Show me some money

From Waiting for the Dough on the Web by Richard Siklos, NY Times 6/25/06:

But one could make a case that the amount of focus on — and hype about — Internet activities at media companies has some kind of inverse relationship to the amount of near-term revenue they represent for these companies.

We’re still in the early innings, but given how much the Internet has already transformed the media and society, it’s surprising how little money traditional media companies make directly from it.

Not surprisingly the aggregators are making the lion’s share of the money off traditional media’s online offerings. Google News doesn’t spend a cent gathering news, vetting it, or publishing it. It just links to it. No cost beyond developing yet another algorithm to judge the popularity contest that the web has become.

Google does nothing illegal or immoral. It does what smart companies do in free markets. Find a need, meet that need. But over the long term Google’s net effect is similar to that of a virus. It weakens the host off of which it feeds. Weaken it too much and the host dies.

Jaron Lanier wrote an excellent essay, Digital Maoism, on where all this meta-ness is leading us. It’s very provactive stuff.

The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.

Compounding the problem is that new business models for people who think and write have not appeared as quickly as we all hoped. Newspapers, for instance, are on the whole facing a grim decline as the Internet takes over the feeding of curious eyes that hover over morning coffee and even worse, classified ads. In the new environment, Google News is for the moment better funded and enjoys a more secure future than most of the rather small number of fine reporters around the world who ultimately create most of its content. The aggregator is richer than the aggregated.

So what happens to the media landscape? Does content become faceless, lacking personality and context? Do mathematicians replace editors?

What does a free society lose when public debate is reduced to page rankings? These questions are deep. The more difficult it is to make thoughtful content, the greater the threat to the liquidity of Jefferson’s marketplace of ideas.

Niche content will largely remain under the radar, but what of mass communication? The New York Times and CNN might not be perfect, but we can attach names and reputations to the content creators. There’s accountability. The wiki world lacks this. To quote Lanier again:

Meanwhile, an individual best achieves optimal stupidity on those rare occasions when one is both given substantial powers and insulated from the results of his or her actions.

That’s exactly the power granted a wiki author. Wikipedia has its place. It’s fast, mostly accurate, and widely available, but do we want it to be a publication of record?

It’s crucial that we continue to get our most important information from people who depend on their professional reputations as journalists and writers to put food on their tables. It’s critical that old media figures out how to make a buck in new media.

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