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Opening Arguments

Convergence and community

I have a cell phone with which I can talk to almost anybody, from almost anywhere. It has a 1.3-megapixel camera, with which I can take stills or very short videos and post them on the Web, again from just about anywhere. Apple just introduced a new iPod. It enables users not only to carry around thousands of songs and still photos, but also downloaded video; people can watch last night's episode of "Desperate Housewives" (or their own homemade videos, for that matter) while they're on the train or waiting in the doctor's office (OK, make that two episdoes). How long before somebody thinks to put the cell phone with the iPod or the iPod with the cell phone? They're probably already working on it. Throw in a collapsible QWERTY keyboard and expandable screen that's bigger than 2 inches so that mobile Internet access is more user-friendly, and, friends, we're talking real convergence. In about a year or so, each of us can be an ultimate consumer of information and an ultimate producer of it, carrying the entire world and all our connections to it in a device weighing a few ounces that fits in the palm of the hand. We're in the middle of a new reality no one quite understands yet.

More about which in a minute.

I was going to begin this post with a lengthy list of individual replies to all the people in the blogosphere who just can't seem to give up on the rumor that The News-Sentinel has a "secret plan" to cease print publication and become an online-only publication in the next two years. But denying rumors seems to have the perverse effect of perpetuating them, and people with axes to grind seldom let anything like the truth deter them from the pursuit of their own agendas. Suffice it to say that an occasional burst of common sense is breaking through here and there, but a lot of people are still willing to stand out on that ledge until the wind picks up and knocks them off. Go through all that if you want, but it seems like such a pointless, tiresome exercise. Much more important are the discussions we're trying to have that led to the rumor in the first place, the kind of conversations we should all be having, inside and outside of the business.

I cetainly wish The News-Sentinel had a plan to deal with the new reality. Of all the media that are challenged by the information revoultion, afternoon newspapers have the most reason for a sense of urgency. But we're certainly not alone. The newspaper industry as a whole is in deep trouble. The evening newscast, in the age of 24-hour cable coverage, is a dinosaur. General-interest magazines are mostly gone. Young men aren't even going to movies much anymore, and they probably prefer to get their DVDs from a Web site instead of going to the video store (an institution that's just a few years old but already on the way out). The list goes on an on. And if we can't figure out a clear path through all this, it might be because we're not thinking of it in the right way. Too many of us are considering only our small pieces of the puzzle instead of trying to see the whole picture. Consider:

The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product-oriented instead of customer-oriented.

Hollywood barely escaped being totally ravished by television; actually, all the established film companies went through drastic reorganizations. Some simply disappeared. All of them got into trouble not because of TV's inroads but because of their own myopia. As with the railroads, Hollywood defined its business incorrectly. It thought it was in the movie business when it was actually in the entertainment business. 'Movies' implied a specific, limited product. This produced a fatuous contentment, which from the beginning led producers to view TV as a threat. Hollywood scorned and rejected TV when it should have welcomed it as an opportunity-an opportunity to expand the entertainment business.

That's from a Harvard Business Review article called "Marketing Myopia" by Theodore Levitt way back in 1960, when there were only three network news operations, which took most of their story ideas from the front pages of newspapers, still the dominant force in information. But it certainly applies to us today. Too many of us are "defining the industry wrong." We think of ourselves as being in the newspaper business or magazine business or newscasting business without stopping to realize we are actually in the information business. We still have the staffs and equipment and expertise to gather the information and sort into some form that is useful to people (a growing need, since the quantity of unreliable nonsense grows proportionately with the availability of verifiable facts).

We just have to figure out the best platform (or, more likely, platforms) to get the information to the people who want it, in a way they want it, with a plan that still allows some profit to be made. This first means deciphering, as much as we can, where the advertising industry is going. The mass media were made possible by the desire of advertisers to reach as many people as easily as possible. (That always was an odd model, when you think about it, the people's need to know piggybacked on other people's desire to sell stuff). Now, there are so many outlets for advertising, and advertisers are so much more interested in precisely targeting the potential consumers for their products, that the whole concept of "mass media" needs some serious debate. There are probably a handful of advertising media buyers out there with millions and millions to spend who will have more to say about where the information revolution is going than all the media geniuses and academic experts put together.

(By the way, since the only Internet business model newspapers seem to have found so far is one that is killing our own single-copy sales, that makes our "secret plan" to go Web-only in two years absurd on its face. Consider, in that light, the insistance of some people to keep perpetuating the rumor as fact, and judge their cognitive abilities accordingly.)

Are we headed to a time when advertising simply won't support the mass dissemination of information? I don't know, but we ought to be thinking about the implications if that is so. If advertisers are seeking niches, information purveyors might also have to. Individuals might be able to make a decent living, or supplement one, but giant companies won't be sustainable. Information will have to stand on its own, sold on the open market for whatever the traffic will bear, with no advertising to guarantee its profitability. Maybe we face a future in which we will get our news from thousands or even millions of newsletters, print or online or a combination thereof. On the other hand, maybe there will be just one giant, global information company known as Universal Mobile Phone, Digital Cable and Handheld Computer, Inc., or some such. (That's not too scary, is it?) I don't have a clue, and anybody who purports to know where all this is going ought to be viewed with deep skepticism. As smarter futurists than me have observed, an advance we're not even thinking about now in one area can affect the course of development in other areas, and all the speculations we have indulged in will be rendered moot.

And while we're worrying about our own professional futures ("Poor, poor pitiful us!"), we might pause a moment and consider what the implications might be for the larger society. Communication has always been about more than the sending and receiving of information. It has also been about creating a sense of community, people collecting knowledge together in a way that makes them realize they have shared values and common dreams and fears. People don't just want to find out things; they want to cobble together, from all the things it is possible to learn, the things that connect them with one another. That was true when people gathered around campfires to share tales of the next village over. It was true when they passed along folk songs that had been added to generation after generation. It was true when people huddled around the radio to listen to FDR's fireside chats, and I suspect it is true today when they comment back and forth with each other at their favorite liberal or conservative blog sites.

A library is more than a collection of human knowledge; it is a place in which people can share their exploration of it, everybody knowing that fiction is in this section and science is over in that section and today is not the day to ask long questions because the crabby reference librarian is manning the desk. A newspaper is not just a collection of facts and information about a city; it is also a repository of the city's collective sense of itself, and it should transmit the flavor of what it is like to be alive in a partcular time and a particular place.

The danger in this new world is that we will be ever more fragmented, our shared communities smaller and more narrowly focused, our ability to isolate ourselves with our own pursuits overwhelming our perceived need to seek mutually beneficial solutions to increasingly difficult problems. I don't want to ignore all the benefits of the communications revolution, which are breathtaking. Despots will find it increasingly difficult to hoard knolwedge, the ability that has most made tyranny possible. We can quickly share universally the kinds of imformation that opens trade and creates wealth and reduces disease and helps us live so much better lives in so many ways. But on the way to becoming a global village, we can also accelerate our retreat into the individual huts of that village, seldom if ever venturing out into the public square. We will know everything and share nothing. You think our Red State-Blue State bitterness is evidence of a great divide? We may, in fact, look back upon these days with nostalgic fondness as our last gasp of national unity.

Getting back to Levitt's trains: The transportation revolution did both things, didn't it? It made the world a lot smalller. Our ancestors took months by wagon train to cross a distance we can cover in a few hours. But it emptied our cities and clogged the highways connecting our comfortable, suburban enclaves.

And the communications revolution is so new that we can't begin to know where it's going. Some people talk about the Internet and the blogosphere as if they're the end point, but they're anything but that. We've been in the train phase of communication for a long time, and we're just now seeing a glimpse of the personal-automobile phase. Still to come are the buses and trucks and ships and jet planes . . .

Yes, indeedy, The News-Sentinel has all this figured out. We have a secret two-year plan, you know. Send me a buck, and I'll share it with you. It will be nonsense, but maybe it will make you feel better, and I'll be rich.