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.