Pyrrhic Practices to Preserve the Past

I’ve spend much of the morning today watching an International News Marketing Association‘s ‘Media Subscriptions Town Hall‘, a seminar in which eight daily newspapers from different European nations present their endeavors to generate subscriptions to their websites. I was perhaps the only one of the 1,200 people–virtually all from other daily newspapers, watching this online seminar not for its tips about how to generate online subscriptions but to assess how still myopic and misguided is the world’s newspaper industry

That industry, an integral product of the Industrial Era, botched its adaptation to the Information Era (an adaptation that nonetheless would have transformed that industry into something else).

The error that botched its adaptation was that the industry’s ‘digital’ (i.e., ‘online’) pioneers (1995-2005) myopically misperceived computer-mediated technologies merely as means to delivery texts, still photos, and graphics, without purchasing, printing, and distributing paper editions. In other words, they saw online merely as a electronic distribution mechanism and websites as as non-paper versions of their traditionally printed editions.

Virtually all newspaper executives continue to misperceive online as that, and are flummoxed about why they can’t seem to generate online the same amount of revenues as they had generated with their printed editions. and why consumers use newspaper websites

The industry fails to understand that the way they package news is due to the limitations of Industrial Era analog media technologies and has now been render obsolete by the Informational Era’s computer-mediate technologies.
The hallmark limitation of analog printing presses (1434) and analog waveform broadcast transmitters (1898) is that every consumer of an edition or lister or viewer of a broadcast simultaneously received the same mix of stories or schedule of programs that every other consumer of that editor or broadcast receives. The analog media technologies of the Industrial Era gave media mass reach but no practical way to customize what mix of stories or programs each consumers receives according to that consumer’s own uniquely individual mix of needs and interests.

The result of this limitation was that editors of editions or producers of broadcast programming have had to made educated guesses about what mix of stories or programs might satisfy the widest interest among their demographic of consumers. The problem is that all people share very few universal interests (the weather); subsets of people might share some group interests (New York Yankees, Real Madrid); yet each person has myriad individual interests. It is the unique mix of those few universal, some group, and myriad other interests, that makes us each an individual.

The new media technologies of our new Informational Era have no such limitations. Computer-mediated technologies have even wider reach than do the Industrial Era’s characteristic Mass Media, plus can produced individualized feeds for each consumer according to that consumer’s own explicit or behaviorally-demonstrated mix of needs, interests, tastes, and beliefs. The New Media, called Individuated Media, can thus satisfy each consumer better than any Mass Medium’s printed or online editions or program schedule can. The concept of Individuated Media isn’t new (I first encountered it in MIT Media Lab Founder Nicholas Negroponte’s 1994 book ‘Being Digital’). I myself wrote about it during 2004 in Online Journalism Review. And nowadays it is the focus of my teaching and academic publishing.

Unfortunately for the world’s newspaper industry, their ‘digital pioneers’ were myopic and that industry’s inherent rooting in Industrial Era analog media technologies still blinkers it this wide panorama of change in the media environment. When by 2004 the newspaper industry failed to perceive this great change underway in the media environment, companies from outside that industry grasped the opportunities the change wrought. Remarkably, these companies did so inadvertently. During the first decade of this century, consumers of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Sina Weibo, Vkontakte, etc., discovered that those new tech companies’ services could provide these consumers with feeds of news, entertainment, and other information customized according to each of these consumer’s own unique mix of needs, interests, tastes, and beliefs. The epochal result was that billions of consumers worldwide ceased or markedly reduced their usage of the Mass Media’s editions and program schedules and instead switched to using primarily the Individuated Media of search engines and social media.

During today’s seminar, one attendee asked a panelist, “How do we compete against the ‘aggregators’?” The newspaper industry panelists replied, “Just continue doing what you’ve always done: publishing a good newspaper.” I don’t think the panelist realized that he was, in effect, saying ‘continue doing what has caused your decline.’ I’m sure that the questioner already is publishing a good newspaper. The real problem is that the concept of a newspaper has become obsolete.

Because the newspaper industry failed to foresee the potential of Individuated Media and itself built that media during the period of 1995-2005), that industry has functionally lost the future. It now relies upon search engines and social media (i.e., Individuated Media) companies for its consumers. It needs to integrate with this new media ecology. During the past several years, Google and Facebook, which now the major companies in the media ecology, have begun liaising with the newspaper industry. Newspapers need to integrate with Individuated Media companies in the way that auto parts manufacturers integrate with the auto industry. Newspapers are no longer themselves the primarily media vehicles today, yet do create materials for the new companies that are. Newspaper should continue their websites, but understand that their newsrooms prime function during the Informational Era will be to provide in a remunerative way stories to the news companies that have become that era’s primary media vehicles.

Unfortunately, virtually all the world’s newspapers still misperceive their own editions and hence their websites as the world’s primary vehicle for news distribution. The irony is that misperception is analogous to how a little more than a century ago the livery stable industry thought it would always continue to be the provider of the world’s primary means of local transportation and that automobiles would never supersede it in that. The livery stable companies that did survive were those who switched their business to providing the new technologies’ vehicles. Newspapers are more than 15 years overdue making a similar transformation.

Meanwhile, the newspaper industry is desperately trying online to preserve its pasts practices and its traditional although obsolete packaging of news.

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