Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, recently indulged in a bit of a rant over the Internet age in a lecture which was, in turn, immediately picked up and lambasted by TechDirt blogger Mike Masnick.
I’ll admit, reading Masnick’s article was like watching my football team win the championship. Point for point, the blog post stuck it to the man—not specifically MacArthur, but really everyone in the publishing and journalism industry who has been telling me for five years that this field has no future and that everything has gone to the dogs. I, however, join Masnick in being a little more optimistic than that.
However, I can’t help but concede that, beneath a bitter resistance to change, MacArthur’s lecture brings up a point that is, I think, pretty inarguable: the Internet is positioning itself to ruin the public-access media model.
And that is a bold statement. The commercial/advertising model currently in place subsidizes the production of a television program, magazine, or other form of media, so that the pass-along cost to consumers can be low or nil. It hasn’t always been this way—in the early years of broadcast media, a single company sponsored an entire program (old radio programs are a good example of this—listen for a few minutes). When that became prohibitive, networks chunked program sponsorship into more appropriate price ranges, and commercials as we know them today developed—a system not unlike the system print media had had in place for years.
So advertising was great. We loved it. Besides broadcast and print media, we also plastered billboards, benches, subway cars, pretty much anything that stood still, with advertising. And until now, those ad dollars have subsidized everything from your cable bill to your transit ticket.
But then the Internet happened. And then consumer analytics happened. And suddenly we could measure exactly how many eyeballs were seeing every ad. And we could measure exactly how many people were clicking through that ad. And advertising, which generally is kind of a “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” enterprise, had the opportunity to become a whole lot more targeted.
Not to mention cheaper: an advertising campaign on Facebook or Google may cost as little as fifty bucks. Advertising in a big, national magazine costs thousands of dollars. Which would you rather risk? A cheap ad that lets you track its effectiveness? Or an expensive ad that offers no feedback on customer reaction?
So what does this have to do with publishing? It means that we can afford to promote more books to more targeted audiences than ever before. It means that new opportunities may emerge for publishers to leverage their meager per-book advertising dollars to great effect as new revenue models are being explored for public-access media. It means that the world of advertising is in as much disarray as publishing: scary, but kind of comforting to know that ours is not the only rocking boat.
Pro-Internet folks like me don’t like to think that our beloved baby, the World Wide Web, is killing what was the bread and butter of our formative years: radio, television, magazines, and newspapers. But as Dylan says, times are a-changing.
And as another Dylan says, “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” So although I think you’re wrong, MacArthur, I can’t help but acknowledge that you’ve hit on the crux of the matter. But I’ll hold on to the stubborn belief that this light isn’t dying: it’s just that instead of, say, a gas lamp, we’re changing it out for something a little more modern.