The death of traditional media.

This morning on my way to work, I listened to an NPR story about the loss of book reviews in newspapers. It was sort of interesting in a technologically inept sort of way. Listen to it here: "Book Reviewers Decry Fewer Newspaper Pages by Martha Woodroof"

If you don't have time for that, here's a quick summary. How do people find books to read? Supposedly, it used to be through book reviews published in newspapers. And now newspaper editors, faced with BIG PROBLEMS such as loss of subscribers and disappearing advertising dollars are consolidating sections that don't generate much revenue for the expense. It turns out that newspapers are a business, who knew?

This is a real problem for "people who buy a lot of books professionally" aka librarians. Now who can they trust to spoon feed them brief book reviews for their purchasing pleasure?

In a related subject, on slashdot.org today, there is a story titled "Blogs Are Eating Tech Media Alive" Again, it's the same story. Advertising dollars are leaving, readers are leaving, and it turns out that tech media like Red Herring and PC Magazine can't cope with the changes.



Instead of lamenting the loss of "REAL JOURNALISM", let's talk a little bit about the economics of journalism. How does dead tree journalism work? Say it's 1980. You want to open a magazine. What do you need?

  • Market Niche: something that people will buy to learn more. You want something that has as broad of a readership as possible without trying to compete too much with established companies that will eat your lunch.

  • Content generation: After all, the content is why people are buying your magazine. This means photographers, illustrators, writers, and editors.

  • Support staff: Just like any other business. Salesmen to sell advertising. Buyers to order supplies. Secretaries to answer the phones. Bean counters to handle the money. Janitors to clean the toilets. Managers to make sure everyone is doing their job and working together.



  • An Office: A place with a roof where everyone goes to work. This means you need desks, utilities, phones, typewriters (or computers, but after all, this is 1980), office plants, etc.

  • Customers: Since you probably aren't going to start by selling every magazine directly to the consumer, you need someone to push your magazine. Like a newsstand, a bookstore, or a grocery store.

  • Advertisers: If you don't have advertising in the publication, you have to charge the full cost of the magazine to the end user. This doesn't work out well if your competition DOES have advertising and can sell the same amount of content for a much cheaper price.

  • Printers: The most important part of dead tree media. You have to have a way to put all that information together on a piece of paper which you can then distribute. This means money for paper, money for ink, money for the printing machines, money for the logistics - warehousing, trucking, postage, etc.



    Almost all of these things share something in common; they require MONEY and lots of it. Photographers have to eat, even if you are just paying them for the photos you use. Paper mills don't give their product away. All of that gets folded into the price of the content.

    Now let's contrast that with the economics of "NEW MEDIA" aka blogs. What do you need to run a blog?

  • Market niche: Or not. You can write about anything you damn well please. Content aggregators and search engines will connect your content with people seeking that content. Today, Britney Spears, tomorrow US Foreign policy. Of course, if you want a large amount of regular readers - you probably want to stick with a single subject.

  • Content generation: You don't need professional writers to run a blog. Would it help? Sure. But professionals are expensive. Most people just write their own, and the market (such as Digg) decides which posts are worthy of reading.



  • Support staff: Probably not necessary at all, unless you run some incredible volume site like slashdot.org. Even then you probably don't need a secretary.

  • An Office: Definitely unnecessary. A "one man" shop that can work from anywhere doesn't need to pay for expensive commercial space.

  • Customers: Content goes directly to the consumers. Or to robots that steal your content to sell advertising. Either way, no grocery store is ever going to sell a paper copy of my blog.

  • Advertisers: You can go out and actively sell your ad space if you really want. Or you can just use Google Adsense like everyone else. Since the cost of the above is ZERO - you can even have no advertising at all.

  • Printers: Blogspace is completely free. Hearts of the Gods is hosted on blogger - which has cost me zip from day one. If you don't like the restrictions of a free service, you can always register your own domain and get hosting. If you pay for 3 years in advance, you can get hosting from Godaddy for $2.80 a month (and there are usually coupons out there to make it even cheaper.) If you look hard, you can find hosting cheaper than that.



    So let's really think this through. What does Hearts of the Gods cost me to publish? Nothing but my time. And eventually, I may even be compensated a bit for that. What would it cost me if I wanted to publish a hardcopy version of Hearts of the Gods? Figuring I'm reaching ~40 people a day x 30 days a month x 12 months a year = 14,400 copies. Say I can print them at $0.07 a page with a cheap high volume laser printer and dirt cheap paper and only print one page - that's $1008. Now I have to find a way to distribute them. Stand on a street corner? Drop them from an airplane? Too much trouble!

    The reason traditional media is being wiped out is that it costs so damned much to produce. You simply can't compete with a free blog. Supply and demand. There are millions of alternative sources of information that cost zip. And all of them can compete directly with dead tree media for eyeballs. Market forces are unstoppable no matter how much you dislike the new reality.

    So what are the librarians to do? How about reading blog reviews by people who read the book? Can't trust a single source? Read three. Or look at the "most popular seller" list on Amazon.com. It can't be that hard.

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