The water’s edge

Most days, I write about things fairly close to the core of publishing – content management, workflows, piracy, disruption and the use of DRM are all examples. Magazine, book and association publishers face challenges, and there's plenty to bring to the fore.

Since last fall, I've been carrying around a link to something that illustrates a different but important challenge to U.S. publishers: the growing divide between the country's poorest and most well-off households. It is based on analysis undertaken by Amir Sufi, Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

In his research, Sufi looked at what happened to net household weath during the 2007 – 2010 recession. Here's what he found:

  • The net worth of households at the 25th percentile fell from a high of about $15,000 in 2001 to a low of less than $8,000 in 2010. That low was more than $2,000 less than was the case in 1992.
  • The net worth of households at the 50th percentile fell to about $75,000. This is close to the net worth last recorded in 1992.
  • At the 90th percentile, net worth declined slightly, to about $880,000.

Publishers would be smart to think carefully about inequalities like these. Over the last 20 years, the net wealth of more than half the country has essentially stagnated, at a time when the 90th percentile grew by 80%. Concentrating wealth limits markets, particularly for goods (like books and magazines) that are luxuries in difficult times.

Last week, I served a day of jury duty. Just before lunch, I was called to join a pool of jurors who would be interviewed for a civil case. I wound up not being selected, but I was able to listen as the judge asked each candidate a set of scripted questions.

The prospective jurors started by sharing some information about themselves – what they did, how long they had attended school and the like. Then, the judge asked what they read.

It's a single slice of a small part of America, but only one person (of more than a dozen interviewed) read a newsmagazine. Just one other person read a newspaper that she had paid for. Asked what they did in their spare time, none of the jurors said they read for pleasure. Most of them talked about taking care of their families and homes.

Yes, it's hard to make money in an era of content disruption. The advantage likely doesn't flow to the incumbents. Addressing wealth inequality won't solve that problem.

But a rising tide lifts all boats. Maybe some of those boats will find the additional water offers more than enough room to keep sailing. That's reason enough to not stop at the water's edge when it comes to this issue.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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