Publishers Weekly is reporting that the New York Times will be launching a series of short e-books. This is significant in a lot of ways, not the least being the attention being lavished upon the Times’s partners Byliner and Vook. Now, if you don’t who or what Byliner and Vook are, don’t tell anybody, as your ignorance will mark you indelibly as an Old Media type, and you wouldn’t want that, right? But now that the Times is playing in this sandbox, you have to pay attention, as the paper’s death throes compel the imagination.
So what’s this all about? One version of the story tells of the new forms that digital media make possible. Once upon a time, in the Print Era, most text-based publications fell into relatively well-defined categories, aka “buckets” or “containers” — the book, the article, the magazine, the newspaper. But with digital media you can do anything you want to do; you can even go “bucketless” and develop your own format. This is all well and good, and if my sense of irony is getting the better of me, it’s because the long road from editorial idea to successful business enterprise is infrequently travelled and often not even anticipated. But as Mao said, or Confucius, or someone, a long journey begins with the first step.
Thus, the Times is experimenting with the medium-form text. It’s a good idea, and I wish them well. But it’s the backdrop that intrigues me most of all, inasmuch as these texts will be sold as content, not supported by advertising. This is a very big item, more important than the switch from print to digital, as it points to the growing interest of traditionally advertising-supported businesses in the entirely different model of paid content. This shift, if it truly can be accomplished, will change everything.
People unfamiliar with how the media industry works, may not know that for many media ventures, the product is not the World Series or episodes of CSI or the news content of the Washington Post. The product is the audience, which is attracted, aggregated, packaged, and then sold. The customer is the advertiser. Thus, as a regular reader of the New York Times and viewer of Yankee baseball, my attention is being directed to the presentations of Manhattan retail stores, myriad financial services companies, and Ford, Toyota, and Verizon Wireless. Some of these advertisements apparently have worked on me (I bought my wife’s Christmas gift at a New York store, we own a Toyota, etc.). Being the product is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different thing from being the customer.
The problem that advertising-supported businesses have when the Internet comes along is that online advertising has so many places to go. The inventory is immense. Thus, a publication in print that earns $1 in advertising revenue goes online and finds it can only earn one-tenth of that. The internet turns dollars into dimes. And this is true for every segment of media, including advertising-supported or subsidized scholarly journals.
What is happening now is that the attempt to build a comparable advertising business online is proving to be fruitless for all but a handful of players, notably Google and Facebook. The now-famous paywall of the Times, and the higher paywall of the Wall Street Journal, is but the first step in the direction toward paid content over advertising. The short- or medium-form works the Times is contemplating are another step. There will be more. Over time the dream of online advertising will fade for content companies, replaced by paid content and content that directly supports transactions (called “advertorials” in the Print Era, but now called “native advertising”). This in turn will morph the nature of the content itself, as it will have a new kind of customer to please. Content — journals, books, newspapers, sporting events — is shaped by the market if faces. We should contemplate this with the emergence of Gold OA, which faces a new market, the author — or the funding agency. What shape will it ultimately take? Only the market knows.