More sand

Jason Fry in the Wall Street Journal writes an excellent column summing up the suicidal impulses of the association of Belgian newspapers — and others — who try to shut off Google and think they are still in a position to make media’s rules.

These disputes are about money, of course — the newspaper groups think Google’s making some off their efforts, and they want a piece. But more broadly, Copiepresse objects to the idea that Google and other search engines should set the rules for linking, contending that such standards should be set by copyright laws, not technological standards. That’s a bid to turn back time and declare a do-over on the basics of search engines — a quixotic effort that flies in the face of the reality of how content is consumed today, and one in which Copiepresse has inadvertently lined up against its papers’ own readers.

Whether or not content creators like it, this is the age of fragmentation. In industry after industry, consumers are voting with their feet against old methods of packaging and distributing information. They want to pick and choose what’s of interest to them, without having to pay for or wade through what isn’t. That change, midwived by technology, has shaken or shattered content companies’ business models. It’s made everything they do more risky. And it’s stripped them of power they once enjoyed, forcing them to work with new companies and industries that somehow got to set the rules. Faced with such a situation, it’s understandable that content creators are angry. But the chance to set the ground rules passed some time ago, and it’s high time for content creators to realize that and adjust.

After reviewing the internet-induced upheaval that has struck music and television, he says:

The only surprise would be if newspapers were any different.

In moving online, newspapers have become collections of individual articles, each of which often stands on its own. Once, readers encountered articles by reading the paper a page at a time. Now, such readers are being supplanted by voracious online consumers who get their news in any number of unpredictable ways.

That’s a critical insight I rarely see in print but one that blogs understand because, as Meg Hourihan said in the dawn of blogging, the atomic unit of media is no longer the publication or the section or the page or even the article but the post: the nugget of information, the thought, the notion. That is what is really being disaggregated: the old unit of media itself.

I have no idea how you’re reading this column. Maybe you found it on the Online Journal’s home page or the technology page. Maybe you saw it because it includes Google’s stock symbol, or it hit your newsreader via an RSS feed. Maybe you followed a link from a blog, Google News or Technorati. . . . I can’t control any of that and wouldn’t want to — like any writer, the most-important thing to me is to be read. If the Online Journal started directing readers who followed third-party links to this column to the home page and left them to find their way from there, I’d be furious — because I’d be guaranteed to lose readers who got lost. And if said they were doing that because there were ads on the home page but not on this article, I’d not so gently suggest hiring a competent Web designer instead of suing search engines. . . .

Ultimately, what content creators face isn’t new technology, but a sea change in consumer behavior. Consumers don’t want to go back to watching TV at set times, buying albums or reading newspapers page by page. Trying to make them do so using laws that haven’t kept up with technology will fail. . . . At its heart, the Web is driven by users, not publishers. Whatever pain that causes content creators, opposing that fundamental idea became a revanchist fantasy long ago.

Well said. The problem for the controllers of media is that they still want to be and think they can be in control. But the obvious rule of nature is that we will be in control whenever we can be and we will cede it only unwillingly, only by necessity. So the key is to find out how to succeed by enabling us to do what we want to do. That is what the technology companies — Google, Facebook, et al — do. How can media companies do likewise? WWGD?

At the Murdoch clambake in Monterey, I tried to suggest that the real lesson these media men and women should learn from Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is that he delivered enabling technology to the people and millions used it. How do we build news so it gets used? How do we succeed at that? How do we exploit Google?

  • Today the Star Tribune announced another bunch of layoffs (if not enough people take the buyout).

    It looks like they’re following the Jarvis plan of focusing on local and buying or linking to features that are more national or global.

  • Consumers are fed up with the usual soup. Consumers want to consume something different. Consumers do not want to read 10 articles to find what they want to read.
    They want RRS feeds where they find all what they like already served on a silver tray.
    Consumers do not want to loose time, they want to arrive at the goal. They want somebody else to provide the goal, so that they will just “consume”.

    And when the consumer will be fed up of consuming what is already prepared and wants to begin again to cook?
    To choose? To be able to select?
    When will consumers be again fed up with the more than usual soup? Because the ones who produce that special content will not have enough to supply daily, will have to recook what they served one week ago.
    What if the consumers will be tired to read and know everything of nothing?

    Welcome the old world of newspaper where you opened a new one everyday, without knowing what you were going to find inside.
    Where you could discover that yes, on the contrary of what you believed, you can also be interested in cooking, or in certain sports, or in erotic or, may be of what happens in political life or in your town…
    What id suddenly you found out that the news is nothing, what matters is the one who tells it, or writes it.
    That everything can be interesting, providing that somebody is able to write it in an interesting way.
    That was once called “good journalism” “independent journalism” “real journalism”.

    May be that is what consumers are looking for.
    They are looking for the news that interests them, and ANY NEWS could be, providing that…

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  • David

    This is something I’ve thought about for a while but never have been able to articulate as clearly as the above.

    I work on the entertainment side of the media business, and while I generally think it’s great that consumers will be able to assemble disparate pieces of content to read/view in as they see fit, the resulting fragmentation–particularly of news and editorial content–could have highly detrimental effects on the social fabric of democracies around the world. In other words, this is what I would call the dark side of media fragmentation.

    From the perspective of the end-user, if everyone becomes his or her own newspaper editor, many people will subscribe to editorial content from writers/producers with whom they agree, and selectively aggregate news articles that similarly reflect their existing biases. This condition could be exacerbated by content providers, who (once they’ve grasped the idea that they need to “sell” articles or their equivalents rather than newspapers) will likely adopt advertising models tied to views of specific articles. This would then provide a further economic incentive for content providers of all sizes to produce material that is targeted to these specific groups — in other words, this ad model could stimulate the creation of content that reinforces the views of its intended micro-audience (or perhaps conversely, is anathema to them for the purposes of provoking a controversy).

    Over many years, I suspect that these two forces, one consumer-driven (content self-selection) and the other advertiser-driven (micro-targeted ad buys), could cause entire generations to grow up without ever having been exposed to alternate viewpoints, resulting in an increasingly polarized electorate.

  • d

    Hi Jeff,
    The biggest newspaper group in Belgium is Persgroep Publishing NV.
    They own several newspapers and TV & radio stations.
    On top of that they own 4 newspapers, one of them being Het Laatste Nieuws.
    It’s the biggest newspaper in Belgium and it keeps growing.
    And so do their profits.
    With advertising dollars falling you would think it would be quite the opposite.

    That being said, I live in the Flemish part of Belgium.
    I no longer watch TV.
    I watch YouTube.
    Although I must say the low quality content over there starts to annoy me.
    I stopped buying newspapers.
    When I read one it’s because the newspaper is given to me for free.
    I stopped buying magazines too.
    I now read blogs.
    None of my friends read blogs.
    When Steve Jobs showed everyone the iPhone, they didn’t know about it until I told them about it. That was 15 hours after Steve’s keynote.
    They googled iPhone.

    Slowly, but it’s coming…

  • For David:

    I believe you have touched on something important, here. Like diners at a buffet, people tend to gravitate to reading what they WANT to read. Society has become increasingly insular with the proliferation of technology and the mass media, and social, cultural and political polarization has continued to increase.

    There are some advantages to from-the-top-down reporting that people need to seriously keep in mind. Without it, we may develop a society of specialists of their own particular interest, but they could easily remain ignorant of a lot of the important news that could be effecting change in their lives without their knowlege.

    This goes a long way to explaining the current situation in the administration, at present…

  • Newspapers may have become collections of individual articles, but they are not just that: they are also selections and rankings of those articles – just like they were before the web. What is new is that now you can be a publisher of selections without being a publisher of content – e.g. Daylife. More in my blog.