Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Alex Tolley


You might want to look at Tim O'Reilly's comments earlier this year on the subject of newspapers.


I think what we are seeing is the confluence of 2 main factors:

1. The increase in alternative sources for our attention. The requirement and habits of reading newspapers is disappearing. There are other news sources and things to occupy our attention, so the attention span to read a newspaper is diminishing. I read more blogs and devote relatively little time to the WSJ for instance.

2. "Winner takes all" global competition. Newspapers used to be quite local, especially in the US. (That was why Buffett liked their power as local monopolies). But that is changing. Even the large national papers must start to compete with easily available offerings from elsewhere. Online news from the BBC, newspapers like the UK Times, Guardian can now compete for readership cheaply in the US. They bite into the attention time available and the best sources float upwards.

All this leads to the unbundling of newspapers. I like Grep Ip for business in the WSJ, Paul Krugman for politics/economics in the nytimes, Martin Wolf at the FT for international finance. So why should I care about such fluffy fillers as Maureen Dowd at the nytimes who rides on their legacy?

On top of this, it has become apparent that even the great, established newspapers do not necessarily field the quality that was was assumed a generation ago. Blogs and discussions can show even the most casual reader that many journalists, especially the talking head pundits are quite mediocre in quality, and that mediocrity is sharply exposed when their columns are analyzed and dissected. Couple this with the general sense that newspapers, in the US at least, have let down their readers with slanted reporting and just plain lies and there is a further erosion of trust...

National newspapers, especially in the US, seem to have forgotten their mission as newspapers, becoming magazines instead. Whenever I am back east, I always marvel at the sheer bulk of USA today. It is really a large bundle of adverts, some news lite and a lot of filler sections that are irrelevant, yet it seems the default delivery to hotel rooms in most cities. I find the nytimes very similar when I actually look at a dead tree copy. I really only want a small piece of it and I can get that by reading it on the web (for free). Krugman was the only column that was locked away under the "select" subscription that I read, but even those emerged on the web elsewhere.

In 20 years times have changed a lot. Back in 87-88 when I worked in Bermuda and you were broking at Goldies, I couldn't even get my hands on a current WSJ or FT. I had a broker read/fax me key content from the WSJ. Even on Wall Street, only the international edition of the FT was available. Who would have guessed then that within 2 decades, we could find and access the latest content from almost any source all over the world , select and read just the content we wanted from the bundles, and even discuss and talk back to the reporting gods via more direct and timely means than letters to the editor.

Esther Dyson long ago predicted that all content would eventually become free and that value would be derived elsewhere. The music business is facing exactly these problems today and newspapers, whether they understand it or now, are in the same boat as record companies. My guess is that Krugman could provide his columns for free and still make more money by improving his reputation and gaining more consultancy and speaking engagements. Newspapers are like record albums produced by record companies, they will be unbundled and 'iTuned' and the distribution and bundling value of the publisher will fall towards zero.

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