Leigh Blackall’s recent post is well worth a read, but a tangential matter in it struck me. It references the 2004 video EPIC 2014. It’s a video that has been floating around for four years or so, and is still shown, I believe, at gatherings of newspaper people when they get the vapors, as a sort of smelling salt for the stenographer class.
If you haven’t seen it, well, I’m going out on a limb here, but don’t bother. It paints a dystopian future where news media fails and is replaced by a loose network of people living online under a umbrella organization called the Googlezon, replacing news with essentially citizen journalism and Digg-like ranking systems. Newspapers collapse, and we are left with a double edged sword for a gift — a system of news that has more breadtha nd depth than ever before, but one that has been severed from the wisdom of its newspaper and TV news overlords, and therefore is vulnerable to being about trivia and being manipulated by corrupt individuals.
The disappearance of the news overlords is bad, you see, because historically those overlords have done so well at keeping news relevant and uncorrupted (cf. The WaPo selling influence to lobbyists at $250,000 a pop, the Michael Jackson death cult, Pentagon analysts used as “independent commentators”, and that whole messy cheerleading us into the Iraq War thing).
As for me, I thought the Googlezon was actually a bit of an improvement. Given the choice between an news organization that believes selling itself to health care lobbyists is a creative business strategy, and one that wants to make a living putting a Viagra ad next to my blog post on Bob Dole, I’ll take the Viagra pushers every time.
But that’s not what this is about. This is about something I’ve just realized is very funny in retrospect. You see, the whole EPIC 2014 project was inspired by a speech that Martin Nisenholz, the CEO of NYT Digital, gave back in 2003. Nisenholz was the idiot behind TimesSelect’s tiered content initiative, which fellow news lovers will remember as the “You know what? I didn’t want to read your crappy article anyway” section of NYT Online. His brainchild, heralded by the news industry of the time, including the EPIC 2014 creators, was to take the best NYT content and put it behind a pay-wall. This lasted from about 2005 to 2007.
They abandoned it in 2007, because their stats told them the lesson newspapers seem to have to learn again and again: given the choice between a free product of marginal quality and a low-cost quality alternative, people will choose free every time. As Chris Anderson points out, Free is a special price — it allows us to share, for one thing, and it frees us from the mental conflict of deciding if we should pay for something that might not be worth it. TimesSelect’s tiered content approach led to no one linking to those sections of the NYT (non-free is a pain to share) and led to an unprecedented amount of bounces on the sign-up page (non-free is too much commitment for someone who just followed a link out of marginal interest). And it did these disastrous things without getting near the couple million subscribers that Nisenholz predicted they would get (and that they needed to offset lost ad revenue).
None of this was really thought through in 2005 by a stunning number of newspaper people, although the move was widely seen as catastrophic among bloggers. Jay Rosen detailed the coming train wreck the most comprehensively, but Brad DeLong, Kos, Kaus, Duncan Hunter, and countless others from the unwashed masses predicted what would happen exactly: People would stop reading the New York Times stuff behind the pay-wall, and the pay-wall itself would permanently damage the reputation of the paper. The paper wouldn’t move itself to profitability — it would simply remove itself from the public debate.
So anyway (returning from that tangent) it was Nisenholz’s speech that inspired Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson to put together EPIC 2014, in an effort to convince newpaper people to take Nisenholz’s ideas seriously.
Which brings us to the punch line, Robin Sloan talking about the film in 2005:
Asked if he truly subscribes to any of the theories presented in the film, Sloan offered a speedy denial. “I definitely don’t believe Google and Amazon are ever going to merge,” he says. “I don’t believe it would ever be called Googlezon. I don’t believe the NYT will actually go offline.”
In actuality, the 2002 Michigan State University graduate who majored in economics believes that the New York Times will be the very last organization to fold. “Some of the stuff they do online is incredibly good and incredibly smart,” he says.
As the the wise gatekeepers circle around Chris Anderson’s Free with their pitchforks, and the newpapers form a suicide pact to lock up all thier precious content, it’s worth remembering who has been right before, and who has been absolutely and completely wrong.