Dead Trees–Cracking and Falling

October 29, 2008

I commented on the deal between Google and publishers here. I won’t retrace my thoughts. I would like to point to two news stories that presage what will happen in what I fondly call the “dead tree” business. “Dead tree” equates with paper. The “dead tree” people are those who print information on paper. Whether a newspaper or a conference organizer or a magazine publisher, the “dead tree” business model is suffering an ecosystem collapse.

Now the two news stories:

  1. The New York Times, PaidContent.org, and others reported that Time Inc. is reorganizing and chopping down 600 employees. Once getting a job at Time meant employment for a long time. Heck, the company has been trying to organize its photo collection for half a century. I think these layoffs will be little more than tender spring shoots in a riot of efflorescence. Summer, spring, then fall, if you get my metaphor.
  2. The Christian Science Monitor, according Business Week, the Washington Post, and others, is killing its daily print edition. I don’t recall a weekend edition, but I may be wrong. Whatever. The newspaper industry is waking up to the reality of the new era in publishing. I imagine the clay cuneiform crowd in Babylonia reacted the same way when folks turned up with papyrus scrolls. Goes with the territory in the information world.

Let me summarize several points that I have been dancing around in a goosey boogie:

First, the reason dead tree businesses are in trouble is that the business model no longer works. Costs are part of the problem. The Internet, as I wrote in my monograph “Publishing on the Internet: A New Medium for a New Millennium” (Infonortics Ltd., 1996), operates on different gears and levers than mashing ink on paper and selling ads. Alas, the monograph is no longer in print. It was one of my last dead tree studies. My new work is digital. I made the switch years ago.

Second, the demographics are against dead tree operations. I read books. I subscribe to four newspapers. I gave up on the Financial Times because the UK based outfit could not even mail the paper to me on a regular basis. The 12-year-old next door doesn’t look at newspapers. The junk mail and the newspapers go straight into la poubelle. Not a glace she gives them. Newspapers to her are the equivalent of baloney from charities, pizza delivery outfits, and yard service operators looking for work in Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky.

Third, the content is not longer intermediated by gatekeepers in New York, London, Madrid, and Paris. When Time nukes people, that action creates a number of new bloggers. The result is that there are more people motivated to generate content. We just tallied the numbers of Web logs, calculating about 120 million Web logs, with a confidence of 15 percent. Google alone has more than 80 Web logs. How can a handful of people keep pace with this outpouring of information in digital, crunchy formats. Dead trees don’t do audio and video. My neighbor’s daughter disposes of the newspapers with ear buds stuffed into her ears. The Craigslist.org listings for Louisville have eviscerated the Courier Journal & Louisville Times where I once worked, quite happily until the take over by Gannett in 1986.

Bottomline: will the intellectual foresters who print fungible information products figure out how to save the rain forest, or will these folks like the deer and squirrels here in Kentucky rush across the interstate when “developers” run bulldozers over the land to make way for new condos. Man, there are a lot of dead squirrels and deer on the roads near my log cabin. I will wait and see and be very careful cross the road.

What’s this have to do with search? When I cross the road, I check my Google Maps. You can’t find much information using my high school library. I checked last time I was in central Illinois.

Stephen Arnold, October 29, 2008

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