03.07.2013 09:12 AM

Death by digital

Son One and I listened to the Toronto Star’s John Honderich on Metro Morning this morning.  He was on to provide the company’s spin on letting go a whole bunch of employees and cutting back at Canada’s biggest newspaper.

Two things.

First: and Son One said it best, as he listened to Honderich say that a paywall was a good idea, because the New York Times had had success with a paywall. “But you’re not the New York Times,” said Son One.  That said it all, I think.  Smart kid.

Two: the media – and others in the business of selling content, in the way that media does – DID THIS TO THEMSELVES.

The example I like to use is compact discs.  Remember when the music industry introduced them, more than three decades ago?  The industry claimed that digitization was the way of the future, and that the public wouldn’t mind re-buying all the music they already owned, in the form of vinyl or tapes.  That was a lie, of course.  It was just another grubby money grab.  Everyone knew it, too.

The music industry’s cynical ploy – their greed – ultimately was the thing that destroyed them.  By pushing a medium that promoted digitized content, they had handed the keys to the vault to citizens.  Enter Napster and the like, who figured out how take digitized content, and shop it around this cool new digital medium called “the Internet.”  R.I.P., music industry.

I have never illegally downloaded music – not ever.  Not once.  For me, it’s an ideological position: I’m a (bad) musician, and I fervently believe unauthorized downloads hurt most the kinds of bands I love, guys like the ones I saw last night at the Horseshoe.

But there was schadenfreude to what the music biz did to itself, of course.  And I had, and have, no sympathy for the corporate geniuses who slit their own throats with the digital money-grab.  They were greedy, and they richly deserved what they got.

The news media’s self-immolation was different, but the result has been the same.  When the opportunity came along to digitize content, they seized on it with glee.  Except – unlike the music industry mavens – they gave their content away.  They made it free.

The Internet was designed to be free, of course.  So the news media deserve credit for how they sort-of embraced that, at the start.  But they deserve no credit at all for never figuring out how to make money off the Internet.

After years of watching themselves bleed all over the floor, they have now decided (mixed metaphor alert!) to shut the barn door long after the horses – and the cows, and the sheep, and any farm animal that moves – have left.  They’re gone, baby, gone.


Digitization changed the world.  It gave birth to amazing new things. It has also killed off some things.

They’re not coming back.


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    Kev says:

    The recording industry is not the music industry. Music is doing just fine. And good, and smart musical acts long ago became their own record labels.

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    dave says:

    Make as much music as you consume.

    (…for a sustainable musical environment.)

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    Paul says:

    Actually, downloading music (even illegally) probably helps the types of bands that you love more than any major label deal ever could.

    Punk bands don’t get radio airplay, or even much promotion in the mainstream so the music downloading (which is analogous to the “tape trading” that went on in the punk/metal scenes of years gone by) is what helps build a fan base. These fans then come to the shows, buy the merch, and hopefully purchase legit releases going forward. I know for a fact that many bands who have had wildly successful careers (Metallica, for one) owe much of their success to metalheads mailing bootleg cassettes around the world to each other.

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      Ed Frink says:

      It’s very hard to monetize content when it is presented in a digital form. And even if you can lock it down, you will be competing with freely available content from other creators. If a news source puts up a pay wall, its easy to perform another Internet search to find a source who offers it freely.

      You can monetize content by adding extra value to it–fancy packaging and such. Those who love the content will shell out the money to buy those special editions in a physical copy.

      MP3s have reduced sales of music by approximately 2/3. But the audience reach has multiplied far greater than threefold. If your stuff is good enough that people copy it, then you have new fans. Like Neil Young said, music piracy is the new radio.

      iTunes has solved this problem somehow by making it very easy and convenient to purchase music digitally. 99 cents for a song is far easier than surfing through virus-laden music piracy websites.

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    steve says:

    This is a perfect arena for public funding. The CBC, BBC, PBS and other national broadcasters should create news and public affairs sites. The content creators could be screened by academics. I am sure most the columists at the Sun, Globe and National Post would not pass muster.

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    Sean says:

    I think newspapers will still exist for a long, long time. However, Warren is right about newspapers trying to play in the digital space. They can’t keep up because they have a product which is inherently contradictory to the medium. Their natural consumer has a long attention span and wants information from old fashioned writers. They have a product which is naturally officious in character, contrary to the interweb’s trend towards anarchy. Just like books, newspapers will survive because reading something without being “plugged in” is still a precious commodity. Put it this way, I’d still much rather read about the Leafs on my front porch, with a coffee, with no electronic shit buzzing around me at all. The digital side of newspapers is dying and almost dead, but they will still hang on to their old crowd.

    Lastly, it is interesting to note that books are still being printed about social media. This shows that even those with an interest in these topics still like to unplug themselves from the Borg Collective from time to time.

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      Reality.Bites says:

      Sean, what makes you so sure a lot of people are like you? I have a long attention span but I have absolutely no desire to read anything on paper if I can possibly read it online. I haven’t bought a newspaper in at least 10 years and was happy to give up books and magazines on paper more recently. Circulation is dropping, newspapers are folding. Sure, in major markets they’ll hold on for a while, but look at how many major American cities are down to one newspaper. I certainly expect to see the demise of paid-circulation print newspapers in my lifetime. Their old crowd, as you put it, is aging and dying and won’t be replaced.

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    patrick says:

    A couple of things.
    CD’s came out before there was an internet. It was just a cheaper means to mass produce music. That it lead to downloading was unforeseen.
    The internet is an information exchange system and it was free because no could figure out at the beginning how to get people to pay for things. You couldn’t use a credit card safely and there was no other system at the time.
    All these news sources dumped their papers on the web for free believing that advertising was going to cover the cost and they had to have a web presence. And we keep talking about “business” as genius.
    What media has failed to do is integrate the print and the digital platforms. They should serve each other, not duplicate each other. If I go onto the Star website it should be getting me to want to buy the paper and vise versa. Media has to learn to take advantage of the strengths of each platform and make them work for each other.
    Easy peasy.
    I gonna haf to start charging for my wisdomating.

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      ray says:

      I believe Berners Lee who invented the web said he was sorry he didn’t include some form of micro-payment before access to the web would be provided. Sadly, another door we can’t re-open which leaves playing live or streaming services like Spotify to pay musicians if we ever get it in Canada.

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    Other Hockey Dad says:

    Other things that came and went in our lifetimes – video stores. Now if the intertubes could just finally kill off the fax machine.

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      Reality.Bites says:

      Other Hockey Dad, if you kill off the fax machine you may as well kill off my father at the same time!

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    Gary says:


    First time comment.

    You need to watch this TED talk by Amanda Palmer.




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    Chris Shrive says:

    The Guardian has resisted paywall all the way and remains one of the world’s best newspapers as far as content goes. Don’t know for sure, but they don’t seem to have any cashflow problems, just stuff that’s well-written and topical.

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      dave says:

      Guardian, and Le Monde Diplomatique…news articles with footnotes!

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    kre8tv says:

    If you make something good that can’t be matched elsewhere, people will pay for it. The Economist is a reasonably good example of this. The fundamental problem with newspapers is that there are just too many of them providing the same product to the same market, all chasing the same stories and providing (with exception) the same shallow depth of analysis. Yes, we’ll miss the good exceptions when they’re gone. But some will endure.

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