Friday, January 16, 2009



Earlier in the week, a LA Times journalist did what media columnists have been doing during the past couple years: Take space wondering how the newspaper is to survive.

It's a vexing issue, one usually poorly received in interviewing the demographic least likely to value a daily newspaper, the on-line freetard. Sometimes high school students are asked for their opinion, sometimes it's a new media consultant. The results are always the same: Lord of the Flies social Darwinism in which the daily newspaper is Piggy. First, it's ridiculed for the amusement of all in the freetard tribe. And then death by tossing off a cliff is anticipated.

"Everyone knows reading news online is free," writes David Sarno at the newspaper here.

Well, we all know it's not.

Freetard mommies and daddies pay the Internet wireless bill! Your company or university picks up the broadband connection. But this is realized to be another matter entirely, one in which it only just that the owners of the water pipe get paid, not the people who furnish the actual water. (While the comparison is inexact, think of it this way: Under a freetard business model, the people who work at Pasadena Water & Power, sanitizing the drinking water and ensuring the devices are maintained and smoothly running, aren't worth shit. They should be robbed of the livelihood. But the two or three at the top of the chain, those who "own" the utility pipes, then mommy and daddy or the company or the school, or sometimes even your bank card, pays for that and only that.)

"It’s so rigidly free, in fact, that most newspapers (including this one) that have tried to charge for their content have found such efforts to be a bit like pulling the sword from the stone," continues Sarno. "One pretender after another has slunk away, amid derisive shouts from the crowd."

Sarno ventures a micro-payment scheme for on-line news, an old idea which no one has ever attempted to seriously implement.

The freetard is inevitably consulted, someone named Clay Shirky who is alleged to be an important person.

"But even though [Shirky's] anti-micropayment manifestos have been online for years ... last week he received an unusual number of calls from reporters asking him about the theory, suggesting ... that desperate newspaper types are 'rummaging around' for revenue ideas," wrote Sarno. 'I haven’t talked to anybody about this stuff since the last recession,' he said. 'I don’t get any interest except when it’s a Hail Mary play.'”

And this gives the column it's title, it's newspaper Hail Mary time.

"[Among] people under 30, the Internet is now tied with TV as the leading source for national and international news," it is said for about the ten millionth time in recent memory. "Printed newspapers ran a distant third, even though they produce a substantial amount of the Web’s news content."

It is useless to pursue an audience composed only of freetards.

However, I'm convinced the daily newspaper is only done when it begins to think its physical copy is basically the same asset as its on-line presence. And having come to that idea, decides to abandon the former. That's suicide, as the Christian Science Monitor, the Detroit Free Press, and perhaps the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will show us.

The LA Times reporter asked for thoughts, so DD sent some -- via e-mail. I purposely didn't want to go the way of on-line edition and post for the comments section. This is because (1) -- my opinion that the paper edition is magnitudes superior than the on-line edition, and (2) -- the thought that "comments" sections act as devices in which the people hosting them aren't really interested in what you think, just that they bring in more page hits.

However, Sarno replied to my letter and asked that I repost it there, anyway.

"I was on-line in 1989," it says near the beginning. "And I've read more and more news on-line over the past fifteen years, sometimes too much. Most people just don't need fresh news every micro-second to be effective in their lives. It's an illusion Internet news seems determined to cater to ... In any case, nothing has ever replaced the daily LA Times."

Your host has no solution for how to squeeze survival money from the Internet. This is because there is none to be had. If there was a global Wal-Mart for newspapers, I would suggest making a distro deal with it. Only Wal-Mart has demonstrated that it can be a venue for defying well-off lifestyle thieves and moochers. Its customers still buy stuff on spec. And some of the best-selling CDs were sold through Wal-Mart in 2008, by artists who realized selling it anywhere else would simply be killing themselves. AC/DC's CD, "Black Ice," released in autumn, became one of the biggest selling units of the year -- at $48 million -- in part, because the band stubbornly refused to cater to the Internet's freetard audiences. In this way, AC/DC preserved its art, profits and fans. AC/DC stiff-armed the on-line young adult market and prospered.

However, there's no such mechanism or conduit for newspapers.

In any case, the rest of my defense of the LA Times paper edition is here.

Many of the comments were thoughtful. And, as usual, many weren't.

"Why would I pay for something when I can get the news for free through a million different resources online," opines a freetard, anonymously. "I am 28 years old, and [sic] avid news junkie."

"Information wants to be free!" was an old hacker slogan, too, said to be first uttered by Stewart Brand in the Eighties. It was often repeated as a battle-cry in cyberspace. Generally, it was employed to rhetorically club to death those who wished to attach value to something they naively put into the digital world. Just like "Why should I pay for my news and information?" is today.

But by 1994, the bromide was zinc-plated and corroded. In the book Virus Creation Labs, I paraphrased what someone really meant when they tossed it in your face, usually in reference to something they had stashed away on a bulletin board or website made for an exclusive young audience of insiders:

"Your information is mine for free. But everything I can grab is secret unless you have something I want which can't be free-loaded, stolen or found somewhere else."

(I used to employ it here.)

"Our generation doesn't pay for things on the Internet," said a fifteen-year-old girl to the LA Times newspaper a bit over a year ago. It's an age thing, you see, she explained.

I covered this before. And no one cared then, either.


Anonymous AnticitizenTwo said...

That's the torrent for Black Ice that I found in 20 seconds on the Internet. Selling a CD through Wall Mart doesn't stop it from getting ripped and torrented the day it is released. That happens for virtually ever major album these days. And yet the music industry stubbornly refuses to collapse, despite the major labels' protestations and best efforts to the contrary. AC/DC didn’t preserve their art, or their fans, or their money with the Wal-Mart deal; none of those things were ever really in jeopardy. What they did do was confirm that they are now officially old people music.

That girl who said that people her age don’t pay for things on the Internet—well, it’s easy to see where she’d get that idea, but she was speaking from ignorance. Maybe cash-strapped teenagers (or ones who simply don’t understand the concept of reciprocity) never pay for music, but plenty of music fans do. It is not an uncommon practice at all to download an unfamiliar album to try it out, and then if it is to the listener’s liking, go out and financially support the band that produced the music. The indy music scene thrives on this kind of behavior, and many bands put their own stuff out on the Internet for free specifically to gain the invaluable recognition that p2p networks can bring them.

And even in situations where no payment is expected of the user, the financial success of Google, YouTube, and the new generation of online-TV sites is conclusive proof that somebody is paying for things on the Internet, but maybe that somebody isn’t always the user anymore.

I share your concern about the fate of the major daily newspapers, or more specifically, the institutional knowledge and expertise they represent. But the old model of commerce does not fit the 21st century. Parts of it are still relevant--or, at least will continue to be until I can download a pair of shoes--but other parts, particularly the ones relevant to how our society used information do not apply anymore.

This is not a bad thing. There will be upheaval, and that will be painful, but then again, growth always is. News, as we get it in this country, isn’t ever going to go back to the way it was. Instead of gnashing your teeth about how these young punks with their Internets are destroying news coverage in this country because they refuse to do things how they were done in the good old days, wouldn’t it be more productive to seek out ways to ensure that the new order will incorporate some of the wisdom of the old?

2:14 AM  
Blogger George Smith said...

With regards to AC/DC, Black Ice is still charting in the Top Ten -- number 8, up from 11 a week or so ago. (Source: Billboard chart listing in this week's RS).

While AC/DC's audience certainly includes old people, the chart position firmly says that, for the new album, the young are buying it at Wal-Mart, whether or not they can have it for free via torrent. (Two slots below Kanye West's new one, well above Akon and, let's say, The Killers.) So we can sociably disagree here.

Getting back to newspapers, the point I've made is that the delivered edition is distinct from the Internet one. As a platform for presenting the news, it's better than what you get on a computer or any other digital device. The ease of use is superior, the layout is better, it fits the human eyeball better.

On-line news doesn't get close to the experience, although it easily delivers the impression, one I don't absolutely share with so many, that a news aggregator -- say Google's -- give one more. (How many times have I seen an absurdly spelled or chosen headline or improper choice of thumbnail photos on Google's news tab, generated by its digital man/machine combination? A few times every week, easy, for the last couple of years.)

The LA Times simply delivers more thoroughness and rigor in the physical world than news sources on-line.

For example, this week the Sports section led with a story on Mark Sanchez, USC's star quarterback, opting to go to the NFL instead of playing another season. It came with a big photograph at the top, an Internet version of which could not hope to deliver the same impact: A hopeful kid in a suit, making a hard decision, spurned by his mentor and coach. A great moment in photojournalism, capturing for the reader the very emotion of the moment, something not duplicatable by on-line news.

And these are good reasons to preserve the old newspaper model, regardless of whether the freetard audience gives the thumbs down.

9:24 AM  

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