The Supply Question

I write for two newspapers, and love nothing more than flipping through the pages over a good cup of coffee. But I still get the vast majority of the commentary, analysis and hard news I read in a day from my computer. None of that is going to change.

That said, it’s hard to imagine how this essay by Nicholas Carr could be more wrong. While his analysis is dead on, his conclusions consist of little more than wishful thinking.

From his post:

“The fundamental problem facing the news business today does not lie in Google’s search engine. It lies in the structure of the news business itself.”

This is exactly right. The digitisation of publishing and distribution militates strongly in favour of bytes over atoms. While holding a newspaper in one’s hands is not without a certain appeal, the desire for specific information, delivered quickly and at low cost, trumps the old approach most of the time.

Carr thinks the problem is supply, and he’s right, as far as that goes. But he’s dreaming if he thinks there’s any practical way to arbitrarily limit supply in an economy defined by ubiquity and ease of access. The problem is mechanical in nature: Bytes are infinitely replicable and transportable. Reducing the number of bytes requires that we control all sources of replication and I can’t see this happening even in a police-state online environment.

Most of Carr’s arguments are predicated on the all-too-long-lived idea that one can make money by attracting an audience, holding it and throwing advertising at it. I blame Bob Metcalfe for that.

I vividly remember one keynote address at the 1999 World Wide Web Conference in Toronto, given by Bob Metcalfe, the technological whiz who helped to invent modern computer networking and founded 3Com.

Bob had this nice tight little riff he’d made up, wherein he announced that in order to thrive on the web, a company had to eyeballize, memberize and then monetize their website. His message, as much as any other, epitomised the Oklahoma-land-rush feeling at the time, where people grabbed turf first and asked questions later.

Unfortunately, some of those questions were rather nuanced. Like, for example, ‘do you not like ads at all, or do you just not want to be distracted while you’re reading online?’ Google found the answer to that., MSN and others did not, to their chagrin.

The first and biggest question that needs to be asked – and Carr gets close to it when he observes that syndication is a game that newspapers can’t win – is the question of uniqueness and what calls ‘interestingness’. Flickr is so invested in measuring what’s interesting to people that they’ve developed a proprietary algorithm that measures popularity, novelty, and depth of interest (i.e. is it glister or gold?). I’m not convinced that we have to go to such lengths, but we’d all do well to consider what it is that most engages our audience.

Carr is right to toss a word of warning to the AP and related services. They need to adjust to the fact that newspapers are no longer their market, and to the fact that the generic pabulum that makes up the majority of their content is of limited appeal to a global Internet audience.

Kos recently proposed that newspapers should quit being generalist wire service aggregators, that they should focus instead on quality local content. I agree with him, with two provisos:

– Doing so requires a re-evaluation of the inherent value of the publication. How unique, in other words, is too unique to be commercially viable? For most large urban newspapers, the answer is clear enough – local stories of national and international interest, coupled with localised, specialised services for their particular urban area. For smaller pubs, this question is problematical, to say the least.

– There is still a role for the coffee-time aggregator. Introducing one’s audience to a focused distillation of a vastly larger information pool is a useful service, one that Google can never adequately provide. Blogs do it well, but there’s still a place for a dead tree version, provided that ‘interestingness’ is carefully measured. (Example: Harper’s Index and its Readings section are both fabulous aggregation services.)

Nick Carr and others need to take note: The Internet operates in an economy of plenitude and nothing is ever going to change that. Finding a place in it will be an uncomfortable and sometimes disappointing exercise for many – but not all – print publications.

The solution, if they choose to recognise it, is not to stand like Canute among the waves and order back the tide. The secret is to find news, analysis and insight that is in short supply, and to add it to the flood.