“The Soul of a Monopolist and the Timidity of a Titmouse”

Ok, that may be a little harsh, but it’s the phrase Bill Wyman uses to explain why he thinks most online newspaper offerings aren’t that compelling (shoutout to Mark Potts, who posted about Wyman’s two-part series on–what else–why newspapers are in trouble).  More about that in a second. 

More generally, I could do without the smugness of Wyman’s tone.  Perhaps it’s the critic’s occupational hazard.  And I’m pretty sure that there’s not enough new here for a two-part series.  But three things are distinctive about Wyman’s piece.  First, because he’s not a hard-core news guy, he is uncommonly dry-eyed about the role of legacy newspapers, even if he does overstate the case:

Remember “shoppers,” the poorly designed throwaway publications filled with tacky little ads? Daily newspapers are high-end shoppers. They spent a lot of money on original content to class up the operation and give people a reason to ask for the ads to be delivered. Long before the web displayed the power and leverage of critical mass, newspapers benefited from it; once you got the franchise in your particular locale, you tried not to stir up trouble, because it just distracted you from time better spent cashing checks.

Some people liked the news, sure; most thought they were paying for it. And some papers spent more money on news than they had to. But the papers weren’t selling the news. They were selling ads and charging a lot of money for them because of one thing only: They held an informal monopoly on a societal convention whereby they deposited those ads—around which they wrapped some reporting, some of it serious, some of it fluff—on subscribers’ driveways.

(Wyman also demonstrates the pseudo-omniscience that writers of these pieces can’t seem to resist by saying how obvious it was for how long that the model would have to change.  If it were truly that obvious, one would think that Mr. Wyman would be blogging from atop Wyman Worldwide headquarters, or at least a from lovely cottage overlooking one of Mustique’s most private beaches).

 Second, and perhaps without knowing it, he makes a point that we who shelled out for an MBA were exposed to in our first year:  make sure you know what business you’re in.

Now, the papers could have used the money they were making to, in essence, buy the future of communications. Instead, they used it for something else: pleasing Wall Street, and consolidation. As the parent companies took on more debt, those fabulous returns became not just money to swim around in, but the essential component of the companies’ day-to-day livelihood—from the perspective of the boardroom, at least.

In other words, the papers were taking their profits and investing in a future not of technological change and institutional challenges, but one defined only by the search for more profits.

Unlike Wyman, I don’t necessarily turn up my nose at “the search for more profits.”  In a maturing business with limited expansion possibilities, that’s what an industry does.  It consolidates like the dickens and squeezes out costs.  And if you thought you were in the newspaper business, that was the right strategy.    (Think what almost happened to IBM when they thought they were in the business of selling mainframes to large businesses) .  But if you thought you were in the news and information delivery business, you would have owned at least a big piece of search, and invested in new advertising technologies.  But there’s that pseudo-omniscience again:  it was hard to think this way in a business of local monopolies.  Remember, a softball team representing the Houston Chroniclewore jersies with “THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN” emblazoned on their backs, as late as 1997, when the commercial internet was not exactly a secret.  Netscape went public in 1995.

And now, back to the title of this post.  Of his five reasons for newspapers struggles, Wyman brings the most new to the table in #3:  “Timidity Doesn’t Work on the Web.”   Here it is:

So: We have an industry facing a crisis that demands sophisticated, daring action, but that has rewarded, ineluctably but surely, timidity and caution, and whose livelihood has depended on not telling its audience anything it didn’t want to hear. Now, that industry, its underlying business model vaporizing, has migrated itself to the web.

The web doesn’t reward blandness. It doesn’t really like the obvious, the inoffensive and the established. Today, if you published a web page with the headlines I just listed on it—you know, starting with “Wooden Memories” and going right on down to “Great Gifts for Teachers”—you wouldn’t get many readers. In this way, the web mercilessly exposes the flaccidness of the content of most papers. It creates a straightjacket for them: As they desperately bland themselves out on land, the material they have on hand to impress in cyberspace is correspondingly pallid.

Paradoxically, it also displays their superficiality: Anyone truly interested in old wood-shop projects can find a world of much better information about them on the web. A daily newspaper presents a platter to readers. You don’t have to eat everything on it, but you’re not getting anything that wasn’t sent out from the kitchen originally. And over the years editors have learned not to put anything spicy on that platter.

The web is a smorgasbord. It isn’t quite infinite, but it is comprehensive. It can satisfy any appetite. Newspapers never did that; they just provided subsistence, because no one else was around to offer anything better. That’s the first problem the monopoly mentality presents to papers trying to move their operations to the web.

The second is this: The web seems to reward aggregation in a powerful way. Now, that’s what newspapers used to do, right? Didn’t they aggregate all the best information in town? This is where the lassitude that newspapers developed comes back to haunt them. They aggregated, but they didn’t aggregate well. When you’re a monopoly, when you’re essentially the only aggregator, it doesn’t matter what you give people.

For generations, broken-down section editors have patted themselves on the back for aggregating stories like “Free burrito for teachers” and “Post Office food drive.” Continuing this restaurant metaphor, the web rewards people who’ve put better platters together, who have a good taste sense and a knack for finding great new dishes. Newspapers, by contrast, specialized in blandness. That’s an advantage if you’re the only choice, and you don’t want any complaints. But when you’re not, it’s a crushing disadvantage. Beyond that, newspapers are actually quite exclusionary; they only want the foods they’ve prepared on their platter.

Where I live, in the town that has the paper with the big story about “Wooden Memories,” a competing, smaller paper in town just won a Pulitzer Prize. It won the award for an exposé about the dangerous (i.e., involving actual deaths) and wasteful (totaling tens of millions of dollars) activities of the most popular politician in the state. The big paper mentioned the news perfunctorily and vaguely inside the paper. No one called the editor of the other paper, or called the politician for comment. The politician is in the news virtually every single day, but, as far as the largest paper in the state was concerned, the prize wasn’t again worth mentioning.

It used to be easier for a paper to hide embarrassing stuff like that. On the web, it’s harder, but that’s not even the point. A news operation that tries to hide information from its readers—which, let’s face it, daily papers in the U.S. often did, in ways large and small—will inevitably become devalued on the web.

An institution with a true aggregating mentality and a sense of how the web works would have tossed up the news and opened the validity of the award—and the politician—to the opinions of readers. It would have made itself the center of the debate sure to attract the attention of folks on both sides of the argument. Only an institution with the soul of a monopolist and the timidity of a titmouse would, instead, downplay the news like that.

Newspapers used to be their reader’s de facto window to the world, but it was just a quirk—their monopolies—that made them that. Most newspaper home pages are cramped and insular. Today, any person who creates a personalized Google home page, to cite just one example, can put together a much better window—one that comprises headlines, a clock, weather, recent postings on any blogs that interest them, and hundreds of other things—in about 15 minutes.

The papers might have had a chance on the web if they had understood it, grasped its service power, and made themselves the masters of it. That they didn’t just proves my point. It wasn’t in their genetic makeup to do anything like it.

Again, there’s more than a little “I toldya so” from somebody who didn’t clearly tell anybody anything.  But the idea that a new medium requires a new voice is one that continues to be worth pondering.

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