In 1994 Louis Rossetto cranked up HotWired and believed he was ushering in the professionalization of the Web. It was time to rout all the anarchists and the hackers and the amateurs who thought the Internet was all about self-expression (and them). “The era of public-access Internet has come to an end,” he declared. He didn’t mean that the public would no longer be able to access the Internet, of course; he was drawing an analogy to public-access TV. Just as that once-promising avenue for citizen media had been eclipsed by the pros of the cable world, so, he reasoned, the Web would similarly leave the amateurism of its youth behind.
Nick Carr believes this is still going to happen, but many of us today understand that the opportunity the Web affords all of us to add to it lies at the heart of the medium’s identity. It’s not some minor feature of the medium’s youth that will be sloughed off as maturity arrives. It’s not some incidental efflorescence of excess creativity that will vanish once the laws of supply and demand kick in. It is what makes the Web tick. You can try to ignore that, and use the Web as a mere replacement for paper and trucks, but why bother? You will lose your readers and your future.
I thought of all this as I read reports today of Rupert Murdoch’s pronouncement that “The current days of the internet will soon be over.” Phrased that way, the prediction makes it sound like the end times are near. But the only apocalypse in sight, I’m afraid, is that of the old-line news industry, if it insists on pursuing dead-end subscription models for general-interest Web products.
There is money to be made on the Web for the providers of information, but it will never be made by locking away generic news and opinion articles and charging subscription fees to access them. Cutting your content off from the rest of the Web in this fashion robs it of its Webbiness. It’s like a movie producer in the 1930s saying, “Hey, let’s make talkies!”, but then turning off the sound in the theaters.
Murdoch, and any other publisher who shuts the gates, may well boost his bottom line in the short term. But in the medium term and beyond he is simply guaranteeing the slow decline and ultimate irrelevance of his publication. This is painful for journalists and media execs to hear, but they need to hear it — just as, back in 1994, Rossetto needed to hear that no, actually, “public access” was exactly what the Web was all about.
Nick Carr believes this is still going to happen …
It depends on what the meaning of “this” is. If “this” means that amateurs will be “eclipsed” by pros, then I don’t believe it’s “still going to happen”; I believe it already has happened. And the traffic statistics back me. Look at how the list of most popular blogs has changed over the last 10 years: a dramatic and overwhelming shift from the amateur to the pro. Or look at how the list of most-followed Twitter accounts has changed over the last year: same deal. “Eclipsed” doesn’t mean “destroyed.” The work of amateurs will continue to be essential to the Web as a medium, and that, as I’ve said repeatedly, is great. Darwin was an amateur.
If “this” means that news and other media companies will in time find added ways of charging for their content, then, yeah, I think that’s going to happen, for reasons I laid out here and elsewhere. Does that mean that there won’t continue to be a crapload of free content on the Web? Of course it doesn’t. But anyone who’s under the impression that the laws of supply and demand don’t apply to the Web should take a look at the epidemic of layoffs and bankruptcies in the news business. That’s what it looks like when an industry’s supply model adapts to a new reality in the marketplace.
Although Scott slyly hedges his bet by slipping in the word “generic” into his penultimate paragraph, his view remains the orthodox one, and like every orthodox view there’s a lot of truth to it as well as a good bit of myopia.
Hmm … tough questions. After reading the article Carr links to I see the basis for his argument, but there’s something that’s not addressed in that particular piece: quality. The quality of reporting these days is abysmal and doesn’t look to be heading for a turnaround as the market winnows down the competition in the media sector. If spending less and less on reporting is part of the strategy for surviving the current mass extinction, doesn’t that imply that the really expensive, really valuable content will go out the window somewhere along the line?
On the other hand, sites like TPM are doing quality reporting in their areas of interest. I’m intrigued by the idea that the TPM model will become the blueprint for small organizations doing news on focused topics. In essence, each site would be a “desk” in an old-fashioned newsroom, which would have been replaced by an RSS aggregator. Subscribe to Site X for technology news, site Y for Inside the Beltway coverage, and Site Z for local news.
I think you’re absolutely right that distinctive, or quality, content will be essential for the survival of any kind of professional news operation. I don’t think the scenario you sketch out would provide the financial support required for what you call “really expensive, really valuable content” (excellent overseas reporting, for instance). That’s more likely to come through the winnowing of current professional news sources to a high-quality few that then become able to sustain themselves through advertising and/or online subscriptions in some form.
I don’t know, Nick — this idea of “the orthodox view” seems to depend on what denomination you belong to. The orthodox view among attendees at technology conferences? probably. The orthodox view from a New York boardroom or a Los Angeles suite? I don’t think so.
I think that what Rossetto meant when he declared the era of “public access Internet” to be over was that it was time for the amateurs to hang it up — the pros were in the game. And of course they have done nothing of the sort. Similarly, Murdoch’s declaration of the imminent end of “current times” suggests that he believes that soon we’ll all be paying publishers for much of what we read on the Web. We’ll see if he’s right.
Building a case on traffic statistics leaves several questions unanswered: (1) these “lists of 10 most popular blogs” are a joke (how can the Huffington Post be considered “a blog”? Is TechCrunch a blog? It started as one, but it sure doesn’t look like one now); they claim to be tracking who’s up and who’s down but they’re really only tracking the results of changing their own definitions. (It’s in the grand tradition of the Dow, which adds and subtracts companies over the years.) (2) “Eclipse” means “hide from view,” I believe. Maybe that’s not part of your argument, in which case I’ve misrepresented it.
What I hear you saying in the post you linked to (and elsewhere) is that the market will correct the oversupply of news eventually and once it’s scarcer publishers will be able to capture more value from what they publish. And I just don’t see that happening at all. The supply on the Web keeps growing even as the business model of old media continues to decay. Capturing value in this world won’t come from trying (and failing) to dam the river of news; it will come from learning to swim in it.
And there will still be less value than in the old monopoly world, which is too bad for Rupert Murdoch, but doesn’t terribly worry me.
Eclipse: deprive of significance, power, or prominence
That’s the dictionary definition, and also mine.