Earlier this month, Mathew Ingram of GigaOm (now with PaidContent!) wrote a solid rebuttal to the idea that failing to charge for online content is the "original sin" that has led to the fall of many U.S. newspapers.
Ingram was motivated to respond to Richard Tofel's new eBook, Why American Newspapers Gave Away the Future, which Tofel is selling for $1.99 in the iBookStore. But there's no shortage of laments these days.
Ingram could just as easily have trained his sights on a book like Free Ride by Robert Levine, which claims that "digital parasites are destroying the culture business." He could also have kept his powder dry for a run at The Nation's critique of William Patry's How to Fix Copyright, much of which fixates (oddly) on Patry's insistence that his opinions are his own, not Google's.
It's folly to think that industries fail because they collectively made a single bad decision or were done in by a single bad actor. Publishers eager to blame Amazon for eBook price wars forget that it was their insistence on DRM, coupled with a disinterest in promoting open standards, that handed the retailer its significant market share in the United States.
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook notes that addressing problems in complex systems depends on at least six inter-related principles:
- There are no right answers
- Focusing on just one part won't help
- Cause and effect aren't easily inked
- Implementing solutions takes time
- Easy ways out (like "charge for content") often lead you right back in, and
- Things gets worse before they gets better.
Per-capita newspaper circulation has been declining since 1947. Overly reliant on advertising revenues, newspapers seldom charged subscribers more than a nominal amount for their copies.
In the 1980s and 1990s, newspaper and magazine publishers alike spent a significant amount of time devaluing content to prop up rate bases and preserve advertising revenues. We responded to signals that demand for the container was on the wane by making it cheaper.
For a while we could pretend that the disruptions were limited or temporary. In media today, we can no longer pretend, and that seems to be making a lot of people angry.
In his post, Ingram counsels publishers differently: figure out how to adapt. The NPR coverage of O'Reilly Media's Tools of Change conference was imbued with that same spirit. We'll make progress when we can say, honestly, "I'm not angry (anymore)".