Thursday, March 22, 2007

CDs, newspapers and destructive technolgies

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 poses this question in a thoughtful recent blog post: “Is it possible that content creation will cease to be a business?”

Before we get into the fancy analysis, let me just answer directly:


Before you reject that conclusion as simply another old media dinosaur in denial, dig a little deeper into the argument. It might work best for you to take a detour right now and read Is Content Still A Business?

Karp’s interesting speculation takes off from the observation that music no longer sells well on CD. But while I think there are lessons to learn from how digitization has changed the music business, I don’t think that experience translates very well into our own. While it’s certainly true that “pathetic, half-hearted efforts” like music companies pursued online won’t successfully transition from one platform to another, it’s not true that making that transition is impossible.

The crushing “destructive technology” change for the music business came when it became possible to buy (or steal) a single song rather than pay $17 for a CD filled with other music you didn’t want.

The biggest “destructive technology” change for newspapers is the fact that websites can be refreshed constantly while printed papers get updated once a day.

Music companies handled their response to the change badly: resist, seek legislative and legal protection, restrict legal online sales and sue the people who downloaded music.

Our industry, while slow, has responded differently: embrace new platforms, learn to play to their strengths (breaking news, video, etc) and try to give our customers what they want.

Obviously, the issue is more complex than that, but there truly are fundamental differences between our experience and that of the recording industry. In a world of increasing complexity and overwhelming choice (a theme I hope to explore more sometime soon), a big part of the value we bring to our audiences is in selecting, sorting and verifying information – not simply manufacturing it. If we do that right, we can continue to attract and aggregate audiences, and those will continue to be valuable to advertisers (though not as valuable as they once were).

Remember this: we haven’t made money “selling our content” for a long time. It costs about as much to print and distribute newspapers as we collect in subscription revenue. Music companies reaped enormous profits selling CDs that cost them a few cents for $15-20. We’re not going to feel that kind of pain when we lose sales of 50-cent newspapers that cost us 51 cents to supply – as long as we don’t lose the audience.

There are lots of subtleties, uncertainties and questions about how the news business transitions into the new age – but very few that can’t be solved by growing audiences.

Make it so.

1 comment:

  1. If the "destructive technology" of newspapers is refreshable websites, aren't we just waiting for a ubiquitous wireless e-reader, that everyone carries with them? at that point newspapers will refresh as fast as websites, and hopefully have my customized and local content.