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March 23, 2010

Filed under: journalism»industry

Product X

Product X will not save journalism.

I'm writing this so I can link back to it regularly. Because roughly once a year, someone invents a new device or service that moves words around, and at that point the media punditry proclaims it the second coming for poor beleaguered Journalism. This is the flip side--and direct result--of the industry's "The Internets Are In Ur Base, Killing Ur Journalisms" meme. And they're both wrong, consistently and repeatedly, but no-one ever seems to learn.

How do we know it's wrong? Well, for one thing, because Product X keeps Not Saving the industry. The Kindle didn't do it. Twitter isn't doing it. Smartphones aren't doing it. Past experience isn't a perfect guide to future performance, but there does seem to be a trend here--namely, that a single technical innovation is not enough to single-handedly stop journalists from A) ruining their industry and B) loudly complaining that their industry is being ruined. To be fair, "complain loudly" is basically the sum of the journalist's credo.

The issue with Product X is invariably that it solves the wrong problem. Usually, this means monetizing digital distribution channels, which media pundits find fascinating for no good reason (see: "The Internets In Ur Base etc."). I say no good reason, because we've known how to monetize distribution over the Internet for literally years now. These are solved problems, technologically. We know that advertising can work (for certain values of "advertising" and with sufficient infrastructure), and it's not like we didn't have ways of selling subscriptions via standard web browsers, which are the great leveller of access and audience. It's not that we don't have the capabilities--it's that people (with some notable exceptions) don't want to pay for journalism this way.

And yet, every time Product X is announced, editorialists shout from the mountaintops that publishing will be saved by its peculiar virtues. Because if they couldn't sell subscriptions to the whole Internet at the implausible profit margins demanded by Wall Street, surely they'll be able to sell them to a much smaller audience through an expensive gadget and its specialized storefront--which demands a cut off the top. And this is their idea of a sustainable business plan!

What it comes down to is this: you can't solve journalism's problems with technological Product X because its most pressing problems aren't really technological. They're social, commercial, and editorial (see: Your Plan To Save The Media Will Not Work, A Checklist). And anyone claiming that Product X can solve those problems has been reading their own marketing materials for too long.

It's intensely frustrating to me that of all the possible professions where this kind of thinking could occur, journalism is so prone to this kind of reductionist thinking. Perhaps it's a symptom of the industry's current obsession with horse-race narratives. But if it were up to me, we'd make this an interview test for news executives. Do you believe in Product X? Yes? Then you should maybe stay on your beat a little longer, until you figure out that's not the way the world works.

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