The Greatest Failed Scientific Experiment Ever

Reality is that the world’s newspaper industry, indeed all of the Industrial Era’s legacy industries that are colloquially referred to as the Mass Media, have ultimately failed to adapt to the New Media environment, despite more than 25 years of endeavors, to generate the revenues that the industries hoped to generate online.

Throughout those many years, the industry has been searching for a chimerical business model which will allow survival of its newsrooms and their news packaging practices. Nothing has worked, and all but a relatively few members of newspapers are going extinct.

The industry’s latest forlorn hopes are that either requiring online consumers to subscribe or demanding that legislators to force search engines and social media companies to subsidize the industry or that reorganizing the tax status of the industry’s companies to be not-for-profit, or that some combination thereof, might maintain the industry’s heartbeat through this decade.

After more than 25 years of failure to generate online revenues commensurate to that the industry has meanwhile lost as billions of consumers shift their media habits from broadcasts and printed publications and instead to streaming media and websites, the time has certainly come to conclude that there is no way in which the vast majority of the newspaper industry, its newsrooms, and its traditional packaging and distribution of news can survive online and ultimately at all.

For examples, the most recent figures known for the U.S. newspaper industry are from 2020, when weekday edition circulation was 24.3 million copies per day and 25.8 million on Sundays. Compare that to the industry’s figures during 1990: 65.2 million weekend circulation and 62.6 million on Sundays. The U.S. newspaper industry has lost 60% of its readers, and the current rate of loss is 6% each year. Total industry’s annual revenues from advertising peaked at $49.3 billion in 2006 but had declined to $9.6 billion in 2020, an 81% loss. The industry’s circulation revenues peaked at $11.2 billion annually during 2006 and, despite the industry’s desperate attempt to generate online subscriptions during the past decade, were estimated to be $11.0 billion in 2020. The industry aggregate revenues were $59.9 billion in 2006 but an estimated $20.6 billion during 2020 and steadily declining. All of these figures include the U.S. newspaper industry’s online revenues.

Any executive from that industry who claims that things are better, or that the U.S. industry is turning around, is glibly speaking from his rectum.

The time is overdue to conclude that the problem of how daily newspapers can succeed in this new media environment is more fundamental that merely shoveling their contents online and then hoping that soliciting online subscriptions or reorganizing newspapers’ tax status or forcing search engines and social media companies to subsidize, or all of those things together, can possibly solve.

How did the newspaper industry get into this grave predicament? What insights to an actual solution did myopically fail to see? Draw some answers from a three-year period during the late 19th Century when (a) the greatest failed scientific experiment occurred and (b) a perspicacious book was published by a British satirist whose middle name and surname were identical. It was when classical physics ended.

The greatest failed scientific experiment ever occurred in 1887 at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. The world’s physicists had by then theorized that much like how sound waves traveled through the air, light waves must travel, even in the vacuum of space, through an invisible conductive medium that they named the ‘luminiferous aether’. They had already calculated to remarkable precision the speed of light in a vacuum. Two American physicists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley decided to see if the ‘luminiferous aether’ that was theorized to everywhere throughout the solar system was still or was moving like a galactic river.

Michelson and Morley constructed an ingenious device that let them measure the speed of light from the Sun during each season, expecting that as the Earth traveled around the Sun, the device might detect corresponding variations in the speed of light from the Sun, much like how someone paddling down a flowing river travels much faster than someone paddling upstream. They also expected that as the Earth spun each day, they would detect corresponding diurnal differences in the speed of the Sun’s light: such as the normal speed of light minus the speed of the Earth’s rotation at sunrise and the normal speed of light plus the speed of the Earth’s rotation at sunset.

Yet they and other physicists worldwide were flabbergasted that year when the Michelson-Morley Experiment found no differences in the speed of light coming or going in any direction, regardless of the Earth’s rotation or its speed revolving around the Sun. That result was nonsensical to them. If someone throws a ball forward from a moving car, the ball’s velocity should include the addition of the car’s speed; and if someone throws a ball behind a moving car, the car’s forward speed should subtract from the ball’s velocity. But when Michelson and Morley and physicists elsewhere in the world repeated the experiment, they all found the same mind-bending results that contradicted basic laws of physics and mathematics as had been understood for thousands of years. Indeed, that the speed of light did not change in regard the movements or velocities of its source or recipient is contrary to the basic formula of Distance equals Speed multiplied by Time!

For the next 18 years, the world’s physicists were baffled by the repeatable results of this failed experiment. Finally in 1905, young Albert Einstein published a scientific paper explaining that not only was there no ‘luminiferous aether’ but that the speed of light never changes relative to anyone’s position or motion. His Special Theory of Relativity said that instead time and distance change relative to the invariant speed of light, a truly mind-bending concept that has ever since never been disproven. It was a concept that no previous physicist had ever realized or considered, but that exactly fit all repeatable scientific results and transformed our understanding of the universe. Twenty-First Century physicist Neil DeGrass Tyson has remarked that the failed Michelson-Morley Experiment, “transformed science. Not only physics but science.”

Three years before the Michelson-Morley Experiment, English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott (yes, a doubled name: his parents were first cousins) published in London a satirical novella entitled Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions, which described a two-dimensional world inhabited by flat people who can neither perceive nor understand the possibility–nonetheless the existence and implications–of there being three dimensions. Whenever three-dimensional objects appear in their world, Flatlanders perceive those two-dimensionally. For instances, if a sphere or cube passing through their world, the Flatlanders’ inadequate cognition perceives it merely as a line appearing and disappearing. They are insensate to the depths and existence of any third dimension and never possibility of it.

The world’s Mass Media executives are similarly myopic to the depth of change underway in the media environment. They perceive that environment as having only two basic two dimensions: (1) mass-production and (2) mass-reach. What is colloquially known as Mass Media originated circa 1450 with Gutenberg’s invention of a practical printing press which allowed the mass production of books, newspapers, magazines, etc. Starting in the 1890s, the reach of such mass production was massively extended with the invention of the wireless broadcast transmitter.

Virtually all Mass Media industries today utilize online as if it were simply a paperless or antennae-less means of distributing their traditional Industrial Era packages (i.e., an edition, a program schedule, an albumn, etc.) of news, entertainment, and other information. Yet what flummoxes executives of Mass Media today is why simply putting online those packages of content fails to generate the revenues they had expected or that are at least compensate for the declines of their traditional printed or broadcasts products or services. For more than 25 years, they have tried everything they know to get those results, but repeatedly fail, much like the world’s best minds attempting the Michelson-Morley Experiment.

The Industrial Era is ending in much of the world’s developed nations. It is already being superseded by the Informational Era, in which computers’ abilities to process, sort, analyze, and distribute data are revolutionizing commerce, finance, transportation, manufacturing, and everyday lives. And much as the remarkable inventions of the printing press and the broadcast transmitter created the two basic dimensions of media during the Industrial Era (the ‘Mass Media’), computers are now creating an unprecedented third dimension in media. That new dimension is mass-customization. It is a new dimension that Mass Media executives who have lived all their lives with only two media dimensions are cognitively unable to perceive and fully understand, much like Flatlanders.

Despite Mass Media’s capabilities of mass-production and mass-reach, all recipients of a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast simultaneously receive the same mix of contents in that edition or program schedule. (In my postgraduate course, I refer to this disadvantage as Analog Uniformity. Although all people do share a few common interests (e.g., the weather) and numbers of people do share some groups (e.g., fans of Futbal Club Barcelona), virtually everyone has myriad special or idiosyncratic interests. It is the unique mix of those few common, some group, and very many special or idiosyncratic interests that makes each person an individual. Unfortunately for the production and packaging practices of Mass Media, which arose from and are rooted in the Industrial Era’s analog technologies, the Informational Era’s computer-mediate technologies’ abilities to process, sort, analyze, and distribute content are capable of producing and delivering a mix of contents that better match each individual consumer’s own mix of needs, interests, tastes, and beliefs than any Mass Media product or services, or practical combination thereof, can provide. It is mass production and mass reach, plus mass customization.

The reason why search engines, social media companies, and other new media companies that provide such individualized feeds of have become extraordinarily successful during the past 20 years is that billions of consumers worldwide discovered that the superiority of receiving these highly-customized (indeed, individuated) feeds of news, entertainment, or other information versus the uncustomized (i.e., unindividualized) products or services from Mass Media companies. So too do advertisers find Individuated Media superior for that reason. Is Facebook a Mass Media company? Mass production of its service allows it to serve more than 2.3 billion consumers, which is mass reach beyond any of the world’s Mass Media companies; yet each of those 2.3 billion consumers simultaneously sees a different mix of contents than any of the others: a mix based upon that consumer’s own individual mix of needs, interests, tastes, and behavior. Providing three, not two, dimensions in media, Facebook is an Individuated Media, not Mass Media, company.

Unfortunately, most Mass Media industry executives are still myopic, cognitively misperceiving such truly new media companies as somehow merely extensions, adjuncts, or supplements to Mass Media, rather than an unprecedented new genus of media. Billions of consumers worldwide know better. Mass Media executives persist in utilizing online for only two dimensions, like Flatlanders, and, like Michaelson and Morley, are clueless about why their own continued efforts and experiments aren’t yielding the results they expected.

Fourteen years ago, at a media conference about individuation of media, I encountered a Mass Media executive who couldn’t comprehend how any newspaper could possibly produce and distribute individuated editions to consumers. As the former owner of a daily newspaper, I know that that it is impossible using the Industrial Era analog presses to produce individuated newspapers. However, telephone companies, utilities, banks, and credit card companies have been using digital presses (basically giant, highspeed ink jet printers) to print and distribute individuated products for decades, namely the bills or statements that they send to hundreds of millions of consumers.

The newspaper industry should have foreseen, understood, and adapted to adapted to this profoundly new, third dimension that computer-mediate technologies (i.e., online or colloquially ‘digital’) have wrought in the world’s media environment. Had they foreseen, understood, and utilized this during the late 1990s or initial years of the 2000s, the world’ newspaper industry today would still be the predominant means by which people obtained news in more than a few sentences. The New Media executives of the industry during that period, resting on their belief that just shoveling printed texts and photographs online was enough, abjectly failed their industry and doomed its future.

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