the Wall Street Journal’s somewhat half-hearted response to the allegations.  In it, they deny any wrong doing, point the finger at the whistleblower if there was any wrongdoing, firmly asserting that the scam was above board, but also that they’re ending it because it appears to be cockeyed.  Nothing like covering all your bases.  We didn’t do anything wrong, even if it really looks like we did, and if we did, it wasn’t us, it was the guy over here who we fired in January, and we only kept things going until someone else found out about it and it looked bad.  But it’s okay now because we’ve stopped it.  It’s all good.  You can trust us, we’re the Wall Street Journal!

The only question I have at this point is when can we expect the Murdoch retirement party?

Publishers are searching for a sustainable market. Sustainability for who, exactly?

I was reading a piece this morning on Alan Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur blog.  It’s ostensibly about a new survey that, like many before it, purports to show that people under 40 see little to no value in newspapers, where people 40 and up still retain a certain, if declining, appreciation for the dead-tree media platform.  It’s not a new or surprising conclusion, and it’s not unlike any of hundreds of articles I’ve read over the past few years.  In fact, it’s an argument I’ve largely lost interest in long ago because of the obvious nature of the debate.

Nostalgia for newspapers will still exist for some time yet, particularly among the older set who have used them as a primary source of information virtually their entire lives.  The younger generation, having never been fully indoctrinated in the mystique of the paper, and having been reared on new technology, quite understandably sees newspapers as stale, limiting platforms from a bygone era.  To me, the argument is moot.  Today’s technology, and what is still yet to come, will no doubt end the era of newspapers.  To fight that simple fact is basically pissing directly into the fierce headwinds of progress.

That’s not to say that the organizations that produce newspapers won’t be able, at some point, to successfully transform to fully digital platforms, although it might have been helpful to start that transition a decade or so ago before a lot of the best ideas at the moment were snapped up by tech companies or other independent parties.  But you can’t cry over spilt milk now. 

The part of Mutter’s article that drew my attention was, as is frequently the case these days, the comments section.  One reader quite correctly points out that while the under 40 sampling in the survey seemed to have little use for newspapers in physical forms, the questioning failed to differentiate between print and online news content. While they may never buy a paper, they may also be making use of online content from the very same sources.  An interesting point, and undoubtedly true, but I would argue that even if it is the case, those people might not even realize where the content originated. 

I am as guilty of this as anyone.  I don’t buy newspapers any more.  They don’t play to my interests any longer, at least not in a significant enough way to coerce me to lay down any cash for one.  As I wrote a bit ago, I use Twitter quite extensively these days, and have cultivated a group of people and organizations to follow across a broad spectrum of subjects.  I check it two or three times a day, scrolling through the tweets, opening up any links that seem interesting on different pages in my web browser.  Then I sit down and go through them, reading what in effect has become an individualized newspaper tailored to my interests.  I do this a couple times a day, creating what is, in essence, morning, afternoon and evening editions of the Dan Times, the equivalent of a newspaper made for just me.

There are, unquestionably, articles that appear in these streams that originate from newspaper sites, but frequently, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which papers.  I absorb the information readily enough, but the source sites slip right on by with very little awareness.  And you know what else slips by?  Any and all ads that happen to be on these sites.  I finished my morning edition just a little while ago, reading in full about 12 articles on a variety of subjects.  I can’t name one single ad I saw on any of them.  Not one, despite the fact that they were almost certainly there in droves. 

The dirty little secret about online advertising isn’t that they’re cheap because of an abundance of space online, it’s that they’re cheap because they are so very easy to totally ignore.  I will never believe that ad-supported online newspapers will work because the ads themselves will never be useful enough to support pricing that makes any sense in the long term.  And if anyone out there is paying high dollar for them, here’s a little free head’s up–you’re getting ripped off, no matter what their elaborate metrics might say.

Now that we’re over a year into the supposed tablet revolution, there does appear to be some positive signs for publishers.  As tablets are proliferating, and getting cheaper almost by the day, there have been reports that revenue generated by publishers is increasing.  This is probably one of the more optimistic signs I’ve seen in a while that an actual sustainable model for publishing can be found and is, in fact, possible.  The problem, though, is sustainability for who?

I’ve long held that the market for paid digital content for publishers won’t really kick into high gear until there’s a somewhat platform neutral device in the $100 range or less.  These devices need to become ubiquitous in everyone’s homes, and they need to be as open as possible.  The iPad is a very nice piece of equipment, but it’s too expensive and it’s too locked into it’s own little world.  I have two ebooks available for sale in the ibookstore, but lacking the device, I can’t even see the listings for my own books, let alone buy one.  That’s a big problem, one that Apple may not care about at the moment, but it’s a hindrance to reaching customers that will be an issue over the long haul.

Amazon exists in a somewhat locked down world as well, but they are driving device prices in the right direction for market saturation.  The new Android-based Kindle Fire tablet will debut later this year at $199. Still not the fully platform neutral device we need, but it’s closer to that magic $100 price point.   On top of that, they’re dropping the price of the base-model Kindle ebook reader to only $79!  To me as an ebook publisher, that is extraordinarily good news.  It is an ad supported model, which can be an inconvenience, but the ad free version will still be only $109.  Keep in mind, this is the start of a race downward in price.  I am more certain than ever that, as the market for digital content matures, standards will open more and prices will drop into the range where every home, hell, every individual can have one without having to save up to do so.  The movie industry has made loads of money on dvds, and the means for doing so was greatly helped along by cheap, widespread dvd players.  The device is great and all, but it’s the content itself where the real money is to be made.

All this brings me back to the notion of sustainability.  When, and indeed if, digital content brings in real money for publishers, where is that influx of cash going to go?  Will it return writers, designers and content creators to living wages again, on the whole?  Or will it be used to support the corporate infrastructure and exorbitant management salaries?  Take Gannett, for instance.  Their CEO Craig Debow is stepping down due to health concerns. Now, I do wish him well, I don’t want to criticize someone suffering from health issues, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.  But he’s walking away from the company with a $37 million good bye check.  I’m sure all the former Gannett employees who lost their jobs to the massive cost cutting of Debow’s tenure are thrilled that he’s receiving such a generous going away present.

That amount of money would pay 1,000 writers $37,000 salaries, or pay 250 writers that same amount annually for the next four years.  Isn’t there a better use for resources in what is, at it’s heart, a content company?  I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve anything, but for a guy who’s base salary was $1.2 million, and who has already collected millions in stock options and bonuses over the past five years, that seems really exorbitant.  Most people are lucky if they get a couple months pay leaving a job, Debow’s collecting 30 years worth of his base pay. 

The popular conservative mantra these days is that if the corporations are doing well, its employees will benefit from that.  That argument had merit at one point, but in this day and age, any objective long-term analysis is going to show that corporations have been improving their bottom lines at their employee’s expense for quite some time now, long before the recent economic downturn.  So the question remains, will digital revenue create sustainable models for content creators or for the organizations who have been, and will continue to exploit them?

If the creators benefit, then this can be good for everyone.  If only the organizations benefit, it’ll be good for almost no one.  Except of course, for CEOs who can preside over nearly $2 billion in annual revenue declines over five years and still walk away with a one-time parting gift roughly 20 times more than most of us will see from an entire lifetime of work.

Sustainability is great, and what the industry should certainly be striving for, but we need to make sure that what gets sustained by our money as consumers in the future is truly the most deserving of it.

The Morning Tweet: Yet another reason newspapers are gagging on their last breath

During my morning scroll through my Twitter feed, I ran across a rather interesting piece by self-published author Catherine Howard. But before I delve into that in a later post, let me make a quick point.  In days gone by, people would get out of bed in the morning, make a pot of coffee, walk out in the driveway or to their mailbox and get their copy of the morning paper, sit down at their table and read all the news that was fit to print.  I used to do that myself, even in high school, I’d often buy a copy of USA Today on my way to school.

Now, however, things are much different.  I still wake up (usually), I still brew some coffee, but instead of getting the daily newspaper, I grab my cellphone and pop open Twitter.  I spend about the same hour or so I used to reading the paper, but now I simply scroll through the feed of tweets I’ve meticulously cultivated over my three months as a newfound Twitter fan.

I’ve got news, events, commentaries, sports, entertainment, publishing industry news, etc, etc all right there in an ever-increasing rolling list, many tweets complete with links to long-form articles or additional information.  Very few of what I read comes from traditional newspaper websites, either.  What’s more, I can comment on anything that strikes me right at that moment, I can pass along the best of what I find through retweets, and I can even communicate directly with whoever created the tweets or the underlying work.  I’ve done all three this morning, just as I do every morning, and when I’m caught up, I can happily go about the rest of my day.  And the one thing that never crosses my mind anymore is stopping somewhere along the way to pick up the daily paper.  It’s all the more reason to believe newspapers as they’ve existed are well and truly in their final days.

Which brings me to this:  Also this morning, I ran across an announcement that the Baltimore Sun will be locking everything up behind a paywall on October 10.  To this, I say good riddance.  The Sun has been in a steady state of decline for as long as I can recall, long before the industry itself dropped into the current free-fall.  When I was working for a Chesapeake Bay boating magazine about 10 years ago, we had a subscription to the Sun.  Eventually, we just let it lapse because, even though we covered the single largest, most important body of water in the state, whose economic effects exceed nearly everything else in Maryland, the Sun provided absolutely zero news or information of any consequence or value whatsoever.  In other words, it was a giant waste of money.

In the years since then, I can count the number of times something in the Sun was a topic of discussion.  That number is slightly less than two. In the past two years alone, since I’ve become very web oriented in getting my information, I have come across a matter of import from the Sun or its website exactly zero times. 
The Sun faded into irrelevance years ago.  This news about the paywall is the first time the Sun has crossed my mind in I don’t know how long.  When I read about the paywall this morning, my immediate thought was, “Are you kidding me?”  The Sun has produced absolutely nothing of significance for years now, and you wanna lock up all that stuff that nobody cares about behind a paywall? 

And I am a voracious news consumer living in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay not 45 minutes from downtown Baltimore.  How about trying to become relevant to Marylanders again, by going out on a limb and produce a product worth a damn.  Then you might actually have something to sell.

Published in: on September 26, 2011 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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This is the End…of 2010. For Legacy Publishers, Paywalls have failed (again) and iPad apps haven’t met the hype.

So, lately I’ve been catching up with the state of the publishing industry. I’m currently working on a couple projects that will be appearing shortly after the first of the year. What have I found in the six months or so I’ve been out of the loop? Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. There has been a nice little boost in advertising revenues in the past few months, unless you’re a newspaper, of course. Newspapers are still circling the drain and are about the only type of media not rebounding at the moment. There are numerous reasons for this, the most obvious being that general interest newspapers are an anachronism.

Many places have tried paywalls (2010 was billed as the year of the paywall, after all, rather predictably to virtually no success). The new era of paywalls are ending up much like the previous attempts: that is, they cut readership by over 90%, decimate online ad revenues and what readership numbers they do produce are largely from print subscribers who get free online access. My favorite whipping boy, Rupert Murdoch, has most famously tried this with his major titles and it has been, thus far, an abject failure. Then there’s the iPad. Since its debut in the Spring of this year, publishers have been falling all over themselves to create apps for the device. Unfortunately, those very same apps have had the unintended but again, imminently predictable, consequence of further eroding print readership and revenue while producing relative peanuts in return.

So here is Murdoch again with his own “innovative” iPad app, a daily paper that debuts once a day with no social interaction, little or no incoming or outgoing web links and, at most, one minor update or so. In other words, he’s replicating the static newspaper while almost totally ignoring the realities of the online world. Yeah, that one’s gonna work out. At this point, I’ve been closely following the “transition” of print media online for two years now, and it seems as if almost no one from the old guard has learned anything at all in that time. Meanwhile, the technology keeps improving and the costs of entry into the market keep falling (unless, of course, you’re a legacy company who thinks it’s a good idea to dump $30 million on an app that undermines your core business and doesn’t really include any kind of innovation or anything even remotely useful to savvy internet residents).

Of course, that may be the point. Lock people behind a wall and don’t let them get out. I’ve been an Apple fan for a long time, but Steve Jobs hooking up with Murdoch on this is massively disappointing. Of course, in my opinion, Apple has been losing a lot of its luster over the past few years as its stream of products have gotten more and more successful, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad. Their computers are still the best thing going, but the peripheral stuff is getting a bit tiresome, as well as Apple’s increasingly draconian control mechanisms. Traditional publishers have been trying to lock people in since the internet first exploded on the scene. You’d think, at some point, it might actually sink in that you can’t lock people down in this way anymore because they don’t want to be locked down, and they sure as hell aren’t going to pay you for limiting their options.

So the year of the paywall has largely been a bust. The first nine months of the iPad’s saving the day for publishers has also been largely a bust. Where do they go from here? Out of business. I’m left with much the same opinion I’ve had all along here; the future of publishing does not rest with the legacy companies and those who have been inextricably indoctrinated in a print-first-last-and-always mentality. Much like any disruptive force in any industry since the dawn of industry itself, the future will be led by outsiders. They will find success in ways that the establishment would never have dreamed of, take their rightful places as the next generation of leaders of the industry, then get shunted aside years later as a newer generation with newer ideas once unthinkable to even the disrupters of old come along. It’s all about the cycle of life.

As things (hopefully) improve economically, the new and innovative ones will further take the top rungs of media success. By this time next year, the last of the old guard media may well be resigned to the tiny little nostalgic niche left to them and their loyalists. The Mayans may have been partially right after all; 2012 may not be the end of civilization, but it is quite possibly shaping up to be the end of old media. RIP. And don’t let casket door hit you in the ass on the way down.

Published in: on December 19, 2010 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Bad Joke

So I’ve been away the past couple weeks, and I’ve still got quite a bit of work ahead of me. Some major changes going on and my time to ramble on here has been somewhat limited of late. But today, I felt like I had to comment on something that has played a bit of a role in my approach to things recently and a few major life decisions coming up.

Anyone who reads this regularly will remember that about a month ago, I revealed a little insider information on who the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce was going to award its Company of The Year honor to on June 18. At the time, the selection of Chesapeake Publishing, owner of the Cecil Whig, seemed like a perplexing decision, given as the selection was made almost immediately on the cusp of Chesapeake’s choice to shutter the long-standing Elkton printing plant, eliminating dozens of Cecil jobs in the process. That, on top of consistent cutbacks and layoffs over the previous 18 months or so, just had me shaking my head in wonderment how the Chamber could possibly justify this kind of move.

Well, after a little digging around and research, I discovered that the Cecil County Office of Economic Development also supported the choice (maybe we should rename it the Office of Economic Retraction?), and that the Chamber itself circled the wagons after the initial poor public reaction to the news, and developed a justification involving something about successful internet integration. Yeah, okay. I even spoke to a couple members of the Chamber’s Board who informed me that Chesapeake was not only the winner of the award but they were the only company even nominated by a small committee consisting of a Chesapeake employee and a couple others. One of the Chamber members I spoke to, who requested to remain anonymous, even went so far as to say they were finished with the organization after this matter.

Well, on Friday night, Chesapeake was, in fact, given the Company of the Year award. There’s a little mention of it in today’s paper. The most interesting line was that the company was “accepting the award on behalf of the 250 people who work together to publish the Cecil Whig.” Of course, only about 30-40 of that 250 number are actually still employed in Cecil County, with the rest of the 100-150 jobs that used to exist in Elkton either being outright eliminated or shipped to the corporate office in Easton. There’s even a quote from Publisher David Fike about how change isn’t easy but necessary. Interestingly, there are two obvious typos in the quote; a double period and a set of quotation marks in the wrong place. I guess the changing landscape of the newspaper industry precludes the involvement of actual copy editors.

But again, don’t get me wrong. Chesapeake has every right to do whatever they have to to survive and deal with the economic issues going on today. As I’ve said before, the problem here is the local groups rewarding them for it. There is no doubt that the restructuring at the Whig is bad for Cecil County economically. We’ve lost work, we’ve lost jobs, we’ve lost a manufacturing facility. How can organizations dedicated to improving economic circumstances in the County possibly reward a company that has engaged in this type of stuff, however justified for them it may be? It’s a slap in the face to every Cecil company who is successfully dealing with the current economic issues without eliminating jobs and outsourcing work. It’s, to put it simply, a disgrace.

I’m not typically so blunt with my opinions, but this situation is pretty telling. It’s more important to these organizations to suck up to the local newspaper than it is to actually recognize real economic progress within the County. And, honestly, speaking as someone who has been intimately involved with start up publications, and even being a publisher myself for a while, there is no way I would have accepted an award like this in similar circumstances even if given. And I certainly wouldn’t have lobbied for it. Thanks but no thanks. I would have had a little respect for the community I was trying to serve by allowing someone who really deserves the recognition to receive it, not just so I can hang another plaque on the wall, have a soundbite in the paper, and call myself an “award-winning” company. An honor like this that isn’t really deserved has no meaning. And I suppose that’s my real problem with this. We are in one of the worst economic periods in my lifetime, or any of our lifetimes. It’s tough out there. And where do we turn when the groups that are supposedly working to improve things take actions like this that really undermines their credibility?

So, begrudging congratulations go to Chesapeake Publishing. Cecil County, you deserve much better.

And I Thought I Was Paranoid…

The other day, I wrote about the Federal Trade Commission’s report on the “reinvention of journalism.” Well, since the draft report was released, there has been a sizable response from the pundits to the effect of “this is the Obama administration’s socialist grab for control of the press and limiting the concept of free speech.” I have to say that, even as willing as I usually am to see a vast conspiracy with a sinister goal, these doomsayers have surprised me. I, too, read the complete report, and in no way did I see it as a grasp for government control of the media. It’s a plain and simple business deal. What the FTC has done here is provide a menu of regulatory changes for big media to consider that will benefit them, the cost of those changes in the form of new taxes, and political cover with the veneer of preserving journalism.

Here’s the deal: big media gets the changes to copyright and fair use they need to gut the blogs, aggregators and search engines, and the anti-trust exemptions to impose paywalls across the board and reimpose their monopolies. In exchange, the Feds get a cut of the proceeds: 2% of the advertising take, 5% of the device sales, and 5% of the ISP fees. To top it off, they both get to mask their back door deal with policies that “promote” journalism such as journalist Americorps, a national fund to support journalism, tax breaks for hiring journalists, etc.

This isn’t some great attempt to turn the media into a propaganda engine and restrict free expression, it’s the government selling regulatory changes that provide massive competitive advantages to legacy players for a percentage of the new revenue they’ll make. The Feds aren’t going to lock down the press because in this deal, it’s in their best interest if the press is as popular, widespread, and profitable as possible. Of course, it won’t matter if it’s new media or old who eventually wins out, they’ll still have their slice of the device, ad and internet service pie. And possibly a nice chunk of change from the broadcast spectrum, as well.

It’s a cynical attempt by the Feds to use the current disruption in the publishing industry to coerce struggling media companies to take a deal that gives them hope of long term survival and a return to the profit margins of yesterday by allowing themselves to be used as a justification for a series of new taxes that will generate tens of billions for the treasury.

It’s a suckers bet because, even with the new regulations, there’s no guarantee that legacy media would properly press the advantages they would give them. Remember, we’re talking about an industry that has mishandled every advantage it’s had since the advent of the internet. They could easily screw this up, too. If they have any sense, they’ll make the Feds use someone else as the foil for grabbing another giant hunk of cash from us all. My only fear is that many of them might be desperate enough to take the chance.

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