on context and quality and technological determinism


Interesting post about paying for media from A Photo Editor that deserves some discussion.

I think we will eventually arrive at some kind of micro payment/advertising business model for online media in the not too distant future. Ideally there will be a common payment system on the device I use to access media or some kind of accepted everywhere pass. Either way it only works if the transactions are in the background.

The subscription model for Newspapers and Magazines that I’d like to see would allow me access to all the headlines and blurbs for each story but limit the number of full stories I can see/read each month/week depending on how much I’ve paid.

The cost for these subscription models is critical. I would read 1 story a month from 10 or 20 magazines and several stories a day from a couple different newspapers but not if it costs hundreds of dollars (based on current subscription prices). I think there could easily be ways to lower the subscription cost if I agree to watch and interact with special advertising or allow cookies to be set on my browser so the advertisers can follow me around and gather data. I can also envision a 2 year multiple magazine/newspaper subscription model where just like cell phone companies the media reader is free or significantly discounted.

One concept that publishers will struggle with is how efficient blogs and social networking are at distributing stories and bringing in new readers, because once you put a pay wall up that will end. The key to this is realizing that hits are worthless and loyal readers are valuable. I think there’s a way to allow your paid subscribers the ability to distribute full stories to their friends/audience along with embedded advertising and a pitch to subscribe. This kind of sideways distribution is critical for niche publications and they will need to find the balance point between content that is freely distributable and content you have to pay to see.

Of course none of this addresses the the most critical issue Magazines and Newspapers are facing right now. Most of the content is not worth paying for (bolding my emphasis). Fixing that will require either a heavy investment from publishers or a changing of the guard.

I agree with the key issue presented here - most of the content in magazines and newspapers is not worth paying for. Which is a real shame because if the people who are getting paid to write can't produce good content then we are in a sorry state indeed. But that poses another question - why is content so poor? Surely good content still exists (I know it does), but perhaps our ridiculous need for instant gratification has put the emphasis on trivial information rather than an informed story. Who can we blame for this shift... the audience, the writers, the publishing icons? Is it the technology that is to blame, having made content "free"? Is this technological determinism at play?

I like to think that we're smarter than the technology. Technology is a tool and society can determine how to use that tool - not the other way around (reminder to self - must read more about social construction of technology, seems interesting). However, eventually the use becomes habitual and the distinction between the tool and how we use it becomes blurry. It is our habits that shape society, but when we can no longer distinguish between what we do and the tools we use to do, it is easy to start blaming the technology for changes in society. So when we consider the slow death of newspapers and magazines, it is important that we look at not only the tools for distribution (print vs. online) but also examine audience interaction as well as the expectations of content and quality.

Whenever some new tool for distributing information comes on the scene there are always people who start making proclamations about the death of the last tool. Par example,

Printing Press versus Town Crier - Death Match on Sunday, Sunday, Sunday...
Video kills Radio Star - All the grisly details at 6 (update at 7, YouTube killed the Video Star, Copycat Killer?)
Citizen Bloggers take on Conglomerate Journalists - In this Battle Royale Who will Survive?

Perhaps my examples are a bit hyperbolic, but you get the idea. Competition between communication tools is tough especially when tools from different weight classes are in the ring together.

Over the weekend A. and I saw State of Play at the cinema. It was your typical sort of politico-thriller, full of plot twists involving two investigatory journalists - one from the old guard (the gladiator of print) and new guard (the online notebook blogger) - their regal editor (the Queen herself) and scandal involving a young state senator and to a lesser extent his (princess bride) wife. Having written the majority of this post about a week or so prior to seeing the movie (insert a week or so above this paragraph), it was interesting to watch the movie with these thoughts about the changing nature of information distribution at the back of my mind. I felt this film was in a way a gritty ballad about the newspaper industry. The story focused on how the two journalists - the well seasoned writer (he was suitably peppery with just a touch of grease) and the saucy young ingenue (appropriately costumed in jersey cotton with a slouchy handknit toque) - worked to piece together the real story behind the scandal. There were numerous references to the battle between traditional print and online columnists - the challenges of timeliness of content vs. quality (read - validity) of content. The film on its own was entertaining and it was probably only because I had been musing about newspapers that I left the theatre thinking about how we need to spend more time considering the impact of our decisions to access information using different tools. This does not just apply to the difference where the content is coming from, but also the larger societal implications of our decisions. The film ended with the story of the scandal being sent to print. As the credits were rolling the camera led the audience through the mechanized printing process - and we followed the physical newspaper being developed, moving from giant rolls of paper through massive rollers - being folded and packaged into bundles and then loaded on to delivery trucks waiting outside. Imagine what happens to all those people who are employed once a newspaper goes to print. If we destroy that mode of delivery altogether what happens to them? What happens to the individuals who repair the machinery, work in the warehouse, drive the delivery trucks, manage the newspaper stands, hand deliver the newspapers? Shifting distribution of information online has a greater impact than we tend to realize. There needs to be more recognition of that.


  1. I saw and enjoyed that movie also. I loved how print seemed to "win" in the end. I don't think the paper, magazine, or book will ever really die - maybe that's naive. But I think most people get tired of screens. I think people like holding something firmly in their hands.

    The trouble is just that magazines and newspapers are going to learn how to provide something the online world can't, so they can truly be companions to one another, instead of contenders.

    This is my hope, anyway.