by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VI, No. XIX

 This Week's Clue: Newspapers vs. The Web

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For the Week of May 13, 2002

The Web has accelerated the cancer (lack of profit) afflicting American newspapers. It is killing their classifieds' business one niche at a time (help wanted, cars for sale, etc.) and that represents a huge chunk of their cash flow.

Without classified ad revenue, most newspapers would cost subscribers $1/issue or more, dropping circulation through the floor. Newspapers don't make a profit from their Web operations, either. Yet they're expected to post their stories on this medium-with-no-return until, when exactly? It's the search engines that are making the big money, after all - whether they're true engines or just link aggregations - those are the news front pages for most Netizens.

The last bastion of a newspaper's strength is its authority as a "thought leader" for the community. The people it picks for its editorial board, the columnists it chooses to publish - they're all vetted through a careful, decades-long process for writing ability, reporting ability, and (most of all) fealty to the paper's hierarchies and financial interest. Yet any idiot (and some cities have lots of them ) can seize this authority for themselves, just by posting a few Web pages and commenting (with links to) the newspaper's stories.

This is why the newspaper industry has launched a campaign to cut the Web down. It's one part technology, one part business, and one part law. Many already force all users to register, put old stories behind firewalls and charge for access to them. Now their lawyers are actively working to eliminate all incoming links.

The Dallas Morning News is one public example of this. It is claiming the right to enjoin all incoming links despite a complete lack of legal basis, with "spokesmen" pointing to hidden "terms of service" to demand that all links go only to a home page.

Some non-English speaking countries are taking this kind of nonsense seriously . Danish newspapers are in court to keep services there from pointing people anywhere but to the home pages of local newspapers. The aim is to halt the "aggregation" of news that is its chief benefit to Web readers. Aggregation has become a valid business (just not for newspaper groups like the AP. Instead of competing for this business, they want to cut out competitors. (If this reminds you of the RIAA, it should.) A "Morning News" spokesman, by the way, cited the Danish case in denying incoming links to his paper. While there has been no decision he claimed the law is "evolving."

However, know this. The fact that local newspapers are arrogant, stupid, Clueless, or trying to kill this medium is beside the point. The fact is that no one - not me, not you, and not the newspaper industry - can survive long here without a valid business model. The newspapers have several choices:

  • They can put all their content behind firewalls and charge all users (including charges for e-mail), thereby legally frustrating incoming links.
  • They can compete. For instance they can offer aggregations based on daily keyword searches of the AP wire, with e-mails linked to stories appearing on local newspapers where they first broke.
  • They can take me up on my previous suggestions and build directories - of people, but mostly of businesses - that might provide databases they can sell, and innovative online content they can advertise against. (Having a review alongside the location of the restaurant, or links to stories about a law firm next to its listing, are obvious. Selling dossiers on businesses from various sources (Dun & Bradstreet, local law libraries) seems a natural opportunity. There are thousands of ways where newspaper content can enhance a directory listing.)
  • They can go out of business, slowly, painfully, melting like the wicked witch in "The Wizard of Oz."

The guess is some will try the first, but most will choose the last. Take a Clue and use it? No way, man. Blankenhorn doesn't work for us, thus he's not loyal, thus he's suspect, thus we won't listen. Buggy-whip thinking is alive and well in the 21st century and it's living in newspaper boardrooms.

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SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

I'm trying something in the next month to increase circulation, and I'll let you know how it turns out. I signed up with Phil Tanny to get new subscribers for a-clue.com at http://www.subscription-service.com/ . It's a free one-month trial, and it works in harmony with our double opt-in procedure. We'll monitor the site's success and report.

You can show how Clued-in you are by downloading the animated .gif file on the upper-left side of our home page , and copying it onto your own Web site . It shows you want your business partners to get a Clue too. (Clicking directly on the graphic leads to our subscription page.)

Want a really good read? You'll find it in "Boom, Bust & Beyond: The Best of Dana Blankenhorn," now available for purchase at DanaBlankenhorn.Com. . You can also order my novel, "The Time Mirror," at the same location.

I still write for Boardwatch and BtoB . You can find my old ClickZ columns here (write and demand they hire me back.) If you need some writing, editing, or consulting help don't hesitate to call on me .

The Print on Demand version of "Living on the Internet" is also available for purchase at BookSurge.Com, for $29.99. And you can get the PDF version for just $7.99 (such a deal). The March update to the book is coming, and it's easy to get on the list via e-mail.

Remember that it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...

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Shameless Non-Profit Promotion

Would you like to make some money for yourself, and a good cause? Bob Adams, a long-time A-Clue subscriber and friend, heads a very entrepreneurial non-profit humanitarian agency, the Global Development Center (GDC). GDC has set up a new project, Family Message on the Internet. This offers a private, inexpensive alternative to phones and e-mail for maintaining contact with family members and loved ones during a crisis. It's a response to 9/11, but not just another "victims fund". It's a service people will sign up for because they want it.

There's an affiliate program, which I have joined. You can get a 30% increase in your return if you sign up as an affiliate through this ad. Here you'll find his special offer . Everyone can profit from this, including people in real need.

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Takes on the News

A Political Web

In the 1980s we were all hopeful about the impact the Web might have on politics. In the small, elite town of that day's Internet, we were able to reach out to people from other cultures and backgrounds, and to really hear "the other side of the story." So we thought. In fact, we were hearing just part of that other story - the part offered by liberal elites in a few other locations.

The reality has proven to be quite different. I received a taste of why recently when I found myself in political discussions with two correspondents I had basic disagreements with. One had different beliefs on the Middle East, the other on evolution. In the end I found both dialogs difficult and unsatisfying. No minds were changed. I was left feeling angry and hopeless.

The same things happened a decade ago when I first found myself venting on political subjects. Back then I got into some very nasty flame wars, for which I am still ashamed. What I learned is that political and religious beliefs are very similar, and often related.

So instead of using the Web to reach across what divides us, most people have used it instead to seek validation. The most successful political Web sites are rigidly ideological bitch-fests like Free Republic, just the kind of thing Cass Sunstein complained about in his book "Republic.Com."

The new twist is to use political Web sites to pressure public figures. When I recently wrote, in ISP Executive, about the need to protest new FCC moves against competitive ISPs (repeating a call started by others), I found within a few weeks that dozens of ISPs had indeed written comments to the agency. When a group within the W3C moved to put patented (paid) technology into Web standards, an e-mail campaign stopped them in their tracks. A few weeks ago I wrote about how this has extended toward campaigns against the media from sites like honestreporting.com (pro-Israel), Palestine Media Watch (pro-Palestinian) and Media Whores Online (anti-Bush).

In this way, online politics has evolved into something like direct mail politics. Sites can succeed with smaller audiences, but the imperative remains to scare people and demand action. A good (as in instructive) example can be found here - notice how each piece ends with a "call to action." "E-mail Sean Hannity asking him to confirm that FoxNews.com is unreliable and dishonest" is typical of these calls, and when you survey political sites you find these calls come from all parts of the political spectrum. Inflame, incite, then have others spread the flame.

What's interesting is how this has now spread to the local level, as illustrated by our lead Clue this week. After writing about Barkingdogs.org for Kenradio.Com I immediately got a note from a David Vance, whose "WeTellAll" has a section devoted to barking against Barkingdogs. I'm not taking sides in that dispute, but I do think this is the future of local politics. Self-appointed citizens, building Web sites on their own dime, writing strong stuff and urging readers to take direct action.

Politics, like religion, is strong mojo. Most faiths are tested in the marketplace or the ballot box. The Web's impact so far has been to allow small political movements to act in the same bullying manner as larger ones.

We're also at a time in our politics where violent rhetoric and violence are going hand-in-hand. Hatred remains in the ascendancy despite all the evidence in history and in the news that it does no good. The limited bandwidth of the Internet, the necessity of dealing with individuals rather than groups of people, makes it very difficult for majorities to activate on it.

But, as with everything else involving the Internet these are early days. I strongly suspect I've merely identified problems that are, in fact, opportunities. Internet politics is still evolving. Its history has yet to be written.

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Bandwidth Glut Ending?

News that the "bandwidth glut" may be easing buoyed telecommunication stocks (a little) in the last week. But it's sadly temporary.

The report, from Telegeography in Washington , deserves a careful look. You start that look by examining the source, and its recent history. Telegeography is a notorious bandwidth "bull," beating the drum for new fiber outlays even after companies like Global Crossing had become victims of the glut. Bulls don't call bottoms, bears do.

The second reason, of course, is Moore's Law and its application to bandwidth. Prices for moving a bit may have fallen to a level at or below today's cost of moving them, but the costs of moving them are going to drop, and the capacity of today's fiber is going to rise steadily. Thanks to Dense Wave Division Multiplexing long-haul fiber may not be needed for another decade. And the only way to make even that pessimistic forecast come true is to install short-haul fiber and wireless broadband technologies that can increase last-mile demand.

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Another Administration Shakedown

If tech companies aren't getting what they consider a "fair shake" from Washington, the Bushies have a simple solution. Pay them more than Hollywood in political baksheesh and they'll make things change. .

This was the blatantly-corrupt message delivered by Phillip J. Bond, undersecretary and chief of staff for technology administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce, to a technology conference in Utah. "When you look at the top 50 advocacy associations, you do not see an IT presence, and the voices of the industry as a whole are splintered," he said.

Never mind whether Information Technology drives productivity - increased work from labor and capital - which drives the economy. Without wasting more time on lobbying and gifts to politicians, Bond said, the industry's needs will not be heard.

A good example of that is contained here. It's an anti-spam bill that might get through the Senate. It's going nowhere in the House, because the direct marketing industry has paid-off the GOP majority there.

Here's a return message. If the Information Technology industry's message isn't heard, and obeyed, the economy won't grow and you Bushies will be out on your rears. But keep thinking it's up to us to save you, and not the other way around. And there's no need to respond to this, either. Because, Mr. Bond, I don't want you to talk politics with you, Politically, I want you to die.

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Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in was the "day of silence" by Webcasters to protest royalty rates that will drive the industry out of business. It's a pity that day will turn into a permanent outage, and a bigger pity that Microsoft and Real Networks haven't done more to stop it.

Clueless is this study by a "marriage counseling" firm claiming that the Internet damages relationships . More Clueless was the wild-eyed credulity with which some major media, like the BBC, greeted this transparently self-serving piece of nonsense .

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