The Tyranny of the Digital
by Joel Naoum - November 25th, 2010
News surfaced this week of Rupert Murdoch’s plans to launch a newspaper exclusively on tablet devices. It’s the kind of plan that sounds great in a press release. Murdoch knows how to put a newspaper together – The Daily, as it will be called, will be housed in a real office, with real journalists, but it will not have a print or web edition. The only edition, which will be released seven days a week for 99c, will be available solely on the iPad. Murdoch, I fear, has finally jumped the shark.
It’s not that a new newspaper (can you even call it that if it’s not printed on paper at all?) is something to sneer at. Or that newspapers don’t need to experiment with new models to succeed. But the distribution model – locked to a single kind of device and behind a paywall – fails to acknowledge that people who read the news no longer do so in isolation. A huge proportion of digital natives rarely, if ever, get their news from a single paper delivered to their front door; news comes piecemeal from diverse sources like Facebook, Twitter and from multiple websites, RSS feeds and email. Most importantly, news comes from trusted colleagues, friends and family members – through connections that are more important than loyalty to a brand of news. Murdoch’s The Daily will not be able to join in on this participatory news experience, which is increasingly becoming the norm. It will be edged out by content that is more easily shared. In essence, like many follies in the digital era, Murdoch is trying to replace the analogue experience of a newspaper with a digital facsimile, and it is not going to work.
It’s a similar story with ebooks. Publishers would much prefer it if ebooks were just like real books, only digital. The problem is, they are most emphatically not. Digital content is completely different – it can be easily shared, copied and moved around. These things are all good things; they’re what make ebooks cheaper to produce, easier to carry and faster to buy. They are why ebook readers buy more books than regular dead tree book readers. But ebooks could be more successful than they are, and the reason they are not is that publishers (and retailers) are still trying to control the content in a way that is even more restrictive than the dead tree books they are trying to emulate.
Why, to pick just one example, are ebook loaning rights so restrictive? Barnes & Noble’s Nook already has the ability to lend books, and the Kindle is soon to join it. However, owners of digital books will only be allowed to lend a book once for a period of two weeks. Does anyone in their right mind really think that the book business is going to be sunk by giving ebook readers the ability to loan out their books to a single person at a time for as long as they want as many times as they like? This is a basic feature of any dead tree book, and the benefits to the book industry are obvious. Anyone in publishing will tell you that the basic problem with selling books to people is getting people to read books. To paraphrase Tim O’Reilly, obscurity is a far greater threat to the book than piracy. It’s why publishers give away paper books to drum up interest in it. It’s one of the cheapest ways to market a book. Why not harness the word-of-mouth power of social networks to get books out there to at least as many people as it was already getting out there with the paper edition?
But no. Where producers are able to restrict, they restrict. What producers of content are not doing is working backwards from what their consumers want. Consumers want fast, cheap, easy access. Producers of content want to be paid enough to keep doing what they’re doing. There is a compromise position between these two points that allows both to be achieved. But it won’t happen when producers are sticking their heads in the sand and trying to recreate the analogue in an increasingly digital world.