The Impact of the Net

This is an assignment written as part of my recent masters in Broadcast Production. It was interesting to take an overview of online media, a decade after regularly writing about its impacts. In a sense surprisingly little has changed… Remix culture is still alive, and still illegal. Podcasts and online video are more popular than ever, but have done little to replace established media. Blogs have ceased to matter, despite the efforts of medium and aggregators, and more surprisingly despite their utility and disseminators of free specialist knowledge. There exists in the public conversation only the polarised ‘mainstream media’ and the ephemeral and even more polarised tweet. The level of online discourse has hence inarguably diminished; a further impact of the ‘Eternal September’ ongoing since the weeds of the net outgrew the ivy league. Overall though, the online world of 2017 looks remarkably similar to the world of a decade past.

Title: An optimistic view of the impact of the internet is that it is a democratic and life-enhancing force for culture and communication. The main criticisms of that hopeful approach are that the internet has enabled unequal access, centralization of power and new forms of power through surveillance. (Hesmondhalgh, David. The Cultural Industries (3rded). Ch9 Sage 2013) Analyse these contrasting arguments with reference to broadcasting.

Introduction

Today’s English language internet is dominated by a single search engine (Google), two social networks (Facebook and Twitter), and a few hundred smartphone applications (Alexia.com, 2017) (Perry, 2016). Yet it is also paradoxically stocked by ‘user created content’ – the podcasts, comments, blog posts, images and videos created by the nets 3.5 billion users (ITU, 2016). Today’s ‘network of networks’ is in a sense the final medium, a canvas for all current and future communications technologies, from mobile phone calls to virtual reality. But it exists in a state of tension. Since its inception the internet has struggled with competing imperatives – openness vs privacy, free speech vs censorship, commercialisation vs open source, privacy vs the panopticon. The internet frees us to communicate instantaneously across the globe, even as it makes the monitoring and permanent storage of that communication trivial. It lets us publish our ideas and creative work, even as it makes them so ubiquitous, easily mimicked and duplicated as to be valueless. It’s the source of limitless education and constant manipulation. This essay will examine how this most contradictory of mediums has impacted broadcasters and audiences alike.

The Evolution of the Net

The internet was born at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the US defence department. Work at APRA and the RAND think tank in the 1960’s and early 70’s laid the groundwork for a single grand computer network, interconnecting all others. The network was based on the decentralised structure of the human brain, an interconnected system with no single point of failure (Ryan, 2010). Beginning in 1973 the net spread from exclusive military use to the research community (Ziewitz, 2011). Through enthusiasts and later commercial internet service providers, the net opened to home users beginning in the late 1970’s (Ryan, 2010). The advent of the world wide web, developed at CERN in 1991, popularised the domestic and commercial uses of the net (Berners-Lee & Fischetti, 2000). However, the modern internet, composed of mobile apps, the web, chat services, cloud storage and processing, file-sharing, the ‘always on’ elements of computer operating systems and the emerging ‘internet of things’, still relies on the core infrastructure developed at ARPA (Khodkari & Maghrebi, 2016).

As bulletin board systems, gopher internet relay chat, and latterly the web spread, they competed with private subscription services offering curated programmatic content. Services like Compuserve and America Online did not initially include access to the open internet, despite relying on its underlying TCP/IP technology (Ryan, 2010). Like today’s social networks they were ‘walled gardens’, private spaces where content modelled on network television was curated, managed and sanitised (Bruns & Burgess, 2015). In stark contrast, the ‘user generated’ wilds of the early internet contained any number of thorns, from pirated media and illegal pornography, to guides to the manufacture and use of weapons (Deibert, 2010).

Ultimately the internet’s greater variety of content and wider pool of users outcompeted the private online services. But this dynamic conflict between the open free transfer of information and corporate networks that offer polished services at the expense of user control, continues to this day (Noam et al, 2003). Today’s internet user primarily consumes and produces content through closed source applications purchased from curated stores owned and operated by powerful corporations (Adams et al, 2012).

The utopian vision of an internet free from censorship and corporate control was articulated in an influential statement ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ by Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) founder John Perry Bardow. Bardow and technologists and hackers like him stood for the vision of an internet free from “legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement”. They sought to “create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace…. more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before” (EFF, 1996). Put another way, ‘information wants to be free’ (Clarke, 2016).

“Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”

Stewart Brand, ‘The Media Lab, Inventing the Future at MIT’, 1987

As broadcasters encountered the internet they found in it both a place to promote their content, and an existential risk (Lee & Lee, 2015). The net offered access to a global audience, yet it made the mechanisms of broadcast television all but obsolete. Despite the crude low resolution imagery of early internet video, and the slow speeds of early file transfer programmes over dialup internet, by the late 1990’s it was already apparent that all programming would ultimately be available in some form online (Dowling et al, 1998).

 

All Consuming Platforms

This came to pass first through the free sharing enabled by peer-to-peer platforms like BitTorrent, and later via corporate stores and streaming platforms. Today all major broadcasters and production companies offer their programming for sale or rental online. Surprisingly, broadcast television has not disappeared in the wake of ubiquitous online access and cheap ‘prosumer’ content creation technology. Instead broadcasters have adapted in a wide variety of ways to the inescapable reality of the internet. Streaming TV services both net native (Netflix, Amazon), and ‘old media’ owned (Hulu, BBC iPlayer, RTE Player, HBO Go etc) provide always on access to archives of previously broadcast progammes. Enabling viewers to ‘binge watch’ entire series in a short period (Matrix, 2014). Increasingly these services commission new programming for an online only audience (Carr & Somaiya, 2014). The pressure these platforms (and other forms of ad skipping) have put on traditional advertising has massively increased product placement (Schweidel et al, 2014). Meanwhile broadcast television has balkanized: Bifurcating into a small number of premium channels developing high end scripted productions, and a much larger number of channels producing low budget, often exploitative, reality programming (Serpe, 2013). The turnover of new programming formats is enormously higher than before, creating a multi-billion euro format market for programmes that can be customized and resold in multiple territories (Moran, 2013).

Podcasting, a new medium for the distribution of audio content developed in the early 2000s, initially empowered independent creators to cheaply release spoken word programming. However, as with video, centralised ownership and the ‘discoverability problem’ have led to podcasts charts becoming dominated by traditional broadcasters and new media companies founded by former traditional broadcasters (Bottomley, 2015). In recent weeks facebook have announced the launch of ‘live audio’, an integrated platform for audio streaming, which threatens to take a wall off a significant segment of the field dominated by podcasting (Facebook, 2016). A similar path was followed by blogging which initially promised to give air to a diversity of perspectives. Over time aggregator sites like Reddit, blog-like news organisations such as Gawker and Buzzfeed, and centralised platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Medium leveraged network effects to overwhelm independent sites (Arthur, 2009). While blogs and non-commercial media outlets like Indiemedia still exist, their significance has greatly decreased. Today, the primary outlets for ‘user created content’ are platforms like twitter, facebook and youtube (Brake, 2004). These sites limit what can be posted, disseminated and ‘monitized’; practicing de facto censorship in response to commercial and political imperatives (Heins, 2013). Often prohibiting anonymous or pseudonymous posting (van der Nagel & Frith, 2015). While intended to reduce online abuse, this can endanger writers and creators working in authoritarian regimes (Grönlund & Wakabi, 2015), or in vulnerable domestic circumstances.

The recommendation and filtering engines that keep users returning to these sites have resulted in the creation of ‘filter bubbles’: Wells of inoffensive agreeable opinion, leading to the polarisation of political perspectives and the mistaken impression of uniformity (Bakshy et al, 2015). This trend has culminated in the creation and dissemination of ‘fake news’, wilfully misleading articles with provocative titles that are widely shared within partisan political bubbles (Khaldarova & Pantti, 2016). Allegations persist that such articles – in addition to state sponsored ‘astroturfing’ (fake grassroots campaigning) had a role in influencing the 2016 US elections (Bessi & Ferrara, 2016).

By centralising distribution and identity, the new media sites also enable profoundly invasive surveillance. The widely publicised leaks of Edward Snowdon and Chelsey Manning revealed ubiquitous surveillance of online communication and social media sites (Stoycheff, 2016). Blanket online surveillance is carried out internationally by American intelligence agencies like the NSA, and in the UK and Ireland by British military intelligence GCHQ. As far back as the late eighteenth century Jeremy Bentham predicted the chilling effect constant imperceptible surveillance would have on the surveilled (Sheridan & Foucault, 1977). Experiments by Facebook in manipulating user emotion through subtle variations in the content of their ‘news feed’, point to the additional dangers of affect manipulation (Grimmelmann, 2014).

Worryingly, the analysis of so called ‘big data’ the aggregated and commodified behaviour of citizens online and off, produces only correlations. To employ these correlations predictively requires experimental hypothesis testing (Zuboff, 2015). This creates an enormous incentive for the manipulation of mass audiences online. Zuboff, 2015, refers to the large media platforms as ‘surveillance capitalists’, commodifying the behaviour of their users in ever more invasive and manipulative ways. The authoritarian regime in China has already developed a social network that penalises antisocial behaviour via a ‘social credit score’ (SATPRC, 2014). This formalises the rankings provided by ‘subscriptions’ and ‘likes’, that already accrue to inoffensive and extreme opinions alike across social networks. Chinese officials have stated that this “new system will reward those who report acts of breach of trust” (BBC News, 2015).

 

Illegal Art

With the advent of file sharing and the online hosting of media, internet users formed a new adversarial relationship with ‘big content’. As the early file trading networks like Gnutella and Napster grew, so did the fear that the unmetered sharing of information would undercut corporate profits. New laws were rapidly drafted which penalised and even criminalised file sharing and thousands – including many college students, found themselves sued for large sums. Non-commercial infringement was no defence against laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Librarians and lecturers could be prosecuted for making ‘infringing copies’ of scholarly texts or articles (Clark, D, 2002).

While these laws had a negligible effect on the popularity of filesharing (and filesharing in turn has had a negligible effect on music sales), they had a distinct impact on the evolutionary direction of the internet (Oberholzer & Strumpf, 2007) (Oberholzer & Strumpf, 2016). The new intellectual property regime meant that broadcasters and programme makers had for the first time control over the kinds of devices and services that could distribute their content. In the 1980’s broadcasters lost the battle to prevent home taping (Madrigal, 2012), creating a new video rental market which ultimately spurred the creation of DVD and Blu-ray. Now however, unapproved use and sale could be legally sanctioned. Where the unsanctioned re-edit and recording of soul & disco gave birth to hip hop, now such innovation was impractical. While various forms of ‘illegal art’ have emerged since the advent of the new international copyright regime – from mashup videos to vaporwave – we’ve also seen the prohibition of work of immense popularity. In 2004, the American artist Danger Mouse produced a critically acclaimed record combining elements of the Beatles White Album with JZ’s Black Album. The Grey album became enormously popular but was rapidly removed from online distribution by the corporations who owned copyrights to both original recordings (Gunderson, 2004). Where two decades before sampling had provided the backbone of a nascent hiphop scene, now one of the most popular and innovative artists in a generation had been censored in the name of profit (McLeod, 2004). Latterly, an uneasy compromise has been arrived at, with record companies largely tolerating the non-commercial release of ‘mixtapes’ – albums containing ‘uncleared’ samples, as hype building exercises that develop anticipation for tours and official releases (Anderson, 2008). However, in the realm of video such tolerance has not come to pass, with ‘DCMA takedown requests’ frequently employed to remove not only ‘infringing’ art, but also political statements, critical product reviews, and other material likely to threaten corporate profits (Loren, 2011). While the modern IP regime originated in the US, the last three decades have seen a concerted effort at ‘copyright harmonisaton’: The export of American intellectual property and trademark law (often accompanied by more severe criminal penalties) internationally (Sell, 2003) (Baker, 2004).

Conclusion

The internet’s impact on culture and communications has been complex, nuanced and multifarious. Inarguably the net has made possible a level of surveillance and manipulation previously undreamt of. The roles of broadcaster and content producer have merged, as countless new distribution opportunities developed and became subsumed by the social networks. Broadcasters and programme makers can today find global audiences more readily and cheaply than ever before. Native speakers can subscribe to programming and channels in their own languages almost anywhere on earth. Minority interest programming can be created exclusively for new platforms without recourse to traditional gatekeepers. At the same time, programme makers must contend with abusive copyright regimes (and conversely piracy), overwhelming competition, less captive audiences and declining advertising revenue. The big winners in this new landscape have been intellectually undemanding entertainment formats, appealing to mass audiences and easily customised to local markets.
Perhaps the greatest threats to critically engaged broadcasting arise from state and corporate censorship. Today censorship can arise algorithmically, from well intentioned efforts to increase user engagement, and with it profits. It can enable the worst elements of authoritarian state surveillance and intervention: The observation and manipulation of the intimate communications of everyday people. Under East Germany’s notorious Stazi regime, the practice of Zersetzung was employed against dissidents (Dennis, 2006). This was the willful distortion of a person’s experience of the world. The secret destruction of their personal and professional relationships. Zersetzung was a form of state gaslighting that isolated and psychologically injured its victims. Today’s online media landscape has the potential to be just as damaging. Internet users, cut off from one another in self referencing echo chambers, can become radically disconnected. These bubbles threaten the very possibility of a shared political and cultural landscape: And with the the stability of society, family and social relationships.

The net has accelerated financial inequality, even as it has led to unparalleled economic growth and access to information. We live in a Golden Age of Television (Thompson, 2013), with the most inventive, high quality drama ever broadcast. And yet enormous audiences prefer to watch and share the most trivial short form videos: Distractions that represent the least informative and edifying forms of escapism. We can publicise our interests and find others who share them. Yet keeping our viewing preferences, our online behavior and our communications private is all but impossible.

The impact of the internet has no valance. It has not been to influence mass communication, but rather to replace it. It has not merely affected existing media, but rather engulfed it. Broadcasting and narrowcasting are classifications of a bygone age. Media and communication are now united in a spectacular, universal panopticon. A place where any may speak, but where it is increasingly difficult to truly listen.

 

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Can’t beat a good jingle

Trinity FM

My dear friend Mark seems to being having success upon success with his Wired FM show ‘Cult Friction‘, a “new programme charting the wonderful surreal world of Science Fiction, Horror and all things cult from Movies to Comic Books, TV shows”. Using his nordie wiles, Mark has succeeded in conning his way into some notable award ceremonies, winning brief interviews with impresarios like Jonathan Ross, Rory Bremnar, Robert Webb and Charlie Brooker.

Mark recently posed the shows wonderful jingle (embedded above), which reminded me of the jingle I lovingly crafted many moons ago for my old eclectic music show on Trinity FM, ‘Kick the Kat‘.

Two Businesses That Don’t Exist, But Should

podcastingI attended the Phoenix Convention last weekend. The con is a literary Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy gathering, which this year included some fascinating panels on micropublishing and ebooks, both easily worth the price of admission alone. I will hopefully do a more detailed post on the con as a whole in the near future, but for now, here are a couple of business ideas that struck me during the panels.

A Federated Media For Podcasting

John Battelle’s Federated Media is a medium sized company which aggregates the eyeballs of several of the worlds most popular blogs (including the highly influential and chaotic Boing Boing), and sells them to advertisers.

Result – blog authors can finance their writing and the growth of their sites, while advertisers get a single point of content to help them target and run campaigns. There’s an instant firewall around editorial decisions – as advertisers have no direct input into blog content; and sites can choose to accept only advertising that accords with their perspective (and *puke* branding). Advertisers get an instant audience (Boing Boing alone gets 3 million uniques a month), cheap.

Why does this not yet exist for podcasting?

While individual podcasts garner listeners at most in the hundreds of thousands (although there are perhaps a few that crest a million uniques) together they represent an growing, economically solvent and highly educated audience. An audience, in the US alone, of over 18 million listeners!

There are organisations like Adam Curry’s ‘Mevio‘ (formerly Podshow Network). These guys throw automated adds into hundreds of small – medium casts, and provide a revenue stream; claiming exclusive rights to content for contract duration in return.

What I’m suggesting here by contrast, is a limited service that would work with top 20 or 100 (independent) podcasts only- dealing with advertisers directly in geographically specific markets (this is how itunes distinguishes its podcast rankings, which largely dictate downloads); and allowing podcast hosts to craft their own discursive in-show adverts, in their own voice – as Leo Laporte does in his enormously popular This Week in Tech podcast. This way, advertisers get known quantity shows with large, established audiences and (internally) consistent content and presentation. While at the same time growing indies can fund production costs and the development of their creative enterprise- via a personal relationship with a single company, who are ‘on their side’. The reality of ‘new media’ is that (especially in audio production, but increasingly in video) a small group working with a tiny budget can create compelling, high production quality content. What they cannot do, is replicate the services of a sales force. Nor should they try, as direct advertiser / editor contact, almost inevitably results in watered down, less appealing creative work (or ‘content’, for you marketdoids).

Marketing on Demand for Authors

Small publishers and independently published authors are increasingly switching to Print On Demand (POD) services for short run (in the low thousands), academic and older titles (slow but steady sellers). Companies like Lightening Source provide a dirt-cheap ‘just in time’ printing facility, with constant improvements in the quality of the finished book. Additionally such POD services facilitate ISBN numbers (which allow bookstores to order and stock a title) and work closely with Amazon to ensure books are available to purchase (and more importantly deliver quickly) online.

These companies also remove the distribution headache, delivering directly to the public and retail, without the necessity of publishers direct involvement. Such services are not perfect. The finished product may not always rival a traditionally printed book (and of course the design is still reliant on the talent of the publisher / author side artist). More importantly POD cannot replace the direct relationships between publisher and retail chain / indie bookshop, which dictate placement of the book at retail, how long a title is stocked, and whether it is for sale at brick and mortar stores at all. Accepting that, they can be an important tool for small publishers who wish to take a risk on a book they could not otherwise have published, or authors who have a pre-existing audience they can sell to directly. I’m thinking of the Wil Wheatons and Amanda Palmers of this world- actors, musicians, and fine artists who maintain a direct relationship with their fan communities, either through blogging, podcasting, convention appearances or what have you. Personalities who may obtain much greater targeted sales dealing with their audiences directly. Here’s an interesting quote from the Wheaton interview linked in the last sentence, on his experiences with his book ‘Dancing Barefoot’..

The publisher insisted on marketing it in a way that did nothing to expand the audience I was already able to reach on my own, and basically blew me off when I repeatedly begged them to change course. I hired a PR firm at great expense, and they did pretty much the same thing. I vowed that I would never again go the “traditional” route with my future books.

So POD is great, but what’s this business that’s missing?

What’s missing is a marketing firm specially tailored to the needs of micropublishers. A company that knows the net, understands how to build an audience, AND can work with traditional media outlets to arrange interviews, reading tours, store promotions and television, radio and new media advertising. This is the one facet of traditional publishing that has not been replicated as a paid service.

With the suicide of the music industry, musicians are abandoning record labels to deal directly with, and sell directly to, their audiences. Probably the two best known examples are Radiohead’s In Rainbows release, and the Nine Inch Nails record Ghosts, which were both released directly online using donation, and fremium models respectively. Both records sold extremely well (in Radiohead’s case, better than their previous three albums).

What’s less well known outside the industry, is that artists are turning to next generation promotion companies like Live Nation, to handle the other important aspects of getting music out there- promotion and touring. These are services that an artist (beyond a certain popularity) cannot themselves handle without a label or label replacement. More importantly, as the perceived value of music recordings drops to zero (as will inevitably happen with books, Kindle or no Kindle), such tours provide the revenue stream that musicians need to keep creating.

Where is the equivalent in publishing? Where are the television and radio adverts for books? Where is the radio talk channel devoted to the enormously popular audio book genre? Who is organising paid and highly publicised public readings? Who is organising and promoting book tours for a set fee or a percentage of profits? Answer- no one. This is a service that could work at a variety of levels, from festival main stage readings by Chuck Palahniuk, to book promotions of unknown but compelling new fiction and non-fiction authors.

Two businesses that should exist, but don’t. Yet.

How bespoke printing, and an iTunes for articles, could save the Newspaper

npk_image1Simon McGarr, editor of online periodical Tuppenceworth, and in his role as council to Digital Rights Ireland, stalwart defender of all those juicy ephemeral rights and freedoms we currently enjoy online; has had an idea. You see Simon loves newspapers. He writes about them, speaks about them, and researches them, with the intensity others reserve for rock music or sports results. So when Simon tells me newspapers are in trouble, I listen. Readers are aging and circulations declining (relative to population growth), and the question inevitably arises, how can the humble daily hope to survive? Mr McGarr thinks he has an answer. Before we get to that, let me describe how things are on the other side of the fence; because you see, I’m part of the problem. Sure I’ll trawl through the Sunday Times if it’s lying around, I’ll even pay for a Guardian once in a blue moon if I’m feeling guilty and uninformed, or heaven forbid a Herald, when they drag up (as they invariably do) some new evidence in a cold, old case that has a special importance to me. But basically, I don’t read newspapers.
Like the father portrayed in Buck 65’s wonderful track ‘Roses and Bluejays’, I ‘read books of every sort’ but ‘get all the news [I] need from the weather report.’ I avoid newspapers for the same reason I don’t watch television. I don’t enjoy being passively indoctrinated. Whilst my reasoning may not be representative, my apathy is. In a time when you can have Japanese lessons, National Public Radio, the latest news from the worlds of skydiving, knitting or subatomic physics delivered to your RSS reader, why would anyone read a newspaper? Or more accurately, why would anyone pay for a newspaper? Freesheets like Metro, which subsist on snazzily repackaged press releases and AP cuttings, seem to be doing quite well. The conventional answers – timeliness, local relevance, and newspaper specific features like investigative reporting, opinion editorials and Suduku grids – just don’t seem to cut it any more. Almost two years ago I attended a lecture delivered by Senator Shane Ross, Business Editor of the Sunday Independent, Irelands most popular ‘broadsheet’, and asked the esteemed magnate a cheeky question. How in the era of citizen journalism, podcasting, vidcasting, IPTV, blogging and user generated reportage, can traditional newspapers survive? His answer – they probably can’t, and that is no bad thing.

Simon McGarr agrees with the first part of Senator Ross’s reply, and vehemently disagrees with the second. To Simon, newspapers are an essential element of a functioning democracy, and philistine that I am, I’m inclined to agree with him. Here’s what he’s proposing we do about it.

Proposal for a meta-publishing platform

Simon wants to aggregate content, and he wants you to pay for it. This is not as crazy as it initially sounds. For all their benefits, blogs and podcasts have significant barriers to adoption. Both are currently (and likely will remain for quite some time) far less user friendly than the humble newspaper. The cheap, ubiquitous, viewable in daylight, ergonomic, user friendly digital reader does not exist. When it finally comes, as it must, two, five, or ten years from now, the content it relies on must be paid for somehow. Such a devise will kill the bookshop, just as surely as as the mp3 killed the record store, but that’s a story for another article! Online advertising is ultimately a zero sum game; there are only so many eyeballs, and only so many iotas of attention to go around, and clever selfish users will expend enormous amounts of effort getting around it. Whilst blogs will remain a terrific source of opinion, analysis and information, they cannot hope (and have not yet managed) to replace the scope and depth of traditional investigative reportage. Bloggers would have castigated Nixon, but it seems unlikely they would have uncovered the Watergate conspiracy in enough detail to impeach and force the man from office. We need reporters and we enjoy professional writers, and both need to get paid.

Simon’s proposal is the creation of an open aggregation platform, from which users purchase their own bespoke newspaper; and writers receive a cut based directly on individual subscriptions to their content. That’s that basic idea, but as ever, the devil’s in the details.

How is such content aggregated in the first place?

Under Simon’s proposed system, individual writers sign up, either with a view to building an audience or in the knowledge that an existing audience will follow them to the platform. Newspaper, magazine, research, even fiction publishers sign up to increase their distribution for individual articles, stories, books or whole sections of their publications.

How is content edited?

Each writer and reader become an editor. Lazy users can choose from existing pre-mixed packs of news and features – think cable packages – these could be as coherent as ‘Features from all the Irish dailies’, as specific as ‘All news stories focused on the Chinese mainland’ or as esoteric as ‘Today in Soup Making’.
More adventurous users can pick and mix from individual authors, topics, ‘reading lists’ selected by their favourite writers and pundits, or articles enjoyed and recommended by their friends. Which brings me to..

How is content selection navigated?

This is possibly the hardest question for the proposed service – how to present such a wealth of information. It will take research and experimentation to get right. The probable answer is that there is no one correct way, and an amalgam of web browsing, iTunes style catalogue and feed grazing paradigms – with ‘feeds’ dynamically navigable based on numerous criteria – will probably emerge. Perhaps most exciting as a content discovery mechanism is social networking – suggestions based on existing maps of friendship (imported from online social networks), direct recommendations (think del.icio.us’s for: tag), geographic and demographic preferences.

How is content paid for?

Simon favours a subscription model, but there are additional potential sources of revenue, and many potential methods of payment. Users could phone a premium rate number, send a text, buy ‘credit’ as with pay per use phones, or subscribe via laser or credit card. In addition to subscription, advertising, likely a better source of income with this model than traditional newspapers, offers a significant income stream. Advertisers should be attracted by the hyper-local nature of distribution, which I’ll get to next, and the targetability of sales. Of course there’s no reason why as distribution costs fall, advertising can’t be used to offset the price of content delivery; nor why more expensive ad-free versions cannot be provided. So lets get to the doozy…

How is all this content to be delivered?

Simon and I had a tremendously involved conversation on this topic on Tuesday, and the solution we arrived at was this. Individualized newspapers printed at kiosks in newsagents, shopping centres and the like. Content selection can occur online or right on the device, and content delivery involves the printing of your unique paper (perhaps paired to your phones bluetooth UID), while you wait. It’s likely bespoke printing solutions of the dimension and speed required already exist – in the US, libraries are trialling print on demand public domain titles, whilst online web2.0 vanity publishers are providing the capability to produce individual full colour glossy books at about or less than the cost of an off the shelf equivalent.
But assuming we need to create the device itself, lets look at the components involved – a commodity touch screen, daily replaceable paper roll, broadband connection (already in place at any shop with a lotto machine), rapid low cost printer and binding apparatus. And that’s it. The output would be a Berliner or smaller tabloid format paper. The unit cost (excepting ongoing paper replacement, bandwidth, maintenance and electricity) shouldn’t exceed 20k; and would of course decrease greatly with mass production. As Simon is keen to point out, Ireland as a reasonably densely populated, geographically diverse, ethnically and demographically heterogeneous nation, with high literacy and GNP per capita, makes the perfect testbed for such a service – which if successful should certainly work internationally, and provide daily newspapers a previously unheard of geographic reach.

So it’s a newspaper?

Yes, but we don’t need to stop there; once we’ve established a POS for content, we can add additional media delivery through bluetooth, WIFI, CDR burning etc. The core service proposed is an enormously individualised, highly localised, distributed alternative to traditional daily publishing.

How much would it cost?

Clearly the ultimate cost of such a paper paper would be a key factor in uptake (along with ease of use, successful syndication deals etc). Right now it’s difficult to estimate the cost of the finished product. The likelihood is that it would cost significantly more than a traditional newspaper, at least initially. But it would offer significantly higher value to the reader – think of the utility of family or friendship group based news reporting, of regulation bulletins to legislators, stock market analysis to traders, exam prep to students, of any number of other long tail markets.

What are the obstacles?

The barriers to the development of such a platform are not insignificant. On the hardware side, a fast, effective and reliable solution must be sourced or constructed. On the software side a mass market user friendly front end needs to be paired with a marketplace for writing and photography (incidental, feature and reportage), robust editorial features, and a sophisticated distributed distribution architecture (think bittorrent). The range within which writers may set their prices needs to be balanced with the budget they are allotted to illustrate their articles (alternately an open illustration market could sell images to feature writers based on a cut of their sales). The degree of editorial control needed to prevent liable, and the printing of ‘The Al Qaeda Times’, needs to be carefully examined, in tandem with the ease of contribution for both writers and photographers. Archives should of course be free, but after what period? The software element of the platform is clearly multi-faceted and vital, both on the user and content provider end, and it’s construction non-trivial, but certainly not impossible. Nor are the barriers to adoption, from inertia to technophobia, necessarily intractable.

The key here is that the ‘product’ could ultimately offer a benefit to all current stakeholders in print news media. As a paid outlet for the the swathe of would be writers and pundits who lack a means of monetising their creations, as a place where well known authors can sell directly to their established audience, as a method for publishers to reverse declining sales, and as a new medium for the reader ill served by overly generic newspapers. On a final note, it’s an interesting postulate to make that such a scheme might not need a corporate behemoth behind it, to succeed on a smaller scale. Open source instructions could provide a template for an open platform, built by enthusiasts, profiting from their individual machines, selling on material created by a loosely affiliated network of content providers. Either way, how ironic would it be if the salvation of newsprint were to arise in the end from the much maligned blogosphere.