Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guttenberg, ARPANet, Empowerment

I remain convinced that professional journalism is sustainable within the current digital information revolution. And to achieve sustainability, news organizations must use the technology driving the revolution in a manner consistent with the reason the technology was created in the first place.

This current information revolution is tied directly to Russia’s launch of Sputnik. In 1958, congress created the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) to focus on research and development in the areas of space, ballistic missile defense, and nuclear test detection. Driven to increase the speed and ability of its scientists to access and share information, ARPA began creation of a government supported data network called ARPANET. ARPANET led to the birth of the Internet and the current digital information revolution.

Charles M Hersfield, former director of ARPA wrote the following in - Inventors: "The ARPANET came out of our frustration that there were only a limited number of large, powerful research computers in the country, and that many research investigators, who should have access to them, were geographically separated from them….Bob Taylor, who was Director of the ARPA Computer Technology program at the time, tells the story correctly (see the article "25 Years of the ARPAnet" in the proceedings of the BBN Conference, September 1994). Bob and his colleagues wanted to see if there was a way to link the computers to each other, and connect the users to these netted computers in a way that facilitated access by the researchers.”

Thus, the technology enabling our current digital information revolution was created to empower individual researchers to access and distribute information unencumbered by limited connections. In the news industry, the Internet empowers  neighborhood citizens, Main Street businesses and community organizations to access and distribute news and information without the limits of our newspapers. News organizations must serve them in ways which enhance this new power.

Newspapers are a mass medium characterized by control of content access and content input. Holding fast to the rules and tools to serve masses is not a winning strategy for an organization wishing to sustain itself in the digital information revolution. We are in the information business, not the newspaper business. Multi-section newspapers have been the best and most efficient means to deliver information to masses. Those days are over. Less frequent, more narrowly targeted publications will replace them.

The last information revolution that empowered individuals by giving them access to information controlled by a few began around 1439.  It was nearly 600 years ago, when Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invented movable type printing, printing presses and oil-based ink. It was nearly 600 years ago that the capacity of individual communication output and intake was dramatically changed. 

So, as in the era following Gutenberg’s inventions, today we have a market of newly empowered individuals. Our strategy to serve them must be focused on facilitating increased participation rather than holding fast to control. We must think in terms of serving dispersed markets not in terms of serving mass markets.

The four most important common traits leading to the success of new players such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and YouTube are: they serve individuals, they facilitate participation, they do not generate their own content and they dominate a world-wide market.

Which of these traits can we in the news industry emulate?  We must focus on individuals and not masses. We must facilitate participation. We cannot emulate no-self-content generating and no single news organization is going to dominate a world-wide market.
Disperse, hyper-local markets are the markets for which the Internet was designed. Hyper-local markets are our industry’s equivalent of the newly empowered individuals. And Main Street businesses can be valued participants delivering timely, useful news and information to the same people valuing the trusted news of professional journalists. 

And just as hyper-local markets are the targets best suited to this technology, small, independent news organizations are the organizations best positioned to take advantage of the Internet technology.  

Each urban neighborhood, suburban village and ex-urban town of 20,000 to 40,000 has many common traits which a one-size-fits-all approach can serve. But each has its own set of traits that make it different from every other like-sized community. This is the reason people choose to live in one place versus another. Independent, locally owned news organizations can best reflect and serve these unique community traits. Using the Internet, independent news organization can connect to each other, sharing tools, services and insights to perform as efficiently but more sensitively than can an aggregate of local entities under one ownership.  

These news entities serving these disperse markets are not likely to be darlings of the stock market commanding high multiple yields. But they will be solid businesses in their communities, facilitating participation and empowerment of its citizens, Main Street businesses and community organizations in community life.

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