Shirky and Winer share the conviction that media-as-a-business, with its attendant professional writers, editors, art directors, directors of consumer marketing, and advertising salespeople, is dying. That’s because they conflate mainstream media with printing presses. As Shirky explains, “Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run. … [But] the competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it.”
For decades, most print publications have cheaply rented presses owned by third parties–but let that go. The printing press stands here as an objective correlative for the material production and distribution of media. Shirky and Winer’s real error is that the physical is the least of it. The creation of good journalism is a tremendously laborious process, requiring an infrastructure more expensive than any press. The illustration and design of stories has an infrastructure, too. Developing an audience that will attract particular advertisers requires another infrastructure. Selling advertising requires yet another. These structures, which allow publications to reach large, coherent audiences, can exist only within complex organizations, mostly businesses.
Some of those structures must be reinvented for the Internet. Others, particularly editorial, still work well. I am sure of this, because the number of people who read newspapers and magazines is growing. Of course, with few exceptions that growth is all digital. To take one example, between 14 million and 22 million read nytimes.com every month; the print circulation of the weekday Times is just one million. On any day, 32 million Americans read their news online. Those numbers suggest contented customers. Of course there is a good business for mainstream media in electronic publishing. The absorbing question is how to pay for what pleases so many.
It is a canard that neither mainstream media’s managers nor its journalists have good answers to that question. There are plenty of stupid publishers and editors, and their publications will die; but there are many smart, technology-savvy leaders, too, and their publications will prosper. While the details are still debated, the broad outlines of tomorrow’s media are becoming clearer. Consumers must pay for more of what they read; publishers and the media buyers who purchase advertising must be given technologies that will make online display ads more competitive with the keyword ads that search firms sell. It won’t be easy. I have my own prescription, and those who care (the specifics are technical, and mainly of interest to media professionals) can read my suggestions at www.technologyreview.com/blog/pontin/.
Things change or die, including once-cherished organizations. Today’s newspapers and magazines will be transformed or replaced by other publications, which will have new modes of business. A great and terrible clearing is coming. Millions of amateurs will flourish to delight readers. But anyone who tells you that media-as-a-business is dying is wrong.
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