The Digital Age: A Seasonal Snapshot

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What follows are edited remarks made last week to the Salisbury Forum at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, on the subject of "Good Books. Quality News: Publishing & Journalism in the Digital Age." Some of these will be recognizable themes to regular readers of this column. But a summary from time-to-time provides a valuable base for measuring the enormous changes likely to come in the months ahead:

Welcome to the digital age of information and entertainment distribution, a world of profound, even dizzying, change. Facebook, with 450 million users, is barely six years old. So is YouTube. Google has been around for less than decade as a public company. And yet these brand names, and products like the iPhone, iPod, and Kindle have become standard features in our society and, by extension, they are playing an increasing role in our content economy.

For one measure of how fast things change and how volatile they are, consider that, in the mid-1990s, 30 million people were paying $20 a month for their America Online dial-up service—and then they weren't. The panorama before us is not the destination. It is a journey on which we are all being carried by technology, which is the driving force behind society's communications and entertainment as never before. A century ago, our culture was shaped by, among others, two graduates of Hotchkiss, Henry Luce and Brett Haddon. They were inventors of the mass news magazine, which were in a way, like today's websites, providing you with an array of information. Walt Disney, William Paley, David Sarnoff, William B. Mayer were the pioneers of film and television. Their emphasis was content, mainly entertainment, using cameras and screens as they evolved.

Today's version of those visionaries are primarily engineers and marketing geniuses like Steve Jobs of Apple, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt of Google, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. In the space of a generation, they have transformed distribution but they are much less involved in developing the content than their predecessors. That is the role of people like me and the challenge we face is how best to accommodate this revolution in the way things are presented and secure the quality we cherish in the process.

The message I have for you is that what we see now is really a snapshot. If there is as much change in the next ten years as there has been in the past decade, then iconic brands of the moment may be replaced by gadgets and networks being devised right now by some graduate student in a garage. This is, of course, exciting, but it is also extremely daunting, especially for those of whose main role is to develop the content in all the ways technology now permits and, increasingly, demands.

There are three parts to this discussion. First, what does all this activity mean to you, the consumers, the readers of news and books? And then I'll try to explain where I think the worlds of book publishing and quality news gathering are headed. These are vast subjects, so what you're getting amounts to a sketch.

The Digital Age and Consumers

Two characteristics dominate today's information and entertainment more than they ever have before: the power of choice; and on-demand delivery. Each day, each of us makes a series of decisions about where, when, and how we consume information and entertainment. When it comes to news, each of you is your own editor-in-chief. A generation ago, the paper was delivered to your door, you watched the evening news, and you read a weekly magazine or two. All of these were prepared by journalists who told you what they thought you needed to know and that seemed to work. Advertisers supported the mass market so the proprietors and publishers, especially in monopolies, were secure and all-powerful.

Today that model no longer applies. As your own editor-in-chief, you select among a vastly greater series of options. ;Never before has more material—stuff, if you want to be vaguely pejorative—been so available. And never before has the consumer had greater responsibility and the privilege that goes with that to make choices about what they want to know. On-demand delivery: being your own editor-in-chief also gives you control over the timing and format of the information and entertainment you want.

Take movies as an example. Watching movies is one of our family's favorite weekend activities. Here are the ways we can watch: video-on-demand on cable (including, increasingly, independent films on the same day they are released in theaters), recent Hollywood films on demand, standard cable (I'm a fan of Turner Classic Movies), premium cable like HBO, iTunes downloads, and Netflix instant-streaming over the Internet. I can buy DVDs on Amazon, rent them through Netflix, or take them out of the library. And finally, if I want to see Avatar in 3D for $15 a ticket, I can go to the multiplex. Every one of these options is essentially mine on demand. The obligation of the content creator has decisively shifted from providing you with goods on their terms to making those goods available to you where, when and how you want them. Being hard to find is a disqualifier to success these days.

This is also true of news. If you want a single fix a day in the time-honored way, of course you can have it. But news at every level, from the cheesiest web gossip to the most sophisticated political and foreign policy analysis is available where, when and how you choose to search for it. The power to choose and on-demand delivery are defining features of our age. Both are thrilling and overwhelming.

The Digital Age and Books

Here is a basic fact. Books are not disappearing, contrary to what you may sometimes hear. Publishing is under pressure. That has always been the case. It is often said that the second book published after Gutenberg invented the printing press was called The Book Is Dead. Remember, books don't have advertising, so we're not losing it; we don't have subscribers so we're not losing them either. The issue for books has always been—now, stay with me on this—inventory management; that is putting books in the right place at the right time. In that sense, book publishing can only benefit if more people adopt the principle and gadgetry of on-demand delivery.

Traditionally, when people contemplated finding a book that was not a huge bestseller, their thought has tended to be, "I'll see if I can get it. I'll go look for it." In Russia, when I lived there in the 1970s, there was no verb in common use for "to buy." The verb instead was "to obtain, to acquire with difficulty." Most books, like those we publish at PublicAffairs, tend to be more visible in reviews and interviews than they are available from booksellers. A critically hailed work this winter by Jonathan Cole, the former provost of Columbia University, called The Great American University, was launched with 9,000 copies in print for our nation of 320 million people, because that was the orders we had in advance. Technology is now making these books far easier to find. In 2005, with support from the MacArthur and Carnegie Foundations, I started a project we called Caravan to do books in all the ways possible: in print, as e-books, audio, large print and from print-on-demand machines. The motto we adopted was "Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now."

And that is the principle: to succeed today, publishers need to recognize that consumers make choices based on convenience, the urge or need to close the transactions. We all love local booksellers. We respect the scale of the big chains like Barnes and Noble. But these brick-and-mortar retailers now have to compete with the efficiency and aggressive pricing on Amazon and other leading on-line booksellers.

Bookstores are for browsing but they also should be showrooms in which the selection on hand should be backed up by access to the vast catalogue and data bases of books that can be ordered. No customer should ever leave a store having asked for a book that can be located somewhere without closing the sale. I once saw a relevant sign in a hotel that booksellers should seek to adopt. It said: "The answer is yes, there is no other answer."

And then there is the Kindle and iPad. Pick a book just published (or a classic) and it can be yours in under a minute. The iPad selection is more limited, but the available book looks and reads as beautifully as books ever have. Compare that experience with going to a store and being told that the book will take a week to get and please stop by to pick it up. Naturally, more and more people make the convenient choice.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a very positive review of a PublicAffairs book called Power Hungry, a contrarian view of U.S. energy policy. That day, 450 copes of the printed book were sold on Amazon, and it was as high as #27 on the bestseller list. At the big chains, only 110 copies were sold, a 4 to 1 ratio based largely, I believe, on the ability of the consumer to complete the purchase instantly, before the urge passed and some new book competed for attention. E-books are now pushing toward 10 percent of the book market, based primarily on the Kindle and now the iPad, although the Barnes and Noble Nook and the Sony Reader also have fans. There are predictions that as much as 25 percent of the books will be digital sometime in the next ten years.

There are still a great many issues to be resolved in what is a never ending tug-of-war over respective self-interest. What are the right prices and how should the proceeds be divided between author publisher and retailer? How to limit piracy? Do children's' books belong on screens? How to bring local booksellers into the digital process before it is too late?

But the core point is this: Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now. That is the future of the book business. It is up to authors, publishers, editors, agents and booksellers to fulfill that mandate.

The Digital Age and News Gathering

Turning now to news and news gathering; there is no need to tell you that traditional news gathering, especially the great metropolitan dailies, the news magazines, and the broadcast network news divisions have been devastated by the loss of advertising and circulation to the Internet and the miscalculations they made in choosing to give away their material rather than charge for it. For all of you in the room who now subscribe to cable and pay $4.95 a month for HBO or a movie-on-demand, suppose you were told a few years ago that for another $4.95 added to your cable or broadband bill, you could have a package of, say, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times, just a small add-on to your bill. Many people wouldn't have hesitated.

That didn't happen, and trying to recapture payment now is going to be very hard. I have argued for some time that the companies who deliver you the "free" news—Google, Yahoo, and the others who scrape websites and aggregate via search results around which they sell billions in advertising—should be sharing that revenue with the content creators. That debate is ongoing. And in the meantime, the news business continues to contract. But rather than repeat what you already know about cutbacks in news gathering, let me tell you about some innovative developments out of which may well come successful new models.

All around the country, including in Connecticut, new organizations for news gathering are being created, mainly online. One of them is The Connecticut Mirror, a new nonprofit with top-notch professionals behind it. There are also investors starting up a chain of for-profit local news sites in places like Westport.

In every major city where the newspapers are in trouble—San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Diego, St. Louis—small start-ups, mainly funded by foundations and small individual gifts, are starting to get traction. I am involved with the Chicago News Cooperative, which launched last fall and got a significant boost because it supplies Chicago news twice weekly to the pages of the regional edition of the New York Times. The CNC has a partnership with the local public television station. Just this week, CNC agreed with the public radio station to put a joint reporter in the Illinois statehouse.

Over time, the most enterprising of these outfits will start to develop business models aimed at the holy grail of start-up theology: sustainability. Relying on philanthropy is not a long-term strategy. They will solicit memberships, look for advertising, and deliver news across multiple platforms: on the Web, in print, and over the air. If that sounds a bit like the history of public radio, it is very similar, and provides perhaps the most dramatic case of the reinvention of quality news. In the 1970s, small radio stations operating in communities and at educational institutions began to aggregate as a national publicly supported network that shared an interest in news and cultural programming.

Initially, the federal government was a considerable financial supporter, but politics inevitably intervened. And today, public radio—that is, National Public Radio and other providers of programming for the local stations in a network numbering in the hundreds—is supported by members, by underwriting (essentially advertising), foundations, and a small contribution from the Corporation for Public broadcasting. Significantly, NPR, in particular, has one of the largest and most respected news gathering organizations in the nation, with more foreign correspondents than all the broadcast networks put together. NPR has more than 30 million listeners a week.

Think about what that means: this most old-fashioned of electronic media—radio—is now an essential provider of news, because of the quality of its service, the serendipity of its development over the years, and the support of its listeners, an enormous audience of engaged Americans, from moguls to schoolteachers, and of all ages.

I believe that, despite the decline in metro news and investigative journalism on a local level, there is a surge in entrepreneurial energy and vision that will devise new means of providing quality news. There will be serious disruption as new platforms take hold, but the demand for news in our society has never been greater, and the record shows that ours is a culture that meets demand when confronted with it. Every major community has a university or college, libraries, and museums, and considers them civic assets. News gathering, the monitoring of government and the recording of events and trends, is indispensable to our society, and if the market will not support a news organization, then it is up to the community to do so.

Conclusion

For those of us in the content end of news and book publishing, this is a very complicated period. The most profitable enterprises of the moment are the distributors and hardware providers: Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft. They don't produce content. They deliver it. They are pipes through with information flows, today's version of Ma Bell or Western Union. But the billionaire moguls in those companies say they recognize the importance of quality material to maintain their corporate growth.

To add to names I mentioned earlier as 20th-century innovators, there were Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie (creator of the great national library system), and newspaper publishers like Joseph Pulitzer, the Sulzbergers, and the Grahams. We are in a new century now, absorbing change at what seems like a frenetic pace. But I am confident that quality books and quality news have a future in the digital age, if we can persuade audiences to show commitment to that quality, to recognize value, and to provide essential financial resources to content creators. Together, we can meet what all of us would agree are the enormous challenges and opportunities of our time.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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