Publishers and Remora: Choose the Right Host and Stop Complaining, Please

October 20, 2023

dino-10-19-timeline-333-fix-4_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb humanoid. No smart software involved.

Today, let’s reflect on the suckerfish or remora. The fish attaches itself to a shark and feeds on scraps of the host’s meals or nibbles on the other parasites living on their food truck. Why think about a fish with a sucking disk on its head?

Navigate to “Silicon Valley Ditches News, Shaking an Unstable Industry.” The article reports as “real” news:

Many news companies have struggled to survive after the tech companies threw the industry’s business model into upheaval more than a decade ago. One lifeline was the traffic — and, by extension, advertising — that came from sites like Facebook and Twitter. Now that traffic is disappearing.

Translation: No traffic, no clicks. No clicks and no traffic mean reduced revenue. Why? The days of printed newspapers and magazines are over. Forget the costs of printing and distributing. Think about people visiting a Web site. No traffic means that advertisers will go where the readers are. Want news? Fire up a mobile phone and graze on the information available. Sure, some sites want money, but most people find free services. I like, but there are options galore.

Wikipedia provides a snap of a remora attached to a scuba diver. Smart remora hook on to a fish with presence.

The shift in content behavior has left traditional publishing companies with a challenge: Generating revenue. Newspapers specialized news services have tried a number tactics over the years. The problem is that the number of people who will pay for content is large, but finding those people and getting them to spit out a credit card is expensive. At the same time, the cost of generating “real” news is expensive as well.

In 1992, James B. Twitchell published Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America. The book offered insight into how America has embraced showmanship information. Dr. Twitchell’s book appeared 30 years ago. Today Google, Meta, and TikTok (among other digital first outfits) amplify the lowest common denominator of information. “Real” publishing aimed higher.

The reluctant adjustment by “white shoe” publishing outfits was to accept traffic and advertising revenue from users who relied on portable surveillance devices. Now the traffic generators have realized that “attention magnet” information is where the action is. Plus smart software operated by do-it-yourself experts provides a flow of information which the digital services can monetize. A digital “mom” will block the most egregious outputs. The goal is good enough.

The optimization of content shaping now emerging from high-technology giants is further marginalizing the “real” publishers.

Almost 45 years ago, the president of a company with a high revenue online business database asked me, “Do you think we could pull our service off the timesharing vendors and survive?” The idea was that a product popular on an intermediary service could be equally popular as a standalone commercial digital product.

I said, “No way.”

The reasons were obvious to me because my team had analyzed this question over the hill and around the barn several times. The intermediary aggregated information. Aggregated information acts like a magnet. A single online information resource does not have the same magnetic pull. Therefore, the cost to build traffic would exceed the financial capabilities of the standalone product. That’s why commercial database products were rolled up by large outfits like Reed Elsevier and a handful of other companies.

Maybe the fix for the plight of the New York Times and other “real” publishers anchored in print is to merge and fast. However, further consolidation of newspapers and book publishers takes time. As the New York Times “our hair is on fire” article points out:

Privately, a number of publishers have discussed what a post-Google traffic future may look like, and how to better prepare if Google’s A.I. products become more popular and further bury links to news publications… “Direct connections to your readership are obviously important,” Ms. LaFrance [Adrienne LaFrance, the executive editor of The Atlantic] said. “We as humans and readers should not be going only to three all-powerful, attention-consuming mega platforms to make us curious and informed.” She added: “In a way, this decline of the social web — it’s extraordinarily liberating.”

Yep, liberating. “Real” journalists can do TikToks and YouTube videos. A tiny percentage will become big stars and make big money until they don’t. The senior managers of “shaky” “real” publishing companies will innovate. Unfortunately start ups spawned by “real” publishing companies face the same daunting odds of any start up: A brutal attrition rate.

Net net: What will take the place of the old school approach to newspapers, magazines, and books. My suggestion is to examine smart software and the popular content on YouTube. One example is the MeidasTouch “network” on YouTube. Professional publishers take note. Newspaper and magazine publishers may also want to look at what Ben Meiselas and cohorts have achieved. Want a less intellectual approach to information dominance, ask a teenager about TikTok.

Yep, liberating because some of those in publishing will have to adapt because when or another high technology alleged monopoly changes direction, the sucker fish has to go along for the ride or face a somewhat inhospitable environment, hunger, and probably a hungry predator from a bottom feeding investment group.

Stephen E Arnold, October 20, 2023


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