Friday, March 20, 2009

The tricky transition part...

As I ponder the information business from this far-flung corner, I have been concerned about what was failing - namely the newspaper business model.  This concern was amplified by the lack of another obvious choice for journalism to embrace.

The Internet has proven to be all pain with little gain, economically.  Whole domains of revenue generation have been obliterated by craigslist or flickr. Worse yet, a certain desperation now marks the attempts to monetize eyeballs on the web.

We are in transition.  By definition, that means we have no idea what will happen next.  We've been here before.

 Elizabeth Eisenstein's magisterial treatment of Gutenberg's invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg's invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther's use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child's play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein's book asks is "How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?"

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn't know what to think. If you can't trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn't apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can't predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won't break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren't in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie. [More of a wonderfully insightful essay]

This is hardly comforting, but the realization that not knowing is normal can be oddly stabilizing.  In concert, with our macroeconomic fog, the fate of journalism and newspapers is doubly obscured.

My guess is we will end up with a few exceptional hybrid news "vehicles" which capitalize on the disappearance of competitors to achieve some leverage with advertisers. But how those hybrids work will be a mashup of several forces now emerging. Blogs, aggregators, social networking,e-readers like Kindle, and a host of web trends now in the "ridiculous" stage.

Ag communications will not be immune, but will likely not innovate on its own.  Much of the information system that will serve producers a decade hence may be a side service of the above survivors.  Almost certainly the tools used will appear first in the general public and be trimmed to fit our sector.

As such, our communications will look more like other industries, which will look much like general public media.  Our uniqueness will be a cover page on a common engine, just as websites in all their variety are examples of infinitely variable skins.

What will add the value in such circumstances is the quality of the information itself, since all other aspects of communications will be equally available and cheap. The "death" of newspapers could actually mark in some ways a rebirth of journalism as intellectual property is one factor technology cannot devalue.

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