Newspaper are like horses? Not quite

Jeff Bezos is showing early promise as the new owner of the Washington Post: he has a sound grasp of how to say something familiar in an arrestingly new way.

The other day, he compared printed newspapers to horses:

“I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.”

On one level, this is plainly true. As a medium for news, ink marks on squashed trees are economically inefficient, environmentally damaging and slow. Print, even for news, will not be replaced by digital. New media almost never completely substitute for older media; the newcomers shrink and shove to one side their predecessors. Just as the combustion engine became the standard way for people to get around without making horses disappear.

If it was a simple as this, then digital would just be another faster, cheaper distribution system for news and information. But the digital disruption is much bigger than that and this is where Bezos’s quotable analogy breaks down. Digital has broken the advertising-supported business model for much (and particularly daily) printed news. It has also fundamentally changed the pattern by which news was something made by a few and sent to many.

What the digital disruption has done is to allow an open competition between different models of editorial decision. For anyone wired can now assemble and generate “news”. Does that mean that everyone will do this differently and tailored to their own tastes? Or is there some value in the collective editorial process, be it digital crowd-sourcing or old-fashioned newsrooms: distilling, verifying, selecting, sense-making? What’s the best design for that collective process which makes use of the possibilities of new technology?

I’m glad that a digitally smart businessman with a record of success has taken over the Washington Post. But the soundbite I’m curious to hear is what he thinks “news” now is.

Footnote: yes, these themes are discussed at greater length in my book Out of Print. Look to the right of this post and you’ll see how to buy a copy. Here’s the wise Matthew Ingram also quibbling with Bezos.



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