Tuesday 27 January 2009


One of the most thought-provoking things I read over the summer break was one of James Surowiecki's regular columns for The New Yorker.

In 'News You Can Lose' Surowiecki looked at the effect withering advertising revenues and the rise of the internet have had on newspapers. He writes:

Newspaper readership has been slowly dropping for decades—as a percentage of the population, newspapers have about half as many subscribers as they did four decades ago—but the Internet helped turn that slow puncture into a blowout. Papers now seem to be the equivalent of the railroads at the start of the twentieth century—a once-great business eclipsed by a new technology. In a famous 1960 article called “Marketing Myopia,” Theodore Levitt held up the railroads as a quintessential example of companies’ inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Levitt argued that a focus on products rather than on customers led the companies to misunderstand their core business. Had the bosses realized that they were in the transportation business, rather than the railroad business, they could have moved into trucking and air transport, rather than letting other companies dominate. By extension, many argue that if newspapers had understood they were in the information business, rather than the print business, they would have adapted more quickly and more successfully to the Net.

Surowiecki points out that none of the major news aggregating services - such as Google News - are run by newspaper companies, and that many newspapers have carried over a 'walled garden' approach to their websites, refusing to link out from their articles to other pieces of coverage or other websites.

Meanwhile, bloggers like me are happily piggybacking off the backs of newspapers, using their reportage as the basis for our own writing. (You could see this post as a prime example - at this point, I think it includes more of Surowiecki's text than my own). As he writes at the end of the article:

For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

This got me thinking - what would I pay for?

In the Yes column:

  • Google Reader (and possibly Gmail - which would become a lot more important to me if I lost my job)
  • Twitter (I'd ditch my cell phone before I lost this)
  • Blogger (I'd rather pay Google or Wordpress to use their platforms than pay a viewing fee for all the blogs I visit)
  • Ma.gnolia (it's speed drives me crazy, but I'm in their clutches now, with years' worth of carefully annotated websites and articles tucked away there).

In the No column

  • Pretty much any newspaper or magazine site. Although I read bits of them often (the Guardian most days, various US papers most weeks, Stuff and the NZ Herald when I can't help it) I'd be really reluctant to subscribe to any of them on a full time basis. I get most of my news from National Radio, and no single publication provides enough articles tailored to my interests to make a daily, weekly or yearly fee worthwhile. Except the New Yorker - and I have a print subscription, because I can't read that much online.

Which confirms what Surowiecki is saying: I'm a media free-loader, and currently I enjoy the best of both worlds. I use a news aggregator to pull together bits and pieces from nearly 100 sources, rather than remaining faithful to any one media outlet. And while I feel kinda bad about this, I'm really unwilling to change my behaviour.

BUT. For the past two years I've (well, we've) donated US$20 to NPR to help pay for the bandwidth that brings me the This American Life podcasts. I don't have to, but Ira asks so nicely, and I really value their offerings. So maybe there is hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Best of 3, I thought you might like this: