Productionfuturism and processervatives (someone has to make these things)
In which I make a point almost entirely using blockquotes.
Picking up on the Magazine of the Future that Robin linked to, here's Ben Hammersley's thoughtful post about what's lacking in this demo (and indeed in this entire species of demo). The production process.
As each step of the analogue production process has been replaced by a digital version (film photography to digital, for example) that bit has been swapped out and replaced. The upshot is that we have accidentally efficient production processes that are optimised to getting a print magazine out of the door every four weeks or so. When you then try to put that magazine onto the web, as we do with WIRED every month, the process is mostly cut-and-paste. This is one of the reasons why magazine websites aren’t very good: you lose so much simply because of the way you have to get the content from one medium to the other. The rest of the content you never had in the first place (for example because the original copy wasn’t written in HTML, and so doesn’t have links in it.)
Ben Hammersley E-Books – The Bigger Problem, Part One of Three.
I have spent some time with publisher friends who are just trying to get their regular books gracefully into a reading-machine-compatible format (without any need for links, images, moving pictures, etc.) It's not an easy process. There is an entire army of proprietary and specialized bits and pieces of software and labour that move a manuscript to book form. And it's been highly optimized to make really nice books as cheaply as possible within whatever contraints of quality.
I'm reminded of Michael Nielsen's argument where he predicts a coming disruption to the scientific publication world. He illustrates the problem by comparing blogs and newspapers.
A good example is the popular technology blog TechCrunch, by most measures one of the top 100 blogs in the world. Started by Michael Arrington in 2005, TechCrunch has rapidly grown, and now employs a large staff. Part of the reason it’s grown is because TechCrunch’s reporting is some of the best in the technology industry, comparable to, say, the technology reporting in the New York Times. Yet whereas the New York Times is wilting financially, TechCrunch is thriving, because TechCrunch’s operating costs are far lower, per word, than the New York Times. The result is that not only is the audience for technology news moving away from the technology section of newspapers and toward blogs like TechCrunch, the blogs can undercut the newspaper’s advertising rates. This depresses the price of advertising and causes the advertisers to move away from the newspapers.
Unfortunately for the newspapers, there’s little they can do to make themselves cheaper to run. To see why that is, let’s zoom in on just one aspect of newspapers: photography. If you’ve ever been interviewed for a story in the newspaper, chances are a photographer accompanied the reporter. You get interviewed, the photographer takes some snaps, and the photo may or may not show up in the paper. Between the money paid to the photographer and all the other costs, that photo probably costs the newspaper on the order of a thousand dollars. When TechCrunch or a similar blog needs a photo for a post, they’ll use a stock photo, or ask their subject to send them a snap, or whatever. The average cost is probably tens of dollars. Voila! An order of magnitude or more decrease in costs for the photo.
Here’s the kicker. TechCrunch isn’t being any smarter than the newspapers. It’s not as though no-one at the newspapers ever thought “Hey, why don’t we ask interviewees to send us a polaroid, and save some money?” Newspapers employ photographers for an excellent business reason: good quality photography is a distinguishing feature that can help establish a superior newspaper brand. For a high-end paper, it’s probably historically been worth millions of dollars to get stunning, Pulitzer Prizewinning photography. It makes complete business sense to spend a thousand dollars per photo.
What can you do, as a newspaper editor? You could fire your staff photographers. But if you do that, you’ll destroy the morale not just of the photographers, but of all your staff. You’ll stir up the Unions. You’ll give a competitive advantage to your newspaper competitors. And, at the end of the day, you’ll still be paying far more per word for news than TechCrunch, and the quality of your product will be no more competitive.
The problem is that your newspaper has an organizational architecture which is, to use the physicists’ phrase, a local optimum. Relatively small changes to that architecture – like firing your photographers – don’t make your situation better, they make it worse. So you’re stuck gazing over at TechCrunch, who is at an even better local optimum, a local optimum that could not have existed twenty years ago.
Unfortunately for you, there’s no way you can get to that new optimum without attempting passage through a deep and unfriendly valley. The incremental actions needed to get there would be hell on the newspaper. There’s a good chance they’d lead the Board to fire you.
The result is that the newspapers are locked into producing a product that’s of comparable quality (from an advertiser’s point of view) to the top blogs, but at far greater cost. And yet all their decisions – like the decision to spend a lot on photography – are entirely sensible business decisions. Even if they’re smart and good, they’re caught on the horns of a cruel dilemma.
Michael Nielsen Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted?
We saw this problem when the stock markets crashed. Slate covered the story of some subprime mortgage lenders who were surviving the crash just fine. Their trick? During the bubble, they'd decided not to pursue the profit maximizing strategies of the firms that would ultimately be doomed to fail. I wrote about it a year ago.
I keep thinking about the impending extinction of the Cavendish Banana a worldwide mono-culture that was propelled to the #1 spot when the previous favourite, the Gros Michel Banana was wiped out, also by disease. And of the injuries sustained by Super-G skiers when their highly optimized gear turns against them during a crash. And of Koalas which have evolved to eat a tree no one else eats and who will die off when the trees do.
Then I think about apples which come in a variety of types, casual skiers who make it to the bottom of the hill eventually and raccoons who will eat just about anything. These are all generalists that manage to thrive in a variety of areas, and seem to be pretty good at adapting to massive changes to their environments.
We’re in the midst of the 6th mass extinction in earth’s history and it’s the specialists, with their highly optimized, fragile ecological niches that are going to go first. Cockroaches will still be here when it’s all over, I imagine.
The rule is clear. When things are stable, specialization and optimization is the recipe for success. When things are bumpy, allowing some of the inefficiency that comes from flexibility is probably the thing that will let you survive.
Tim Maly Over Optimized
The thing worth understanding is that during the stable periods, specialization is vastly more successful than generalization. Commoditized markets are won in inches and tiny percentages. As Nielsen says, the NYT didn't end up where it is now because of a long series of poor decisions. It made many right decisions in one context, but now the climate has changed.
P.S. For a site called BOOKfuturism we sure are into magazines.