Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Amazon of the media, the printing press and storytelling

Once upon a time Johannes Gutenberg invented (or re-invented, or perfected) the printing press with moveable type. For a long, long time the press he designed and made was THE printing technology.
Then other people modified and improved the press and the type, used new materials that made it all more durable or easier to use or more efficient, and their presses and type expanded the market.
Then a clever person (or people) devised a way to separate type and press, so that the text could be set up separately and combined with the press in a different way that was more efficient again. As Adam Smith would have predicted, this increased output further. It also allowed presses to become faster, driven first by steam and then by electricity.
Then the mechanical typesetting systems were replaced by electronic ones, and then the electronic versions were made simpler and easier and this process collided with the miniaturisation of computers, leading to desktop publishing that put the compositors and proof-readers out of business.
And now, as Marshall McLuhan would have predicted, the press has become a fully electric artefact, incorporated invisibly into the code that drives a computer and its screen.
At each stage there was upheaval and realignment; people who did old things had to learn to do new things or be pushed aside by the inevitability of technological progress.
And at each stage, as old business opportunities and models died away, new ones took their place.
The people who made the real money were those who owned the means of production, as Karl Marx would have predicted, by which they could introduce those with something to sell to those who had the money to buy – and charge both sides. The bait was "journalism" (ie stories) and they needed to employ other people to do the actual production (printers, compositors, journalists), so the money got spread around a bit, and they continued to grow partly by taking over or driving out smaller, less capitalised businesses.
We can see that something major is happening now, and even though we can't see the outcome, the process follows a similar pattern.
A clever man (or men, or people) invents the electronic press (internet protocol), someone invents a way to both locate and distribute the products of that press (search: AltaVista, Dogpile), then someone else invents a better, more efficient, way (Google). So far, the people who have made a bit of money out of this are the equipment suppliers (routers, servers, personal computers) and the businesses that have managed to combine search and advertising (basically Google to date).
At the same time, because the means of production have become much more widely available, capital and the accumulation of income have also become more widely (and thinly) distributed.
The question for journalists then becomes either "Who will pay me to produce?" or "How can I tap into the current streams of revenue?"
(This leaves aside questions about the role of the press as the Fourth Estate, and editorial workers as Gate Keepers and all that – perhaps those roles are relativistic.)
If the previous patterns show us anything useful, it is that someone will invent a new way of harvesting the potential – but also that many new ways of harvesting will be discovered. And if the shitstream (Copyright: Dr Daniel Meadows) of the internet tells us anything it is that people still love stories, telling their own and consuming other people's.
So here's one thing for all journalists to cling on to: Find the best stories.

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