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02.27.09

kill it

(Another monster entry - I've got to learn to pace myself. In the interest of experiment - and as an alternative to a comments feature, I've set up a social network for the blog on ning.com - e-mail me to request an invitation to join, and we'll see what develops.)

WITHOUT A DOUBT, THE MOST FASCINATING VIDEO I've seen on the web lately is Marc Andreesen's session with Charlie Rose earlier this month, an excerpt of which - featuring Andreesen calling for the death of the printed newspaper - has been making the rounds. I should add that "fascinating," in this case, is strictly relative - if two men talking gadgets and media over a table in a darkened room sounds like a thrill, then I have a closet full of nails, screws, bolts and washers that you'll probably expire from the sheer ecstasy of sorting.

I should say right now that I have nothing against Charlie Rose or PBS in particular - I'm a Canadian, and have my own public broadcasting dragons to slay - but that if I had a choice between a celebrity rehab reality show and Rose on most nights, I'd choose the former. As an educated, informed person, I should like Charlie Rose, for the same reason I should like opera or Paul Simon or the New York Times crossword, but the effort of typing the description of the show in the paragraph above was enough to trigger a shudder of aversion. I blame Saturday morning cartoons.

That said, I've found Rose's show interesting every time I've forced myself to sit down and watch it, if only because there's something perverse about its leisurely format, and a real-time interview lasting nearly 60 minutes without a commercial break. In a world of five-minute junket sessions with celebrities and talk shows cut like car chases, Rose's digressive questioning must feel like an interrogation for many of its subjects, and Andreesen's posture for most of the hour - back straight, hands locked together on the table in front of him - reminded me of a nervous job applicant.

Which isn't too surprising, considering that Andreesen spends much of the first half hour talking about his work, past and present, with Rose's eager encouragement. He'll be remembered for his role in creating the web browser, if nothing else, and he knows it - after explaining to Rose how the Mosaic code he wrote for the University of Illinois was acquired by Microsoft, and how he'd been happy to abandon it write something better with Netscape, he says it's "why I take credit for both Explorer and Firefox."

Social networking is his business these days with Ning, as well as a venture capital firm he's set up with Ben Horowitz, a Netscape colleague. Rose's attitude to Andreesen is mostly deferential - he keeps dropping hints that they know each other socially - and since his questions mostly take the shape of pleas for the younger man to explain the workings of the tech world and Silicon Valley to him, Andreesen gets plenty of opportunities to talk up his favorite tech and tech companies.

"The iPhone, when it landed, was, like, beamed from five years in the future," he tells Rose, who keeps quizzing him on the workings of all the companies he's either friendly with or on the board of, like YouTube, Google and Facebook. "If they're not making money today, they easily could," Andreesen says, and you suddenly remember that Andreesen was a principal player in the tech boom (and bust) way back at the dawn of the decade.

Which can't help but put everything he says into a slightly jaundiced perspective. Rose asks about Twitter, and Andreesen volunteers that he was an "angel investor" on the company, whose "actual revenue may actually be zero," he cheerfully observes. It's the kind of statement that puts everything that comes afterward into perspective.

About halfway through the interview, Rose brings up Andreesen's famous New York Times Deathwatch, a blog posting he did just over a year ago that generated a good deal of publicity. It contained a breakdown of the Times' board, lampooning their collective cluelessness on internet issues ("Brenda C. Barnes -- CEO of Sara Lee; noted snack cake expert ... William E. Kennard -- former head of the FCC; noted "seven dirty words" expert.")

Rose - not surprisingly, given his age - has a hard time seeing the logic or even desirability of Andreesen's hostility to the newspaper business model and the persistence of print, and tries to draw him out on it, as if a year hasn't been long enough for him to comprehend that Andreesen might have actually been sincere. What follows is a priceless exchange - something a playwright would have been pleased to put onstage:

Rose: To play offense for a newspaper for you means what...

Andreesen: Oh, you've got to kill the print edition.

Rose: Stop the presses tomorrow.

Andreesen: You have to kill it.

Rose: Stop the presses tomorrow.

Andreesen: You have to kill it.

Rose: Stop the presses tomorrow.

Andreesen: Stop presses tomorrow. I'll tell you what - the stocks would go up.


It's as close as PBS will ever get to a modern version of "Who's on first?" Andreesen's insists that investors have already written off the print operations, but that newspaper management still put 90% of their energy into maintaining the newsprint side of the operation, and regard their online operation as a sideshow, even maintaining separate newsrooms, which he finds incredible.

Rose disagrees - he thinks that newspaper management are trying to buy time until the internet can make money, which probably isn't entirely untrue, but it's hard not to imagine that Rose finds the idea of newspapers disappearing overnight unsettling, and obviously isn't on board with Andreesen's assertion that "everything about the online experience is better," so he gets Andreesen to talk about his own media consumption habits.

"I read everything," Andreesen insists, painting himself as some kind of uniquely ravenous media omnivore, a black swan in a flock of white birds. I think he's flattering himself - most of the people I know working in media or tech or in the common area joining the two are as broad-ranging in their media consumption as Andreesen describes himself, moving from hard copy to digital based on convenience. Your eyebrow nudges up even further when Andreesen admits that "I own 6,000 music CDs. I buy CDs all the time. All they (the record industry) need is a million more people like me." In that respect, at least, I'm far more 21st century than the web visionary who insists that "everything about the online experience is better."

I can make fun of Andreesen's draconian prescription for the newspaper business, and Rose's obvious horror of a world without the Sunday New York Times, but nobody would be foolish enough to argue that the newspaper business is in anything but a terminal state. The Rocky Mountain News published its last edition today after 150 years, and few people think San Francisco will h
ave a daily by the end of this year. Closer to home, the publisher of the biggest paper in my city posted a $211.1 million (Canadian) loss in the latest quarter, leading to the exit of the current CEO as a prelude to more layoffs. And that's just this week.

I can't tell you what exactly is wrong with the newspaper business (though there are many theories) because I've lived in it for so many years, and recent circumstances have forced me to doubt what little I thought I knew. The free daily model looked plausible - low distribution costs, small newsroom, tight content commissioning budgets - but since becoming just another job loss statistic, I'm beginning to think it's as fundamentally flawed, at least as implemented by the people who employed me for the last seven years.

I personally have no problem with migrating my newspaper reading online; I only take one paper daily, and have already discussed switching to the "online only" subscription option if we need to tighten our budget even further. It certainly made sense late last year, when HP lent us one of their nifty touchscreen computers for review; it quickly became as vital a part of our kitchen as the dishwasher. If the Post could provide me with a widget for my iPod Touch, it would make the switch to digital even more attractive.

Judging by the way Andreesen and Rose were impatient to get their hands on a Kindle 2, and Andreesen's insistence that Apple's next hardware quantum leap should be an e-reader, they're both up to speed with the consumer technology that would make that technological shift possible. But it has to be understood that they're both, by the standards of anyone I know, very rich men, and able to buy into the acquisition and upgrade cycle of new technology in a way that many - I'd even go so far as to say most - newspaper readers aren't.

The Kindle is very expensive, and competing devices such as Sony's E-Readers aren't much cheaper. Andreesen might want to shut down the presses tomorrow and save the investors the quickening bleed on their stake, but until a cheap, reliable technology (with the crucial "it works" feature of Google, as it was dubbed by Andreesen's friend Billy Joy) lands in the hands of most readers, we'll be seeing the emergence of another divide between digital haves and have nots.

Andreesen tried to sell Rose on the wonder of the internet by describing himself, growing up in rural Wisconsin, feeling cut off from the world except for what could be glimpsed from television and radio, the local newspaper and the resources of the local library. I was struck by how much I shared that sense of isolation growing up in a working class suburb of my country's largest city just a few years before him. It's a problem less induced by geography than by the circumstances of being young at a particular time, and just by describing it, Andreesen has placed himself on the far side of the line demarking old from young.

Turning newspapers into niche market businesses hasn't done anything to save it for those who've tried, and I can't see why this isn't basically the same thing, with the added bug of leaping into the unknown with a business model that's been painfully difficult to monetize. I've been very happy to put my writing online after losing access to the forum I've had for the past few years, but it has to be understood that I'm doing for free what I used to get a paycheque for, in the hope of showcasing my skills for prospective new employers. For almost every newspaper, shutting down the presses and going online only would mean embracing a business plan actually riskier than my own.

Other papers have gone online only recently, from the Madison, WI Capital Times and community papers like Montreal's Monitor to the venerable Christian Science Monitor, but there's a sense in the business itself of each title disappearing into some shady netherworld, neither alive nor dead, and in a business where perception and reputation mean so much, the publisher who makes that decision is not only shedding employees, but renouncing his membership in a club whose esteem is still considered valuable in a way share price and readership can't quantify.

It sounds silly, but great businesses, even whole countries, have staggered to their extinction by valuing esteem and reputation in defiance of reality. And until a giant of the newspaper pantheon - the Times in either London or New York, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Le Monde - makes the leap from newsprint to pixels exclusively, smaller papers that do the same will be percieved as doing so out of desperation. Which is a long way of saying that, on the so-called death of the newspaper, Andreesen might be right, but it doesn't mean he knows what he's talking about.

 (Two more things. Take a look at the three appearances Andreesen has done on Charlie Rose - in the first, he's a chubby college kid, in the second, he's a lean, serious business professional clearly benefitting from the "all nighters and imminent IPO" diet. Today he looks like he's auditioning to play Uncle Fester. It's a hell of a transition.

Second - here's a list of the 100 biggest newspapers in the world. You might be as surprised as I am to find that no English title shows up in the top 10, and that the biggest English daily, at number 11, is a UK tabloid -
The Sun. The Times of India at #24 is bigger than either the New York Times [#37] or the Times of London [not on the list.] Something to keep in mind.)


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

e-mail:
rick -at- rickmcginnis.com

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