Jed Perl on writing in the digital age

In The New Republic, Jed Perl has a thoughtful essay on the demands and rewards of writing in the age of instant publication:

Writers write in order to be read. This is obvious. But the speed with which words, once written, are now being read—a speed shaped by technological innovations long before the Internet turned the quick turnaround into the virtually instantaneous turnaround—has set me to thinking about the extent to which writing, for the writer, ought to have a freestanding value, a value apart from the reader. There is too much talk about the literary marketplace, the cultural marketplace, and the marketplace of ideas. We need to remember that a book—or a painting or a piece of music—begins as the product of an individual imagination, and can retain its power even when largely or even entirely ignored. (The paintings of Piero della Francesca were overlooked for several centuries.) I do not for one moment minimize the economic pressures on writers to publish—and to publish, if they are lucky enough to have the choice, in higher-paying places rather than lower-paying ones. I’ve made my living as a writer for 30 years, and I know how difficult it can be. But writers who live for their readers—or for what their editors imagine their readers want—may end up with an impoverished relationship with those readers.

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Jock Given

It’s time for a bit of fan post about Jock Given, Swinburne’s Professor of Media and Communications.

Why a fan post? Maybe it’s his recent in-depth dissection of the Australian Government’s implementation plan for the National Broadband Network. Maybe it’s his long review essay, also in Inside Story, about the future of books and print. Maybe it’s his fine monograph of 2003, Turning Off the Television, about the history and future of Australian broadcasting and communications policy.

In fact, any way you slice it, Given’s work has become central to this field. He’s got that rare combination of incisive analysis and clear, witty prose.

Take, for example, his discussion of the National Broadband Network, one of the best short introductions to this bewilderingly complex topic you’re likely to find:

WHAT McKinsey and KPMG have delivered is the most substantial public analysis of an Australian communications infrastructure project since the domestic satellite system in the 1980s. This is a major benefit, though not necessarily a good omen. AUSSAT racked up $800 million in debt within a few years. Voluminous public documentation doesn’t always lead to great decisions.

Indeed, in Australian communications, the size of the study is generally indirectly proportional to its influence. The bulky Davidson Inquiry recommending competition in telecommunications and the multi-volume Broadcasting Tribunal inquiry recommending the introduction of cable TV, both in the early 1980s, achieved close to zero. The Productivity Commission’s year-long inquiry into broadcasting in 2000 was largely ignored. But Kim Beazley’s few-page statement about telecommunications competition in 1990 blew the industry apart. By this standard, the two-and-a-half-page media release announcing the NBN in April 2009 was bound to change the world.

The McKinsey/KPMG study is testimony to the sea-change in telecommunications policy in the last two and a half years. For twenty years, both sides of politics have been getting the government out of the telecommunications business, first by allowing private competitors to take on the state-owned monopoly that ran the country’s telecoms for ninety years, then selling down the state’s ownership of it. When new mobile and fixed-line networks were built in the 1990s and 2000s, communications ministers didn’t pour over technology choices, costs, revenues, capital allocation and geographic priorities the way Postmasters-General used to do. Parliament had decided that governments made lousy decisions about those kinds of things.

At least, they weren’t supposed to be pouring over these things the way Postmasters-General used to do. The truth was they still did quite a lot of it. The Coalition government crawled all over Telstra’s timetable for shutting down its analogue mobile phone network and applied immense pressure on its plans to build and later close a CDMA network. In his bookWired Brown Land?, Paul Fletcher, chief of staff to long-term Howard government communications minister Richard Alston and now the Liberal member for Bradfield on Sydney’s north shore, says Ziggy Switkowski was not even on the shortlist of candidates for CEO until Alston insisted he be there. This was at a time when Howard and Alston were pushing their reluctant backbench to support privatisation. The government, they said, had no business controlling a telecommunications company.

But out in the new marketplace, the cable TV and eventually broadband network built in the mid 1990s by the new wholly private telco, Optus, didn’t work very well. The still-public Telstra proved more nimble and ruthless than some expected, building a similar network down many of the same streets. Both companies had to write off billions of dollars. It seemed telcos in commercial markets, even privately owned ones, could make lousy decisions too. Optus’s subsequent caution about investment in fixed-line networks and the curiously widespread, renewed enthusiasm for monopoly is the deep legacy of that time.

The government’s response has been to get back to controlling a telecommunications company. It is not the vertically integrated Telstra, it’s the wholesale-only NBN Co. McKinsey/KPMG’s Implementation Studycontains a set of recommendations that are not yet government policy, but it tells us a great deal about this new, old world.

We have a good idea – the best yet – about how much it might cost. We have lots of data and discussion about what it might earn in revenue. We have an argument about “viability,” but this is really an argument about whether the now fairly well-articulated financial returns that can be expected from the project are justified by the economic and social benefits that might not be captured by the financial modelling.

This is where faith and politics take over.

Simon and Schuster CEO: We still don’t get e-publishing

US e-book sales, 2002-2010. Source: Neilsen BookScan, International Digital Publishing Forum, AFR.

The Australian Financial Review, paradoxically one the best newspapers for coverage of the Australian cultural industries even as its own circulation dwindles away towards marginality, has an excellent article on e-publishing today.

In an ironic twist, you can’t actually see it online, because the geniuses at Fairfax are still firewalling their content the internet. (Great business strategy, guys). This means that the AFR‘s typically excellent Katrina Strickland is denied to web readers, just as today’s article by Emma Connors is.

No matter: you’re humble correspondent still likes to read newspapers and has gone out and bought a physical copy of one.

The article contains a long and interesting interview with Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy.

In 2007 the New York based publisher began digitising 12,000 of its backlist titles, and creating a digital distribution network. It was a leap of faith that cost ‘close to eight figures’, says Reidy, who laughs when asked about the return on investment.

“I would say there has not been enough of one yet,” says Reidy.

“Some of those titles are not even available for sale as e-books because we are still clearing the necessary agreements with authors from the deep back catalogue, making sure the contractual work is done.”

The quotes from Reidy are not particularly groundbreaking, but what the article does reveal is how publishers continue to struggle with the cultural implications of the transformation of their industry – from a creator of bespoke physical objects, to the digital distributor of bulk creative commodities.  As Reidy tells Connors,

“We are trying to build on our experience physical sales to make sense of digital, but there’s no doubt we are experimenting. No one feels they have the answer yet.

We don’t know if we will sell more books overall because it is easier for people to buy online where they just have to push a button.

We are not sure if the cultural role books have played – one that is so central – will be maintained as the digital model progresses.

These are all questions that are coming up.”

In other words, publishers are a l0t like newspaper editors and journalists: in deep, deep denial.

I think I can answer those questions really quickly: Will more books be sold online? Yes. Will the central cultural role of books continue? No.

YouTube turns 5

Above: The Evolution of Dance, YouTube’s third-top all-time video and certainly one of my favourites.

It’s hard to believe, but the paradigmatic web video  site has now turned 5. The New York Times has an interview with Chad Hurley, while there  some other good links here, here and here.

YouTube serves 2 billion page views, but does it make a profit? Google doesn’t break down the figures in its accounts, but analysts still think the site may not yet be making money. Perhaps soon.

Two views of the future of news media

US newspaper circulation figures over the last 50 years show long-term, generational declines. Source: Hal Varain, 2010, "Newspaper economics: Online and offline", Mountain View, CA: Google

Two long investigative essays published in the last week – in two of the most famous mastheads in US journalism – offer two very different perspectives on the emerging online reality for news journalism.

In The Atlantic, veteran feature writer and editor James Fallows enters the Googleplex to find that, unexpectedly, Google cares deeply about the future of news media:

EVERYONE KNOWS THAT Google is killing the news business. Few people know how hard Google is trying to bring it back to life, or why the company now considers journalism’s survival crucial to its own prospects.

Meanwhile, in the New York Times Magazine, Andrew Rice takes an in-depth look at some of the start-up online news entrepreneurs looking to create new products for the emerging online news marketplace. He discovers a world where online evangelism from displaced old-media journalists and editors is combining with the new realiy of news aggregation, Google search engine optmisation and vastly diminished advertising incomes to create a very different news landscape:

Online, advertisers have immense power. Because it’s easy to track who is clicking what, they can aim with efficiency and typically pay according to the number of times their ads are actually viewed. Instead of sending word of its shoe sale to a million print newspaper subscribers, who may or may not be looking for shoes, a store can buy the page views of 50,000 people who are reading articles about fashion. Or the advertiser can place ads on heavily trafficked portal sites like Yahoo and AOL, both of which are currently expanding their production of original journalism. Or it can pay Google to insert its ads into search results. Or it can go to one of the large digital advertising networks that have arisen in recent years and buy unsold “remnant” page views at deep discounts. There is a lot less waste and a lot more choice, and the upshot is that advertising, which once produced robust margins for publishers, now sells for spare change online. Generally speaking, while some ad placements — like those on a site’s home page — go for a significant premium, pages of individual articles, if sold at the going rates, bring in between a penny and nickel each time a reader looks at one.

Bottom line? The halting efforts of Australian newspaper proprietors like Fairfax and News Limited to ready their business models for the online revolution are far too little and very, very late.

What’s new in M/C Journal: the ambient issue

"Smear No. 12" by Luke Jaaniste, from the cover of M/C Journal. Image: M/C Journal

M/C Journal has just released its latest issue, edited by my colleague, QUT’s Luke Jaaniste. The topic is ambience, a special interest of Luke’s that he explores in his editorial, “The Ambience of Ambience“:

Now is not the time or place to give a detailed history of these discursive manoeuvres (although some key clues are given in Spizter; and also Jaaniste, Approaching). But a list of how the term has been taken up after Eno–across the arts, design, media and culture–reveals the broad tenets of ambience or, perhaps, the ambience of ambience. Nowadays we find talk of (in alphabetical order): ambient advertising (Quinion), aesthetics (Foster), architecture (CNRS; Sample), art (Desmarias; Heynen et al.), calculus (Cardelli), displays (Ambient Displays Reserch Group; Lund and Mikael; Vogel and Balakrishnan), fears (Papastergiadis), findability (Morville), informatics (Morville), intelligence (Weber et al.), media (Meeks), narratives (Levin), news (Hagreaves and Thomas), poetics (Morton), television (McCarthy), and video (Bizzocchi). There’s probably more.

The articles in the issue are just as interesting. Of particular interest to readers of this blog are two articles about “ambient journalism”, by Alfred Hermida and Alex Burns.

Hermida puts forward the now-conventional thesis that social networking technologies like Twitter are creating a new style of news-gathering:

… ambient journalism presents a multi-faceted and fragmented news experience, where citizens are producing small pieces of content that can be collectively considered as journalism. It acknowledges the audience as both a receiver and a sender. I suggest that micro-blogging social media services such as Twitter, that enable millions of people to communicate instantly, share and discuss events, are an expression of ambient journalism.

Burns takes issue with this. He argues that cirizen journalists or “para-journalists” may lack the professional expertise to carry out the functions of journalism in any comprehensive sense:

Craft and skills distinguish the professional journalist from Hermida’s para-journalist. Increasingly, media institutions hire journalists who are trained in other craft-based research methods (Burns and Saunders). Bethany McLean who ‘broke’ the Enron scandal was an investment banker; documentary filmmaker Errol Morris first interviewed serial killers for an early project; and Neil Chenoweth used ‘forensic accounting’ techniques to investigate Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. Such expertise allows the journalist to filter information, and to mediate any influences in the external environment, in order to develop an individualised, ‘embodied’ perspective (Hofstadter 234; Thompson; Garfinkel and Rawls). Para-journalists and social network platforms cannot replace this expertise, which is often unique to individual journalists and their research teams.

As always, there is plenty more to read and digest in what I found to be a high-quality and thought-provoking issue of this journal.

The sociology of political blogs: the left and right blogospheres

Previous studies of the blogosphere have used link analysis to suggest a symmetrical relationship between twinned left and right blogospheres. Yochai Benkler's new research overturns this theory, suggesting left-leaning blogs feature more in-depth analysis, use more complex platforms, and raise more money. Source: Berkman Centre for Internet and Society

By way of the invaluable Eszter Hargittai comes news of Yochai Benkler’s latest research on the blogosphere.

Eszter writes:

Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw and Victoria Stodden of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society have just released “A Tale of Two Blogospheres: Discursive Practices on the Left and Right” showing some significant differences in types of blog platforms used (with different affordances), co-authorships and levels of participation among blogs of different political persuasions. Here is one example of specific findings (based on analyses of 155 top political blogs):

Over 40% of blogs on the left adopt platforms with enhanced user participation features. Only about 13% of blogs on the right do so. While there is substantial overlap, and comments of some level of visibility are used in the vast majority of blogs on both sides of the political divide, the left adopts enabling technologies that make user-generated diaries and blogs more central to the site to a significantly greater degree than does the right. (p. 22.)

In an interview with The Nation, Benkler explains a little about his research. The interview is full of insights, such as this one:

What we have seen is a model where things that used to be available only to thousands of people are now probably available to hundreds of thousands of people–maybe low millions. That is to say, let’s imagine for a moment that something like one percent of the US voting population, about 2 million people, have relatively easy access to a platform that makes them visible to thousands or tens of thousands of other people. That’s clearly new, in that you never had something like this in a mass media environment. It’s also clearly far from “everyone a pamphleteer, and everyone a town crier.”

And this one:

… this is the first time we’re getting a more detailed look at the technology of options and patterns of use–the first time we’re seeing there’s a difference between the left and right blogospheres, in terms of technologies adopted and the shape of the discourse, as it were, between left and right. I’d say most of the discussions of the blogosphere in politics, up until now, have claimed to observe a symmetry and talked about the blogosphere as one phenomenon in its relationships to political discourse. What we found is that the story is more complex–as it almost always is.

It is important to emphasize there is a lot of overlap between the two sides. But, it does look like the right wing of the blogosphere developed into a stronger emphasis on individual bloggers with very short stories and links–to other places and particularly to mainstream media. And to the extent that we saw larger-scale discourse inside a group of people talking to each other, it was more of a phenomenon on the left wing of the blogosphere.

I think our study questions the idea that there is somehow a technologically determined effect in political blogging. So different institutional settings and mediascape settings adopted things differently. I think the right–when you think of the blogospshere emerging in 2002 and 2003–the right had control over all branches of government; it had Fox News as an outlet; it had churches for organization; it was plausible to adopt a practice or blogosphere that largely reflects and amplifies that media and discourse space.

I think the left was out of government. Clearly, the churches were not an organizing space, and unions did not have the same kind of scope and reach and civic associations; there was no mirror image to Fox News. The effort to create alternative to talk radio was quite weak, there was a small number of magazines–like The Nation, like The Prospect–but nothing like the mediascape on the right. And then the blogosphere comes along and creates a new alternative.

You can see the full paper as a PDF here.

Ken Auletta on the iPad, the Kindle and the future of books

The Papyrus Bodmer II, an early Christian codex (125 AD). Source: Logos Resource Page.

In the New Yorker, Ken Auletta has a highly-researched and rewarding piece on the industry manouvering behind the e-book revolution. It is a fascinating account a gyrating sentiments inside the big publishers, as the book industry confronts rapid technological change:

In the weeks before [the launch of the iPad], the book industry had been full of unaccustomed optimism; in some publishing circles, the device had been referred to as “the Jesus tablet.” The industry was desperate for a savior. Between 2002 and 2008, annual sales had grown just 1.6 per cent, and profit margins were shrinking. Like other struggling businesses, publishers had slashed expenditures, laying off editors and publicists and taking fewer chances on unknown writers.

The industry’s great hope was that the iPad would bring electronic books to the masses—and help make them profitable. E-books are booming. Although they account for only an estimated three to five per cent of the market, their sales increased a hundred and seventy-seven per cent in 2009, and it was projected that they would eventually account for between twenty-five and fifty per cent of all books sold. But publishers were concerned that lower prices would decimate their profits. Amazon had been buying many e-books from publishers for about thirteen dollars and selling them for $9.99, taking a loss on each book in order to gain market share and encourage sales of its electronic reading device, the Kindle. By the end of last year, Amazon accounted for an estimated eighty per cent of all electronic-book sales, and $9.99 seemed to be established as the price of an e-book. Publishers were panicked. David Young, the chairman and C.E.O. of Hachette Book Group USA, said, “The big concern—and it’s a massive concern—is the $9.99 pricing point. If it’s allowed to take hold in the consumer’s mind that a book is worth ten bucks, to my mind it’s game over for this business.”

It’s a great article that examines the fears and hopes of publishers, the shift in business models from physical objects to electronic entertainment experiences, and the incompatibility of spreadsheet-savvy IT behemoths and clubby, author-friendly book publishers. The article’s conlcusion? Unexpectedly, publishers may have leveraged their position as producers of compelling content to play various device operators off against each other, potentially saving the industry.

For now, many publishers believe that they have won the chess match that Sargent started. “We have three behemoths now competing,” the C.E.O. of one house said. “So one of them can’t force us to do anything unless the others go along.” Early sales of the iPad are promising: Apple said that more than three hundred thousand sold the first day, and analysts have guessed that between five and seven million will be sold this year. And a dozen other digital reading devices were on display at the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, in January, providing more competition for the Kindle.

Publishers have another reason to hope. The recession has changed the thinking of Silicon Valley companies, shaking their faith in advertising as their only source of revenue. YouTube has begun charging for some independent movies, in an effort to compete with Netflix, and its managers know that to succeed it must have professionally produced content that advertisers—and consumers—will pay for. As digital companies begin charging for content, they are met in the middle by old-media companies looking for ways to charge for what they produce. The incentives for old and new media to form partnerships seem to converge.

I think that’s wishful thinking, to say the least.  But then again, the major record labels haven’t disappeared (yet) either. Ultimately, authors need a way to fuind consumers, and as musicians have found, that problem is as much about industry connections and marketing savvy as it is about the distribution of their content to places where readers and listeners can find it.

Will Rupert Murdoch’s paywall add up?

The Times‘ new paywall goes up in June. Will it work? Forrester Research’s Nick Thomas tries to weigh up the numbers. He’s equivocal, which probably just goes to show how risky the move will be:

What kind of conversion rate would make this viable? There are few precedents, though in the gaming world, a paid conversion rate of 2% would be considered successful. And even theFinancial Times, the self-styled pin-up boys of the paywall, have found that only around 121k of the 1.9m who have registered for the site, are paying subscribers. That’s just 6.4% of registered FT.com users paying for content which helps them do their job, and which they often expense anyway. What chance for a generalist title competing with free rivals?

Even assuming a 5% conversion rate, that would mean 60,000 from a daily online readership of around 1.2 million (according to the ABCe figures). Factor in that around two-thirds of the readership are outside the UK, and advertisers locally will be left with a readership of around 20,000. Advertisers may say they value engagement over scale, but will they actually come on board? Even if current revenues are disappointing, they are going to be hit hard by such a diminution of scale. And the costs of delivering a high-quality web site will still need to be met.

Charles Peterson on Facebook

In the New York Review of Books, Charles Peterson uses a review of two books about social networking – Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires and Julia Angwin’s Stealing MySpace – as the jumping off point for a long meditation on the origins, nature and character of the social networking spaces we inhabit.

In doing so, Peterson makes some extremely insightful points, particularly about Facebook:

Facebook was successful early on because it didn’t depart significantly from how its audience interacted, and because it started at the top of the social hierarchy. Zuckerberg distinguished his site through one innovation: Facebook, initially at least, would be limited to Harvard. The site thus extended one of the primary conceits of education at an elite university: that everyone on campus is, if not a friend, then a potential friend, one already vetted by the authorities. Most previous social networks, such as MySpace and Friendster, had been dogged by the sense that, while one might use them with friends, they were to a substantial degree designed for meeting strangers. But nobody is a stranger in college, or at least that’s the assumption at a school like Harvard, so nobody would be a stranger on Facebook.

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