For the Week of November 7, 2005
With a "crack" of thunder last Friday I was plunged into the deep past, into the 20th century.
The sound fried my phone line. More important, it knocked me off the Internet.
The world of the 20th century, I quickly learned, is a world of limited information. I had to watch Hurricane Wilma on TV. I couldn't get any word on my favorite football team (Sheffield Wednesday). My view of the local scene was limited to what my newspaper chose to print.
It took me back to my own life in that century. I gathered information by phone. I entered it on a typewriter. I flashed my eyes across typewritten notes to produce my copy, and I filed the results in real file folders.
I also worked within a functional business model, one I'm still trying to replace.
During my freshman year at Rice, in 1973-74, we actually set the Thresher in hot type. I watched the printer tighten the frame by turning a nut which drove angled gears against one other. A real spike held the copy. The story was still being told of how one Thresher editor, later the state's Lieutenant Governor, jumped on that same table to check out his late edition, and ran that spike right through his butt cheek.
The next year we bought a computerized typesetter. It output wet prints in long strips. Editors cut the strips with Xacto knives and used glue sticks to create the paper master on cardboard forms. For photos we glued down colored plastic film. The finished product was driven late at night to another printer, and that year we printed three times the pages we had before.
This minicomputer revolution had a powerful impact throughout the industry during the next decade. It cut production costs dramatically. It took both editorial and advertising deadlines back, closer to the paper's printing. It made more pages profitable.
In every city this model still works. There are no newspaper monopolies because small publishers have sliced-and-diced the market into tiny, digestible pieces. There are community papers, professional papers, ethnic papers, and local papers segmented by interest - entertainment, sports, law, business.
But the way you got stories, and documented them, was still through the phone, or with a car. I had to depend often on handwritten notes that I could barely read, and gradually created my own version of shorthand.
This was why my first business cards, printed in 1983, read "Have Modem, Will Travel." I saw a better way ahead. I saw another revolution, a network revolution that would increase employment for journalists like myself. I felt that by getting there first I might assume a leadership role when this technology hit the mainstream.
This proved a false hope. Until technology made the whole temple crumble, the path to journalism industry leadership still led up the greasy pole of the same old institutions. Those institutions were becoming increasingly corrupted all along the way. But what I (and others) saw as corruption was just the working of the market.
Markets see tomorrow better than individuals do, they see the waves of rise and fall. They demand that industries with only a short-term future earn big short-term profits in order to justify their stock prices.
If news stocks are to be valued alongside cigarette and oil stocks, the "Chinese Wall" between editorial and advertising becomes just one casualty. Those who embrace pressure from advertisers quickly drive out those who resist.
The big trend of that time was, and remains, the dominance of branding over everything else. Brands scale. Brands replace service, support, and human contact with promises and claims. Things replace people. We come to assume that big boxes along roadsides are actually delivering better value, that the size of the sign and the inventory represents a bargain.
What's lost is a human-scaled business model. Whether your message is delivered via a newspaper or Google, the promise is that big means good, because bigger is always louder. Most of the real Internet successes have been about big brands, big scale, and the replacement of human interaction with self-service. Amazon competes directly with Wal-Mart. Which is really better?
The 21st century still lacks a human business model. But there's hope.
One thing that has gone unnoticed over the last decade is how branding has been separated from advertising. The dominant brands of this century never advertise. Google doesn't advertise. Amazon doesn't advertise. It's a sign of weakness to advertise, as Overstock.Com and even eBay are in the process of learning.
As more companies learn this, the lifeblood of publishing, advertising, will continue to decline. The 21st century, then, is headed into a real depression that will last until the business model difficulties are sorted out.
I will say now what I said 20 years ago. The new business model will be a revolt against big. The power of today's networked computing is that it can bring a specific message to a specific customer, not just the brand message to all customers.
In order to take advantage of that capability, however, commerce needs to fulfill its editorial mission, and editorial needs to fully embrace its commercial mission. That means a medium must become a real partner with the merchants it serves, helping them identify their Unique Selling Propositions (USPs), delivering that value for them online, becoming an advocate for both sides of the commercial exchange.
When a site stands behind the promises its commercial partners make it's taking a big risk. In exchange for that risk it can earn a big reward. It can earn more than the value of the space where the billboard's message shines. It earns a commission.
But credibility works both ways. When a commercial partner fails to fulfill its promises, the site must stand with the customer. This is the hard part, because the money to fund the business plan comes from the commerce side. This is where journalistic courage is called for, where ethics are called for, where professionalism is called for.
A 21st century business model supports many small commerce partners, so that the potential loss of one cannot kill the enterprise. It has deep relationships on both sides of every transaction, and earns far more on those transactions than a 20th century enterprise ever could.
This is the work on which I'm embarked. I may fail here, but I am prepared to take this vision wherever it leads. And I hope you'll take the journey with me.
I've got a new job. I'm now editor of Atlanta voic.us, a Web start-up aimed at building a community Web platform with a real business model. I'm also all alone in writing the Open Source Blog for ZDNet. (When this started there were three of us.)
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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Best of the Week
I was ready to write a slam against Earthlink this morning. Twice they have lost my order for a new DSL modem. On the phone yesterday I grew quite testy.
The headline is a pun. Intel's new chip road map, announced today, implements a commitment to lower-power processors the company announced earlier. But in some ways the headline is not a pun.
It's access to health care that now divides the rich from the poor. If you've got a good health care plan, or can even afford to go beyond it for cash, you're rich.
The naming of Chris Anderson as AdAge's "Editor of the Year" caps one of the biggest comeback stories in publishing history.
Regular readers of this space may wonder where I've gone. There's a story there.
The American Diaspora
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in is Michael Bowers of Vanderbilt, who found a way to replace light bulds with "quantum" LEDs, potentially saving billions of kilowatts in energy over the next five years alone.
Clueless s Forbes, whose "kill the blogs" feature was naked self-interest.
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