General, Journalism

Shirky’s thoughts on the fall of The Tribune Group act as a timely reminder of why understanding the structural failure of the newspaper industry remains key to its potential survival…

If only because one of my more seminal, mid-life crisis moments arrived courtesy of the man – C Shirky/40th birthday/newspapers are like the record industry, etc – his thoughts on the fall of the Tribune Group are – as Jeff Jarvis points out – well worth a read….

Mr Shirky has been a constant companion almost ever since; his thoughts on ‘geography’ and the Internet’s fundamentally different relationship to it – as opposed to those old, medieval circulation fiefdoms as deep-mined by newspapers for centuries – has under-pinned all too much of what we’ve tried to say here on OWAB and, indeed, do with MFW.

That we’re entering into a networked world of camp-fire communities; passionate local and subject-matter niches woven together – ideally – by such empowering devices as and our latest, 4iP baby, ‘backchat’.

With one we hope to give self-publishers a funding mechanism that likewise appeals to advertisers within their own, said community; with the other we hope to bring a communal voice to those camp-fire gatherings of like-minded – and like-located – souls.

And in communal, here forward we include the journalist as being central to that communal chatter… that he or she is very much drawing up a chair around said log fire.

Geography… a structural challenge of iceberg-esque proportions…

We have not always agreed; I still believe that the world will belong to armies of citizen publishers, not citizen journalists… all they lack is an elegant organizational platform to harness their new-found tools and enthusiasm into a more efficient – and rewarding – outlet.

But Shirky is spot-on when he draws that iceberg analogy; there was – and is – an inevitability to all this. The unprecedented cyclical challenges now consuming the US newspaper industry and putting its UK counterpart through the mincer has merely hastened events; not prompted them.

“Things being sold have a much more intricate relationship to geography than newspapers do.

“You might drive three miles to buy used baby clothes, thirty for a used car and sixty for rare coins. Thus, in the economically ideal classified ad scheme, all sellers would use one single classified database nationwide, and then buyers would simply limit their searches by area.

“This would maximize the choice available to the buyers and the cost able to be commanded by the sellers. It would also destroy a huge source of newspapers revenue…

ie if I want to sell my house in Norfolk, I want people…

In Southampton (Newsquest) to see it..

In Bristol (Northcliffe/DMGT) to see it…

In Birmingham (TrinityMirror) to see it…

I want a one-stop shop that isn’t geography lite; which is why I want a RightMove, a PrimeLocation, an eBay, a Craig’s List, etc, etc.

To borrow again from our tale of King Canute, the tide was always coming in. It’s when anyone saw fit to call for a towel; and as Jarvis suggests one of the greater ironies in all this is that it was Sam Zell who, in many ways, spilled the beans as his own, short-lived media empire headed for the toilet…

‘Zell asked the right questions – about cost structure, ego, lazy ad sales, bad business practices. The first problem was that he asked them 13 years too late (see Clay Shirky, below [er, above.. ]). The second problem is that he had no answers, or the answers he had were uninformed. And the problem for the industry is that Zell is all it had to offer as a savior – and that’s saying a mouthful.

The challenge for all concerned is to get networking ASAP; to produce an integrated – if not consolidated – editorial and advertising platfom-cum-organisation that harvests all that locally-sourced news and ads and houses them under one new roof…

Whilst still, somehow, rewarding all those said ‘harvesters’ for their contribution to the networked ‘pot’; it means, in short, the mass consolidation of the regional newspaper industry; of everyone throwing their hand in together in a last-ditch bid to survive.

Linking, even.

Your Slys, your Tims, your Carolyns all know it… None of this is new. They just can’t say it.

Not in so many words.

But that’s where the next Newspaper Society campaign has to head – that having seen off the weak-willed BBC, next up needs to be the Competition Commission and an urgent demand that the rules on ownership be relaxed. They have to consolidate and share like never before.

Otherwise, the band will just keep playing; with the woodwind section in Bristol, the brass in Birmingham, the strings in Southampton…


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