One of the media analysis essay I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem. I think about that conversation a lot these days.
The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several. One was to partner with companies like America Online, a fast-growing subscription service that was less chaotic than the open internet. Another plan was to educate the public about the behaviors required of them by copyright law. As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. Would DRM or walled gardens work better?
Shouldn’t we try a carrot-and-stick approach, with education and prosecution? In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason. The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use.
People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals.
The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world increasingly resembled the unthinkable scenario. When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies! The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, so we can too!
Financial information is one of the few kinds of information whose recipients don’t want to share. Micropayments work only where the provider can avoid competitive business models. The New York Times should charge for content! Cook’s Illustrated and Consumer Reports are doing fine on subscriptions!
If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? To which the answer is: Nothing. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke. With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem. Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press.
She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. But what was happening in 1500? How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it?
What was the revolution itself like? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.