The future is never a straight line projection of the past

Strange to say, newspapers suffered from years of recurrent profitability. They suffered because they became addicted to their own success. Hubris set in, and hubris is blinding. It prevented newspaper companies from appreciating that the Internet was a radically new and unusually potent medium with its own uniquely distinctive characteristics, thus demonstrating yet again the central point in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s marvelous book, “The Black Swan:” In business, how you perceive events is often more important than the events themselves.

Because the future is never a straight line projection of the past, if your view of the market is blinkered by inbuilt cultural and historical bias you are guaranteed to misread the nature and potential of any new technology, and to impose on it a false and confining perspective drawn from your particular institutional experience. When challenged in the past, very few newspaper companies had successfully migrated from one media platform to the next. Most had dismissed radio. Then they missed television. Then cable. They always simply assumed they were in the newspaper business… forever.

Like the clichéd buggy whip manufacturers at the dawn of the automobile, their insularity damned them. They had been able to adjust to the arrival in their markets of radio and television, sustained by their monopoly of local print. Sure, share of advertising was impacted, but that was handled by a rate increase or two. Managing the onset of the Internet and the digital media it spawned was going to take more, much more than the usual marginal adjustments.

One of the unfortunate outcomes of newspaper collapse is that there are now a lot of editors out of work. And they simply can’t shut up. They are preoccupied with describing what went wrong and what it means for “journalism” and “the news business,” strutting their oleaginous prose in books and blogs and tweets. Some even have the effrontery to accept payment for their deep thoughts. But it’s all flatulent blather that scrupulously avoids self-examination and aims at nothing more than the mutual and circular perpetuation of self-regard. They universally end up putting the singular blame on greedy owners, public or private, doesn’t seem to matter, to these guys they’re all rapacious profiteers who milked newspaper franchises and ran them into the ground.

Well, there’s plenty of blame to go round for the missed digital opportunity, plenty, and right up there for approbation are the editor-priests who were bedazzled by their own sanctimony and refused to accept the numbers demonstrating that circulation and market penetration were on an unremitting decline to nowhere. It was obvious that nobody liked their stuff but them. Yet neither corporate management nor publishers nor least of all the stewards of their digital efforts were ever able to rein in their own newsrooms. They were cowered by their editor’s self-avowed sacred sense of purpose, not recognizing that it made the newsroom as impervious to change as the College of Cardinals. No new Internet product thinking was ever going to emerge from there.

In an analog word, distribution is scarce and attention is plentiful. In a digital world, distribution is plentiful and attention is scarce. If you flout your innumeracy, exalt in the sound of your own voice, have never learned how to fight, really fight for audiences and confuse the notion of product quality on the Internet with a tedious replica of what is not working in print, you will not make the transition to digital. That’s because it’s not a transition that’s required. It’s actually a transformation.

Posted by Peter M. Winter

Peter is a traditional media veteran and a digital media pioneer. He is an active angel investor and occasional consultant. He advises established companies on cultural regeneration and also consults to digital start-ups, helping them incorporate management process without sacrificing speed. He holds five technology patents. Peter is an award-winning public speaker and writer. His new book "Cowboys and Cannibals," will be published in 2017 - it is the ultimate insider account of the battle to find a digital future for newspapers when the Internet came to town. He blogs on media and leadership at BlastofWinter.com and publishes his unconventional ideas about management on his LinkedIn page. His collection of short stories can be found on Medium.com, at Peter Winter's Life of Fiction

2 Comments

  1. You mention distribution is plentiful and attention is scarce; that hit home for me. I see a million BuzzFeed links on Facebook every day. I click on a few of them, each one consuming 30 seconds to 2 minutes of my time. Compare that with sitting down every morning and reading the WSJ for a half hour. Maybe it’s just because I’m a restless college student with no routine, but I rarely find time to do that. I always read the “what’s news” column on the left of the front page, though. Feed me meaningful news in the form of ADD-driven procrastination-prone blurbs!

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  2. Peter

    Three core elements of newspapers confine them to adapt radically or eventually go the way of the ice age mammals. – content, presentation or format and distribution. The internet plus the mobile phone and or tablet take away whatever comparative advantages existed. Maybe it is too late and the irreversible process has started. And we have not got to hubris and the unchanging mantra of College of Cardinals.

    Radio and TV/cable and even magazines were never direct competition to newspapers pre internet. They made a big impact. They encroached on advertising revenues (pie was reduced) and more importantly they competed for the marginal minute of consumer time. Plus they offered some products better than newspapers could hope to do such as in depth articles in magazines (Sports Illustrated being a prime example) and live or breaking news coverage of events (radio and television).

    They did not, however, provide real estate, motor vehicle, job market classifieds tailored to local markets. Plus newspapers gave you access to a selection of news and editorial opinion to be consumed to whatever degree at your leisure not just during the 7 pm news slot. The literary section of the Times or New York Times was hardly material for CNN. As you say distribution was scarce and so the industry was more or less ring fenced, albeit a movable malleable fence. A fragile co-existence prevailed with market share declining, but a much bigger pie so less noticeable.

    The warning, however, came with the arrival one day of Gen X. Pre internet here was the future generation hooked on video games, audio products and television. The demographic shift should have been the biggest alarm bell. But as they had little discretionary income (at least in early years unlike today) this transformative signal was missed or ignored or simply too hard to manage.

    The internet, was not just a complementary option but a direct substitution (and not just for newspapers) with significantly more features, services and functionality than newspapers could even dream about. Even if they were so inclined. Gen X and Y were there in a heartbeat and we old baby boomer anachronisms stumbled along behind. Eventually the pervasiveness, robustness and practicality won out. Simplicity too but only to a degree as software einsteins certainly ensured our leisure time was devoted to moving from Vista to MS Dos 8 or worse to an apple platform with minimal compatibility.

    Who would have believed that Mr Murdoch, newspaper and media entrepreneur extraordinaire would be Tweeting! Gossip magazines created a following. Tweeting is another dimension altogether offering us mere mortals supposed direct access to the crumbs dispensed by the nobility.

    I think newspapers (national more than local which have a different survival model) were structured in such away that with no barrier to entry to their core businesses (once internet arrived, evolved and penetrated households globally via mobile phones) they were doomed. They did not own the very content their title embraced – news. Much of it comes non-exclusively from third party suppliers (who I can access directly now via the web). The layout (a physical broadsheet or tabloid product) was practical with a comparative advantage over fixed bulky TV sets until the ubiquitous mobile phone arrived. Plus they package fish and chips more hygienically so the by-product value has also diminished. The newspaper has become fragmented online. Its content is numerous products and each is offered better, in formats adapted for the respective market (not Henry Ford’s one paper suits all even with genre Sections) and distributed more widely, more cheaply and environmentally more friendly than printed newspapers.

    The distributors, at least in Australia, still carry huge numbers of magazines but the newspaper section of the Newsagent Shop is a small corner somewhere in the aggregation of stuff. Revenue in the newsagent comes from gambling – lotto, scratchies, pools, jackpots. So much for the News in News agent.

    You suggest Newspapers tried to transition when needed to transform. Look at the UK. They adapted first to anachronistic management and labour practices (under duress) and in parallel technological innovations radically changed the method of printing beginning with the shift from Fleet Street to Wapping in the mid 1980’s. This was a start but not enough long term. Distribution was distribution was distribution. Sure papers could be produced in local centres once data pipes were in place. But they were still newspapers. And that seems to me to be an important key. Hubris, sanctimonious editors and publishers, Papal infallibility aside – a physical paper (a bunch of dead trees that have been pulped and shipped and processed) is an archaic way to get information. And a paper online in its printed format is not unlike a book online purporting to be a movie.

    The elements of the newspaper are now scattered to the four corners of the globe – and excellent I say. I now read on line much more informative sport or current affairs from a much wider selection of sources (not just Fox/News Corp or BBC spins) and more significantly all the crap I used to leave on the floor, at the bus station or on the train (the sections of the paper of no interest to me) remains somewhere in the ether for those who wish to indulge.

    The self indulgent ownership of a newspaper for idealogical reasons may continue but Gen X, Gen Y and whatever the next ones are called will be oblivious.

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