Of original sin and downstream profitability

This may be the headline of the week:

The Boston Courant: Proud not to have a website until the owner sees “a profitable end game.” Publisher David Jacobs says he has no interest in the web — at least not until someone else figures out a business model for it.

The article, in Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, is a fascinating tale of a man with a niche audience who decided long ago that his publication was a newspaper, period. Publisher Jacobs is a guy who sees the simplicity of it all. “I won’t launch (a website) until I find a viable business model…We’ve never come close (to launching),” Jacobs told Callum Borchers, author of the piece. He also gave Borchers this wonderful line:

In business, one of my philosophies has been the first pioneer into enemy territory gets all the arrows.”

How true, and it brings a warm smile to my face. There are those who would say that Mr. Jacobs is a man who resisted the temptation of newspaperdom’s “original sin,” that of giving away for nothing what people used to have to pay for.

I’ve long believed, however, that the original sin of the newspaper industry was in creating the Web version of itself in its own image, to use another Biblical reference. It’s a forgivable sin, because we didn’t know then what we know now, but the extent to which we continue in this error is another matter. The newspaper industry gave birth to the media Web and a new form of geek to manage it. These new individuals had ink in their veins and ones and zeroes in their brains, but they bore scant resemblance to their counterparts in California and elsewhere who were actually building the Web and its applications. A newspaper background was deemed essential in the creation and execution of a newspaper’s online strategy.

These people were invited to speak at conferences on “new media.” They wrote books and coined phrases. When national publisher groups met, these people were assembled to advise and teach. The newspaper industry was perfectly capable of taking care of itself, thank you very much (same with TV, but that’s another article). This is not to suggest arrogance. It’s just the way it was.

Imagine a whale oil convention a hundred years ago where the speakers about electricity only came from within the ranks of the whale oil industry. One session is dedicated to new innovations in oil lamp manufacturing where the oil is lit by a spark of electricity. Another looks at the benefits of listening to the radio while resting with the soft light and therapeutic fragrances of scented oil lamps. Still another examines innovations on the future use of electricity in steamship navigation equipment. You get the idea.

Newspapers never stopped to ask this one fundamental question: what is the best way to meet the news and information needs of the community online?

Instead, when the “real” geeks started asking the question and creating simple applications to accomplish the task, the best newspaper people could do was criticize them. Where institutions wouldn’t listen, individuals did, and so was born the tools of personal media. The term “blogger” became instantly pejorative with the newspaper industry, despite the reality that the software they used was far better in terms of communicating online.

Newspapers — and their broadcasting counterparts — have continued to bolt onto their core item after item, so that the finished product resembles more a complex Frankenstein monster than the simple money-maker that Mr. Jacobs continues to provide. This is why new media is about reinvention, not brand extension. Moreover, the venture-backed souls who are taking the money that used to go exclusively to us are quite content to “help” us bolt other things on. Meanwhile, we’re helping revenue shift to other people’s infrastructures, and so it goes.

David Jacobs recognizes his brand as a newspaper. The question for him is the same for everyone: What is it about that brand that will allow me to make money online, and here’s a hint: it’s not mass marketing.

Nuff said.

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  1. […] activity in all its wastefulness, whale oil burned brightly.  With the advent of electricity, opportunities for innovation were overlooked: Imagine a whale oil convention a hundred years ago where the speakers about electricity only came […]

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