Internet news audiences don’t want news to be a lecture. They want it to be a conversation: “Tell me what you find, then let me tell you what I think.” So observes Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle. Silverman has his finger on the pulse of transforming and intersecting changes taking place in the new media realm, and the Houston Chronicle appears to be stepping up to the plate, eager to do some of the requisite experimentation needed for a newspaper to successfully navigate these changes.
A first step is they’re starting three new blogs: “MeMo” a cultural blog penned by Kyrie O’Connor, Chronicle Deputy Managing Editor for Features; SportsJustice, by columnist Richard Justice and TechBlog, Silverman’s electronic hangout focused on technology news.
This arrangement is benefited by the decision to choose software that will allow for readers to publish comments and track what other sites are saying about the blogs. In addition, the blogs will provide “trackback“-a feature which allows readers to get several angles on a subject by following links.
Silverman observes that the ability for anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to disseminate news and information is shaking the foundations of the news business. He’s right for reasons news executives have been too apathetic to notice. For decades newspapers have had something of a monopoly on the dissemination of news. Why? Because they owned the technical means for distributing it, means that were out of the reach of the average citizen. Those very expensive means include state-of-the art printing presses, folding and inserting machines, warehouses used for distribution, and a vast delivery system incorporating hundreds of local carriers. There are maintenance contracts for those printing presses, liability insurance for workers, and deals cut to use local carriers to also deliver national papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Investors Business Daily, USA Today as well as magazines like Advertising Age. It’s a way newspapers add to the revenue stream. They also use their presses to print publications of competitors. All part of making money on that physical system.
These same newspapers have failed to effectively consider where new media is going in the next 10, 15, 20 years. Those that do get a warning from some informed individual are likely to brush off such trends as seemingly irrelevant. By new media here I mean new media from a technology standpoint. I’m referring to the development of new wireless broadcasting technologies and handheld gadgets, as well as telecommunication standards. The development of handheld wireless devices is accelerating at a rapid pace and one often has to look overseas to countries like Japan to get a real feel where things are headed. Investments by wireless operators and portal companies also give leads to the discerning.
Soon enough everyone will be able to carry something in the palm of your hand or briefcase on which you can watch live broadcast news, as well as reading news reports. The system will know your location down to the street intersection and instead of bulky ads they’ll send you electronic deals on stuff they already know you like. Like Ann Taylor? Here’s a 25% discount for the store across the street from where you’re standing. And when you’re done buying that sweater here’s an electronic coupon for dinner next door at the Thai restaurant. We know you love Thai food. You told us so when you filled out your demographic profile.
It’s called location-based advertising and it’s got incredible promise, despite the chinks that need to be worked out like deciding whether the industry will go with permission-based marketing or risk alienating you by sending you an unsolicited audio coupon for Starbucks that interrupts your business presentation.
All this information, live video of breaking world events, weather, news and more-will not be delivered to you by printing presses, and all the cumbersome accoutrements tangled therein. It will be delivered by wireless mobile operators who will be the controllers of the new frontier of information dissemination. The delivery means of old media is completely irrelevant and carries no influence here. In the wireless world of the future it will be the mobile operator and the various middlemen brokers who decide what information is disseminated, not the news company. This represents a radical shift stodgy news executives have for the most part failed to even think about let alone analyze or strategize for. For decades newspapers have taken for granted their model of being not only the content provider/producer but also the disseminators of information. Now the wireless power players will be the disseminators and newspapers will be on the outside looking in. In some cases, media players who want in will have to pay to play with little hope of significant profit. They simply will have no choice.
The head of Ericsson once said he was going to make the cell phone the center of the consumer universe. Soon you’ll be able to open your garage door, turn on your toaster, buy your groceries and get your streaming broadcast news with it. But whether it’s a cell phone, PDA or some new thing we can hardly imagine, the new media revolution is closer than media decision makers think.
The best characterization of the general dynamic that will threaten newspapers is outlined in Clayton M. Christensen’s two books “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “The Innovator’s Solution.” The book outlines the phenomena of how very successful businesses become completely undermined by disruptive technologies they fail to consider a threat until it’s too late to benefit from the changes. One of the reasons business fail to act is because they take their success and longevity for granted while innovators grasp the moment and thereby alter the business topography.
For newspapers some of the problem lies with the way decisions are made. All new media technologies are usually viewed in the same manner of Internet technologies-a false comparison. Decision makers will say “We’re having a hard enough time making money off of the Internet, why would we want to get involved in something with less financial potential than that?” These people are making decisions in the new media realm based on immediate potential for profit. Yet no one is sure what the trajectory and outcome of new media development will be so the only way to be sure of being prepared for the changes is to be willing to risk and experiment, something traditional media business people are mostly averse to. Even though the financial risk need not be on any significant scale, this is the way newspapers get caught in a self-defeating catch-22.
New mobile wireless technologies will not displace newspapers overnight of course. But one of the biggest ironies is that the 18-35 year old demographic will surely be early adopters. That’s the same demographic that has proved so elusive to newspapers. It will the visionaries who profit from the changes. The newspaper industry is notoriously short on those.