Parallel and serial

Isn’t it obvious that online media would overtake print media? Wasn’t it a forgone conclusion from the moment that Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web that Newsweek (the print edition) would be supplanted?

It certainty seems so to me. From my point of view, of course Drudge Report took Newsweek’s readers and advertisers. And if Drudge hadn’t, another online media platform would have.

As AG noted, the market for newspapers was a brutal and competitive market. That market was an information processing machine, cycling through business models and exploring unknown reader demand curves to eek out whatever profit could be found.

But then the web was invented, and we see an explosion in the market reach of media producers combined with a lowering of costs in producing media right down to “pocket change”, as this very blog’s existence is proof of. The print media’s information processing machine was immediately out-classed by the online media’s information processing machine in every meaningful respect. More business models, more content, more readers, more advertisers great and small.

As far as I’m concerned, the only question is when print products achieve the same sort of museum quality that we now reserve for illuminated manuscripts or telegraph machines, not if. Online media has more experiments and more failures, more quickly launched and more quickly gone. The online information-processing juggernaut is both broader in scope and faster in execution than anything print can muster, as a basic property of its technological medium.

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Bill Watterson and Newspaper Entrepreneurship

Reading David’s post and talking it over with him before and afterwards, I am reminded of Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s speech “The Cheapening of Comics.”

Why am I talking about comics in a thread about print news? There are a few important overlaps between David’s points and Watterson’s. First, they’re both about print media—Watterson is talking specifically about newspaper comics. Second, they both are about a time of relatively few options in the media landscape.

Third, they both have a sense of mass media being maintained by a social contract which long ago was breached. See David:

For a while there, before the sudden demise of print media, we all agreed to play the fixed game because it was fun and there was still a chance to come away with something of value. We small government types tacitly acknowledged that print media was in the tank for Big Government types, and we bought the paper just so long as there were boundaries of decorum.

Now see Watterson:

The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.

And most crucially, in both of them is a clear belief that things did not need to be this way. Watterson was writing about his present, and David about his past, but both of them are making a claim that a stable equilibrium was not made inevitable by economic and technological realities.

The economist’s argument to both is that if printed news and newspaper comics appear in some way deficient to David and Watterson, the audiences are to blame, not the people in the industry. The market supplies what people want. Even when it was subsidized by classified and had far fewer close substitutes, print was a trial and error information processing bloodbath. Very, very low margins, and a lot of churn. It seems as though if there was another stable equilibrium, this information processing machine would have found it.

On the other hand, it is the very drive to find a better way that brought us to where we are today. Elsewhere I have remarked on how Watterson, despite his anti-commercial rhetoric, displays some remarkable bourgeois virtues.

The cause of death for the still-warm body of print news may have ultimately been the bomb planted by tinkering technologists, but who is to say that, if the digital and Internet revolutions had not come, things would have stayed the same? The niche magazine market was already expanding rather drastically at the time, who knows how that would have played out in itself. And perhaps some gutsy entrepreneurs would have found a way to make mass media work without treating their audiences like a single bland mass. Who knows?

A True Friend Helps You Move A Body

A true friend not only helps you move your old dormitory couch out of the basement man-cave because your wife complained about the smell even though you don’t smell anything amiss–but she does, and you know what it is she’s smelling, and whom–not only does a true friend help you move aromatic furniture, he also helps you move a body. As the bard proclaims: Ne’er is friendship made more sure than ‘neath the docks/ In darkness for the poor deceased creating concrete socks (Now the song is stuck in your head, isn’t it?)

In civil society, we generally wait for the body to assume room temperature, even refrigerator temperature, before we hire men to dig the hole or stoke the furnace. Moreover, we ask for information regarding death: what kind of sickness? What manner of death? Next of kin? On the other hand, when a friend is required in order to perform a burial, we’re no longer in civil society, and the body is still warm. Most importantly, no questions are asked, not even, “Remember that thing we did?” And whenever someone asks, “What ever happened to Johnny Two Shoes?” the answer is along the lines of “He did seem kind of heavy the last time I saw him.” “Yeah, like he had a kind of sinking feeling about him.”

Many are nostalgic for print media, but we haven’t even buried print media yet. Basic questions have yet to be answered: what killed print media? Was it self-inflicted morbid living (lowest common denominator marketing)? Or was it old age (ineluctability of new technology)? Could the cause of death actually have been suicide (shooting its own customer base in the head repeatedly)?

It was this sentence fragment in Clay Shirky’s “Nostalgia and Newspapers” post which aggravated me (I thought the post was otherwise commendable), concerning print media: “…an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry…” That’s like saying Johnny Two Shoes loved gambling when in fact Johnny Two Shoes loved running a fixed and illegal roulette game in the Miami Beach area. For a while there, before the sudden demise of print media, we all agreed to play the fixed game because it was fun and there was still a chance to come away with something of value. We small government types tacitly acknowledged that print media was in the tank for Big Government types, and we bought the paper just so long as there were boundaries of decorum. But when Drudge Report, a digital media source, broke the news that Newsweek had declined to pursue the Monica Lewinsky story, the general public abandoned the print media casino. That was it. Too many of us had seen too much violence done to truth, virtue, honesty, integrity, etc., to look the other way any longer; our secondary benefits had been tainted by an arrogant culture of liars and power mongers. News media is not supposed to be terribly objective, but neither are they to be so crass in their power influencing.

The Drudge/Lewinsky example might be too fraught as an example (I’m feeling bombastic), but I repeat for emphasis: it wasn’t the Monica Lewinsky story, it was that Newsweek declined to do its job. Thus, the nascent digital media, which could have died in the birth canal, was delivered, and print media was no longer. Digital was a favorable alternative for many reasons, but not ineluctable, and it didn’t have to mean the demise of print; it still doesn’t.

These quick and easy eulogies of print media seem to me to be disposing of a warm body.