The thud was so loud it's still painfully echoing in my ears.
Hearst's recent informal announcement, via Fortune, that it planned to launch a Kindle-esque wireless e-reader -- on which customers could read magazines and newspapers -- has landed like the proverbial lead balloon. The arguments against it are pretty obvious: Nobody really wants another gadget to lug around; media companies have a history of "innovating" lame technologies; etc.
But there's a larger philosophical -- or metaphysical, or even existential -- issue at issue here. It has to do with the "thingness" of news.
The Hearst e-reader project suggests that media executives just can't stop clinging to the concept of news as a thing -- news as a discrete product that can and should be purchased like milk or cereal or any other package good. It's amazing that in 2009, that idea still has such a grip. Arguably a death grip.
For a lot of consumers, "news" these days exists as, simply, a cloud (à la cloud computing) -- not a discrete product that needs "better" packaging, like a fancy e-reader, to become marketable/desirable again. Some might argue that this is part of a generational shift, but the truth is you don't have to be young to find yourself drifting in this direction as a news consumer.
I grew up as a committed consumer of media-as-product (e.g., I was the dorky kid with his own Time and Newsweek subscriptions starting in seventh grade; I grew up structuring my mornings around newspaper reading; etc.). But I recently realized that on an average day I now consume most breaking news on my iPhone using various apps and mobile-friendly sites. The New York Times' prototype Article Skimmer, for instance, is surprisingly useful on an iPhone, though it's formatted for a desktop or laptop web page. My news consuming is generally not time-blocked -- meaning, it's not at all like how I used to pull up to the morning paper with a cup of coffee intending to devote a (hopefully) uninterrupted chunk of time to ingesting news.
Rather, news is just one more channel or thread within the constant data flow that comes my way. In truth, so much news comes to me almost by osmosis: via tweets and blog posts and Gmail Web Clips and forwarded bits and videos from friends and colleagues and readers ("Did you see this?").
Meanwhile, over in the Hearst Building, there are a bunch of people trying to invent a gadget they think is the future -- when, in fact, what they're really doing is planning to sell me the news in a fundamentally outdated way: as a discrete package good.
Once upon a time, it made sense for media executives to behave and think as if they were Procter & Gamble executives -- package jockeys. And so the same old tired thinking persists: If only we could come up with a snazzier, hipper, more futuristic container for our product ...
Some people clearly regard the "news cloud" as a horrible development -- a phenomenon we must strive to reverse. By, for instance, putting newspaper content back behind pay walls.
But the news cloud isn't ever going to dissipate. In fact, that reality -- the inexorable expansion of the news cloud -- is where a new revenue model potentially comes into play.
I would pay for an iPhone-optimized New York Times Article Skimmer, for instance. The trick is to sell it to me not as a product, as "the news," but as a service -- in the same way I'm asked to pay additional fees for cellphone-specific utilities (e.g., iPhone apps) that help me better manage the information that floods into my mobile life.
What if, instead of paying for a separate device, or dishing out micropayments for bits of news here and there, I could pay for, say, a TimesPhone bundle? For instance, my regular AT&T phone/data plan, with a monthly add-on (in the same way I'm willing to pay extra for a text-messaging bundle) for a constantly updated Times app that helped me navigate and make sense of the news cloud?
Speaking of the Times, one of the most-read recent tech stories on NYTimes.com was "The Cellphone, Navigating Our Lives." In it, John Markoff argued that our cellphones are changing "how we organize, find and use information" -- based on the metaphor of the map. "As this metaphor takes over, it will change the way we behave, the way we think and the way we find our way around new neighborhoods." He's exactly right -- and his point about the cellphone being "the world's most ubiquitous computer," with 4 billion in use around the world, bears repeating.
We're all living in and moving through an increasingly dense data cloud -- one that treats "news" in a rather undifferentiated fashion (e.g., breaking news about a plane crash gets juxtaposed with a friend's Facebook update).
The media companies that survive will be the ones that help us find our way through that cloud.