John McCann

Internet … a centrifugal force

In Internet, Newspapers, Television, Video on March 26, 2007 at 12:39 pm

An article in Wired describes Joost, a new Internet-based TV application, and discusses its implications for the television industry. At the end of the article, the author describes how the Internet has impacted the traditional media model of keeping everything central and bundling shows into schedules, stories into magazines, etc.

“The Net in particular is brutally centrifugal, fragmenting newspapers into articles, movies into clips, and CDs into songs, all dispersed to servers across the earth. It has never been kind to enterprises that try to gather everything under one roof. Google’s $140 billion value derives not from some comprehensive offering but from simply showing people where the fragments can be found.”

This fragmentation seems very natural to me. When I read a newspaper, I do not read all the articles but focus on topics that are of interest to me. And I only skim some of the articles that I do read, looking for the key points that let me understand the essence of the article. When I talk with a friend about an article or a movie, I rarely tell the whole story but simply relate the point of the article.

Students do the same thing when taking notes in a class. Our photographs are fragments of what we have seen.

Blogs such as this one are fragment based. I usually insert a fragment from something I have read, as I did with the quote at the top of this post, and then write about the content of that fragment.

It is common today to read that many newspapers are suffering because of this fragmentation. Just today I read in Tim O’Reilly’s blog (a blog, no less) that a major city newspaper is in trouble.

“I’m hearing rumors that the San Francisco Chronicle is in big trouble. Apparently, Phil Bronstein, the editor-in-chief, told staff in a recent ’emergency meeting’ that the news business ‘is broken, and no one knows how to fix it.'”

The really interesting part of this blog is a comment by Michael Schrage, who has a long association with the Media Lab and other organizations at MIT.

“i love print; i love [good] journalism; and i love healthy, vibrant and innovative marketplaces…alas, the real reasons so many newspapers are suffering is that they are not very good as reporting media, journalistic media and advertising media…competition of the web has made them – on average -worse, not better…they’ve done an even worse job than detroit in rising to meet the competition…but why should we be surprised? the big three were an oligopoly for decades and most newspapers have been de facto monopolies in their smsas…they don’t know how to compete; they don’t know how to innovate…the decline in their quality is obvious; their economic decline is deserved. “

I have seen this problem in my own teaching in executive education programs. Managers in firms that had a monopoly (or near monopoly) simply have a very hard time learning how to compete on a daily basis when their firm loses its market dominance. They try everything possible to hang onto the old structures and strategies, and when it becomes obvious that they must change, it is too late and/or they do not have the skills and mental models that are necessary in a competitive world.

I read newspapers every day, subscribing to my local paper and USA Today. While the latter seems to remain vibrant, my local paper is shrinking and I fear for its future. If you are interested in a discussion of how to save newspapers, as I am, read Doc Searls’ recent blog post.

Participation Architecture

In Architecture, Internet, Technology on March 19, 2007 at 1:25 pm

An article in the RosenblumTV blog gave a very succinct description of the problem established industries have when presented with a new technology. It is the mismatch between a technology and the appropriate architecture for deploying that technology.

“That is, a specific technology demands a specific architecture. Not the architecture of a building, but rather the architecture for the implementation of that technology. As lazy humans, however, we get the technology first; the architecture takes us time.”

When I first read the article, I was reminded of a story I read 50 years ago about how a very primitive tribe reacted to the arrival of a Coke bottle, which was a new “technology” to the tribe. A plane crashed in the jungle and the natives found coke bottles among the wreckage. Having never seen such an object, they wondered what to do with it. One person put a bottle onto a stick and created a club that could be used for hunting and battle, which were the very activities that consumed the time of the men in the tribe. They were hunters and warriors and they used their hunting and war architecture to implement the new technology of the Coke bottle.

Back to the blog entry. Rosenblum, a participant in the videojournalist revolution, tells the story of how AT&T bought the patents to the first wireless radio technology because the company thought that radio would compete with its wired telephony business. AT&T did not implement the radio technology and used the patents to prevent others from doing so. They only allowed Marconi to use the technology for communicating with and between ships. But then a strange thing happened: the Titanic sank while sending hours of messages from its wireless transmitter. Sixteen year old David Sarnoff heard those messages while working for Marconi and communicated to a crowd outside his building by yelling out a window.

Alas, broadcasting was invented. More broadly, the “architecture of radio” was invented. AT&T saw the world through the telephony architecture and thus totally missed the role that radio would play in the broader communication ecosystem. It took a kid to recognize the potential, and that kid went on to be a pioneer of the broadcast industry.

Rosenblum applies this story to today’s world.

“All too often, we also take new technologies and plug them into an architecture that we already understand. All too often we take the Internet and see it as an alternative platform for broadcasting. Take a look at NYTimes.com. What do you see? A newspaper. A newspaper put on the web. That is because that is what newspapers understand. That is the architecture they understand. As video comes to the web, broadcasters will also see it as a way to do what they do now – one signal to many people, but on-line. This will be a classic mistake.”

This is so true in all walks of life. Librarians see the world through their library architecture and thus see the Internet as a massive, global library. Educators use an education architecture when approaching the Internet. Microsoft seems to have seen it through the desktop computing architecture.

As was the case with wireless technology, it is people who operate outside traditional architectures who see the possibilities of a new technology and thus invent new architectures. Perhaps we should think of the Internet and associated technologies as forming an Architecture of Participation.

Is information worth anything?

In Mediamorphosis on March 12, 2007 at 5:11 pm

An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribute features an interview with Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s newly-formed College of Design. His opening comment struck me as very pertinent to the Participation Age.

“The information economy is still with us. But the paradoxical effect of the Internet is that it has made information so widely available that it holds no real economic value. Everybody can get incredible amounts of information, so there’s no competitive advantage of having it.”

If you look at my recent posts, you will see that I have been writing about how newspapers and other types of traditional media are attempting to change so they can meet the demands of today’s Internet user. Fisher’s comment points to a reality that it may not be easy, or even possible for some. Traditionally, a newspaper succeeded because it published and distributed information that was hard, or even impossible, for people to obtain otherwise. That day has long disappeared.

I find that when I encounter a newspaper article that is information-intensive, I soon stop reading it. More often than not, I have already read that information on the Internet. Even if I have not seen the information, it may not garner my limited attention because I am more interested in understanding why things happen than what happened. It is only the analysis-intensive articles that appeal to me. And good analysis may be beyond the ability of most journalist when writing about subjects with which they are not experts. Editors assign them to cover events and topics that may be relatively new to them.

Perhaps deep analysis has value in the Participation Age but not information. That means that if you want to make money, you have to know a lot about what you are writing.

I wrote the above material on Monday (March 5). The next morning, USA Today had an article about advocacy journalism that described one way that the media is changing, perhaps in response to the glut of information-intensive stories. The article features stories by Bob Woodruff, as well as a Washington Post team, about how injured soldiers are not receiving proper care, and a university professor puts this type of journalism into perspective:

“In a journalistic sense, Woodruff and the Post ‘own’ these stories, which cut through a crowded media marketplace because ‘people are hungry to be surprised by the content,’ says Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi journalism professor. ‘The key is to get people addicted to your content. If you can’t surprise them, you can’t get them addicted.'”

It is increasingly hard to surprise people because of the participation in news gathering by so many amateurs. But it is clearly possible to get them addicted by in-depth reporting and great writing. Then your information is worth something.