One of the great thinkers about digital change is NYU professor Clay Shirky. I have been reading posts and articles from him for years and he is always cogent and sensible. He has just posted a very insightful piece about the challenges faced by newspapers.
Shirky doesn’t explictly say that he’s exploring the “vertical/horizontal” dichotomy (that is at the core of my own analysis of media and digital change), but he is. This piece explains that “Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau” within the context of horizontal newspapers. Wal-Mart is actually a bad example in this case, because they don’t advertise with many publications that have a Baghdad bureau. But if he said Bloomingdale’s or General Motors, he could accurately be talking about the Times. They want the Times’s overall audience, and they trust the Times to create the balance of content that attracts it. They’re choosing from aggregations because that’s all there is to choose from. So, as Shirkey compresses it:
The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.
Thre is analogous with paying our taxes and what happens with the government. Your taxes go to fund some things you like and some things you don’t. You don’t get “line item veto.” You take the package. As Shirky points out, it was the cost of printing (and, he might have added, distributing what is printed) that kept the number of choices for Wal-Mart and other advertisers limited. Until digital disruption, that is.
It is the in the nature of horizontal media that they make their own decisions about the basket of content that constitutes their offering. Most newspapers attract readers with a comics page; the New York Times established its brand for seriousness by not having them. CBS News may have been subsidized by Gunsmoke or All in the Family, but the network made the decisions “on balance.” The idea really was to appeal to almost everybody over time, if not all at one time.
It has been widely observed that Internet advertising revenue is not replacing print revenue for newspapers. One reason for that is that the paper can’t sell advertising for what an online “reader” might look at, only for what they do actually look at. Purchasers of ads in print do so based on some notional number of readers, even though many of them will not ever see the page on which the ad appears. It isn’t that way on the Internet.
When I talk about the rise of verticality, I am referring to sites like Politico.com or 538.com replacing (or at least challenging) the political pages of the Times, WaPo, or Newsweek as a trusted source for the interested. But the natural verticality of audience plays out differently in print than it does on the horizontal sites themselves. What percentage of a newspaper’s print readers will actually turn many of the pages of the paper, “looking through it”? Answer: a lot more than the number of site visitors that will load each page of the site to see what’s on it!
Web sites have two kinds of visitors: those that come to the site and those that come to a single story or post. That latter group may be sent by a link from elsewhere, like their My Yahoo home page, and not even be particularly aware of where they went to read the story even after they click the back button or close the tab in their browser to leave after they’ve read it. The Times, WaPo, and Newsweek need to understand that distinction because for the first group, their brand counts and for the second only the story counts!
One thing to really like about Shirky is that he doesn’t mind saying “I don’t know.” This is sometimes hard for those of us who like to express ourselves about what we think will happen in the future. It is often easier to see what can’t work going forward than it is to know what will replace it. As Shirky said:
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.
Department stores went through a similar process of destruction. In the 1960s and before, they sold everything. Then, when shopping malls began, department stores became their “anchors”, but the rest of the mall was populated by specialty stores that, product category after product category, became national chains competing with the department stores for their business and ultimately driving them out of it. So department stores don’t much sell shoes, books, recorded music, and many other things they once did. There are such things called department stores today, but there are far fewer and they are shadows of their former selves.
Some observations unrelated to the substance of today’s discussion:
As brilliant as is Shirky’s writing, his blog structure is shockingly bad. He uses block justification, which, along with a pretty wide line, makes reading his text pretty damn challenging. Justification (making everything line up evenly on the right as well as on the left) is accomplished either by varying the space between letters or the space between words, or both. That’s inherently unfriendly to the eye and brain trying to take in the material. In addition, Shirky has no tags for his post, so he is really handicapping discovery, making Google’s job of getting him “found” a lot harder. Clay, if you see this post and I haven’t insulted you beyond conversation, let me know and I’ll refer you to the mighty SEO team of Tess and Hamid who, I guarantee, will make your blog look better and bring you much more audience!