Metaphors for the state of news and its future

Update: This post has grown long enough that new metaphors and similes are going into new posts.

There are lots of metaphors being thrown around for the current state of the news industry. On a suggestion from Steve Buttry, I’m collecting as many of them as possible. Add your suggestions in the comments, or @reply me on Twitter, with links if you can, and I’ll add them to the list. I should say that similes, analogies, parables and the like are fair game, too. We’ll see how far this goes.

You can also contribute using Publish2. Just tag any link with “newsmetaphors” and will show up at the bottom of the post.

Humpty Dumpty
The American Press Institute’s Newspaper Economic Action Plan, available from Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab

Then, the emergence of Google, an Internet search company that was launched without a business plan, soon blew up the content business into millions of “atomized” pieces, each piece disassociated at some level from its original context and creator. Like all the king’s men, news enterprises were left to put the Humpty Dumpty of editorial and commercial content back together again, restore their original integrity, and finance the costly operation of being the trusted curator of news and transactions.

Lemmings
Steve Outing’s Alternatives to paid-online-news cliff jumping
(Mr. Outing has an addendum clarifying his lemming metaphor since it was first posted.)

The point is, there are alternatives to joining the lemmings headed for the cliff who want to lock down their news content online. We’ll either see a lot of blood on the rocks, or the lemmings will come to their senses and start to take different paths.

Crystal Ball or a Café
Fast Company’s News Flash From the Future: What Will Journalism Look Like?

Crystal-ball culture: Predictive analysis follows us everywhere, and it’s created by more than the major data crunchers (Google, Microsoft, and government agencies).

Tomorrow’s newsroom resembles today’s café–but look closer. From your perch, you see that the woman near the door is commenting on a story that a blogger just posted. Market St. Beat, as the blogger’s handle reads, is one of the most popular and trusted journalists in the city–but she’s never set foot in a traditional newsroom.

The Tectonic Shift That Created Bryce Canyon
Steve Buttry’s Embrace the beauty and opportunity beyond upheaval

I visited Bryce Canyon, where centuries of sedimentation followed by tectonic upheaval followed by wind and frost erosion left the earth in fascinating, massive columns of sandstone called hoodoos. … The current upheaval in the newspaper business is not cyclical. It’s tectonic. … We don’t know what kind of hoodoos or canyons this massive shifting of ground is going to bring to our industry. But anyone who thinks a cyclical upswing is going to bring back 30 percent profit margins and higher revenues for print advertising and circulation might as well be waiting for the return of that massive lake that once covered the southern half of Utah. Or for the return of the Columbus Citizen-Journal.

Pre-Gutenberg Monks Who Made Handcrafted Bibles
Steve Buttry’s Google’s no threat to press freedom

Remember that darkened room I told you about in the Gutenberg Museum, where I saw three original Gutenberg Bibles? Off to the left, in another case, were even older Bibles, handmade by monks in the centuries before Gutenberg developed movable type. They were beautiful works of art, passed from generation to generation as family treasures.

I think newspapers today are living in a similar time to those monks in the time of Gutenberg. If their product was that beautiful handcrafted book, then its days were numbered. But if their product was a message that they believed in their souls was the word of God, this new technology was going to take that message to untold millions who never had a chance to own one of those precious heirloom Bibles.

The Titanic (and Rearranging its Deck Chairs)
Nearly 4,000 Google hits for the search “rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic newspapers,” not all referencing media. The news-related entries include:

Gannett Blog’s At Gannett headquarters, the band plays on

I started Gannett Blog a year ago because I expected big changes at the nation’s No. 1 newspaper publisher. A powerful media conglomerate with 50,000 employees was steaming deeper into treacherous waters, and there didn’t seem to be many bloggers writing about the outcome. What piqued my interest: CEO Craig Dubow‘s newly announced Information Center model, a cornerstone of Gannett’s strategic plan. I was skeptical. “This looks an awful lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” I wrote.

Mark Potts’ Rearranging the Deck Chairs

I was just saying to a friend that the appointment of Bill Marimow as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the replacement of Dean Baquet at the L.A. Times by Jim O’Shea were the latest in the musical chairs in the newspaper business.

Then I realized I had the wrong chair metaphor.

What happened in Philadelphia and L.A. (and at other major papers before them in recent months) isn’t musical chairs—it’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Jason Preston’s Deck chairs

A popular line in newspaper criticism right now is that redesigns are like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Of course that’s a false comparison because changes in design amount to substantive changes in your product, whereas changing deck chairs really is a useless exercise when you’re trying to avoid an iceberg.

Tim Windsor’s Will paid content work? Two cautionary tales from 2004

At the very least, ideas are bouncing around and occasionally creating new synapses. (At the very worst, of course, we’re polishing the glassware behind the bar on Deck Three of the pride of the White Star Line.)

A Butterfly
Brian Boyer, on Twitter

Journalism will emerge from its gray paper chrysalis.

Railroads
Martin Langeveld’s Bankruptcies: What kind of changes will they force on newspapers?

We’ve seen this before in other legacy industries, most notably U.S. railroads.  In 1920, trains carried a total of 1.2 billion passengers, the peak year for rail travel in this country.  Despite a few upticks during the late 1930s and World War II, it was all downhill after that as personal automobiles, buses and airplanes siphoned off traffic, and as government policy failed to encourage rail travel as it did in Europe.  For five decades, railroad companies struggled against the tide but failed to adapt.  By 1970, much of the industry was bankrupt.  Today, the government-owned Amtrak system carries a grand total of 29 million passengers a year, about 2.4 percent of the 1920 level.

King Kaufman’s 1904 blog post: Future of transportation (blogs, in this metaphor, are automobiles)

But these automobiles are a grave threat to the American way of life and commerce. We must put the brakes, if you will, on this burgeoning phenomenon before it’s too late.

A pair of goggles, a set of gloves, and the turn of a crank make any man an engineer, a brakeman and a conductor rolled into one. Only there’s no need for a conductor because the ride is free. And therein lies the problem.

A Boxer
Martin Langeveld’s Bankruptcies: What kind of changes will they force on newspapers?

The rest of the industry is on the ropes.

Bill Keller, quoted in Editor & Publisher’s Keller on ‘NYT’ Pulitzer Sweep: ‘Here’s Why We Matter’

It comes in a year when a lot of newspapers are on the ropes, it is a reminder of what newspapers can do that others can’t.

A Protection Racket
King Kaufman’s Newport Daily News strategy: Extort customers

If you live in Newport and you want to get the paper delivered, it’s $145 for the year. If you want the paper and the Web site, which has been redesigned and now includes the entire print edition in a format that mimics print, it’s $245.

OK, fair enough. Added value. You pay more for two things than for one. Wouldn’t be interesting to me as a customer but good luck, all the best.

But if you want to read the Web site without getting the print edition, it’s $345 for the year.

“You’ve got a real nice house there,” the Newport Daily News is saying to its subscribers. “I’d hate to see it littered up with paper every day. Know what I’m saying? A hundred bucks a year will keep your front yard niiiiiice and tidy. Get me?”

A Bus Company
King Kaufman’s We Need a New Bus Company

If we wanted to take the bus across town this afternoon, and the bus company said, “We can get you across town, but it’d work out a lot better for us if we did it a week from Thursday,” wouldn’t we be demanding a new bus company?

David Leonhardt’s fantastic interview with President Obama appears in today’s New York Times Magazine. Leonhardt writes that he interviewed Obama on April 14 after the president gave his speech on the economy at Georgetown University. To help readers better picture what day that was, Leonhardt notes it was the day White House dog Bo was introduced.

The magazine article is, Leonhardt writes, “a lightly edited transcript of that interview.” So unless Leonhardt edits by hammer and chisel, the entire reason for the three-week delay is the lead time for the magazine.

Why are we, the great unwashed readership, mourning the passing of this model?

The USSR or Used Bathwater
King Kaufman’s Newspapers increase drain-circling velocity

The only news event in my lifetime that I can compare this to is the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s. I remember reading the stories coming out of Moscow in 1988 and ‘89 as the USSR dismantled itself and thinking, “I’m watching the end of something I never dreamed would end in my lifetime — and I’m not that old!”

I’m saying that again, though the not-that-old part is quite a bit less true.

Bottled Water (or Gasoline)
Tim Windsor’s Could one answer to paid content be found in a bottle of water?

The growth of bottled water in the past decade — a commodity available free pretty much everywhere in the developed world — is the story of consumers willingly shelling out real dollars in exchange for convenience and branding. Can the news industry — which also sells a largely commoditized product — learn anything from the success of Aquafina and its ilk? Why is it that consumers cheerfully pay more for thirst-quenchers than we do for the fuel that moves our vehicles and our economy?

Horse and Buggy (or Buggy Whips)
Leon Gettler’s Buffett says newspapers have no future

As reported here, Buffett implies that newspapers are going the way of the horse and buggy. “They have the possibility of going to unending losses. They were essential to the public 20 years ago. Their pricing power was essential with customer. They lost the essential nature. The erosion has accelerated dramatically. They were only essential to advertiser as long as essential to reader. No one liked buying ads in the paper – it’s just that they worked. I don’t see anything on the horizon that causes that erosion to end.”

King Kaufman’s  Pulitzers prove papers’ viability

The New York Times winning five Pulitzer Prizes is proof that newspapers are still relevant despite the industry’s losses and the growing influence of the Web, the paper’s executive editor says.

In related news, the chief executive officer of the National Buggy Whip Company said his firm’s strong showing in the 2009 Buggy Whip Awards proves the continued viability and relevance of buggy whips

Libraries
Gina Chen’s What journalists can learn from readers, railroads and libraries

No, wait. Newspapers are just like libraries: R. David Lankes, an associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, offers an impassioned blog post at Virtual Dave about how to save libraries that I found so inspiring, I wanted to mention it here. Lankes and I are friends, and we’ve chatted (by e-mail) about the similarities between the struggling industries we both respectively care about. They both relate to reading and technology; they both are mired as the dinosaurs in the field face up against the innovators. I think his message of hope is relevant for all of us trying to change journalism who feel frustrated by those in our industry who refuse to budge. His best takeaway:  “How do I get inspired to face (intransigence), or laziness, or ineptitude? I look right past them at the real goal, and those who really need me. Block me, and I will go around you. Build a wall, and I will build a door. Lock the door, and I will break a window.”

The Mob or Yalta Conference
James Warren’s Shhhh. Newspaper Publishers Are Quietly Holding a Very, Very Important Conclave Today. Will You Soon Be Paying for Online Content?

One hopes it displays the same sense of purpose as, say, troubled world leaders did at Yalta in 1945 or, in a rather less respectable sector of the economy, beleaguered mob bosses did at a legendary Apalachin, New York, confab in 1957.

Dinosaurs
About 706,000 Google hits for the search “dinosaurs newspapers,” not all referencing media. The news-related entries include:

John Fine’s Life Among The Dinosaurs, in Business Week

At every NAA convention, these men attend nightly parties in the host city’s grandest public spaces. This year’s opening event was at the magnificent Field Museum, on a large open floor bookended by two massive dinosaur skeletons. Many attendees joked about this. To the executive to whom I said such an obvious metaphor would never, ever, appear in this column: I lied.

Nick Bergus (that’s me) and John Goodlove’s Is Gazette chewing off own leg to save itself?

In the land of media dinosaurs, newspapers are the lumbering beasts most vulnerable; nipping at their heels are readership declines, advertising losses, rising expenses and changing habits.

Jonestown
Steve Yelvington’s Let the bad ideas flow

With all the hyperbolic, ill-sourced and often self-serving End of Days coverage of the newspaper industry lately, we shouldn’t be surprised to see any number of really bad ideas surfacing — and I don’t just mean paywalls.

I say: Let the bad ideas flow. Sometimes bad ideas spark good ones. Just don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

The Apocalypse (or Buggy Whips)
Nicholas Carlson’s 10 Newspapers That Will Survive the Apocalypse

Believe it or not, there are investors who still want to buy local newspapers.

Our favorite person of this stripe is an investor who has already plunked millions into the industry and is in the process of spending much more.

“I might be running head first into the buggy-whip business, but I’m not sold on the death of print quite yet,” he tells us.

Golden Goose
John McQuaid’s On newspapers and paywalls

The API report makes some gestures toward innovation – but only after enumerating ways to monetize content. Its basic approach is, we’ve already got a golden goose here, people are stealing our eggs, and we want them back.

George W. Bush or Marx
John McQuaid’s On newspapers and paywalls

Then I read the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Economic Action Plan. It’s the same point of view I ran into on Facebook, only systematized and turned into a business strategy. The problem with this “we produce something of value and should be paid for it” attitude, though, is that it is just an attitude, one shaped by a sense of grievance and a gut feeling about what is – must be – right and just. This is a terrible way to formulate any kind of complex strategy – George W. Bush made decisions the same way. In this case, the API ignores the real world conditions of journalism, the Internet and e-commerce. Thus this strategy, if pursued, is unlikely to turn out well. I’m a former newspaper reporter – I want newspapers & journalism to survive and thrive. And I’m not against charging for some content if it’s done right. But even I can see this is crazy.

Start with the API’s first recommendation: “Establish a true value for news content online by charging for it.” This is a strange formulation. In a market, prices are set by supply and demand, not dictated by producers. The declaration has an anachronistic, command-and-control, almost Marxist feel to it: we control the means of production, we will set the prices. It assumes a kind of monopolistic position that newspapers no longer hold, as much as they might want to. If your starting point is the assumption your product has “value,” you’d be wise to take a hard look at exactly what that value is on the open market. But the API evidently has not conducted that kind of clear-eyed self-assessment. It sees the economic value of newspaper content as self-evident, of a piece with its perceived social value, and something that must be preserved first, improved upon later.

Naked Emperors
Dan Conover’s The newspaper suicide pact

This spring and early summer has been a continuous parade of naked emperors and specious arguments. There’s the Cable TV argument. The iTunes argument. They’ve argued the Watchdog Case and the Piracy Case. And as the combined knowledge of the network ground each of these quickly down to dust, the salespeople moved on to the next one. Did the “blame the bloggers” approach flop? OK: Blame Google.

The Movie Groundhog Day
Tim Windsor’s Will paid content work? Two cautionary tales from 2004

For those of us who went down these paths previously, there’s definitely a bit of Groundhog Day to the increased media thumb-sucking, but at least this time some of the people doing that thumb-sucking are in better positions to make actual change.

Tinkerbell
Steve Buttry’s Seven reasons charging for content won’t work

I hope the newspaper tycoons meeting secretly in Chicago this week come up with a clap-your-hands plan.

Because clapping our hands to save the newspaper industry, like we saved Tinkerbell at the movies when we were children, has more chance of succeeding than the paid-content-cartel approach that newspaper executives are dreaming and talking about but being careful not to conspire about.

An Elephant (or is it The Elephant?)
Ryan Sholin’s The business model is still the elephant in the room

As much fun as it is for me to make clever lists and shout from the hilltops about what I think your news organization should be doing, how they should be doing it, and why they should be doing it, no matter what argument I (or anyone else) has in favor of a certain technology or against a certain methodology, the broken business model of newspapers remains the giant elephant in the room.

A Sinking Ship
Daniel Bachhuber’s Open memo on how to right a sinking ship

The future of journalism is a bright one. It’s time to take the incredible opportunity that the internet presents for improving the entire process of news and capitalize on it. When the internet is the default platform of choice, however, the barrier to invent and reinvent drops to the floor. This is why newspaper companies should’ve applied more resources to innovating ten years ago and will need to work double-time now to remain relevant. Many won’t make it.

Hemorrhaging Blood
Steve Buttry’s Attributor’s plan is a tourniquet on newspapers’ hemorrhage of ad revenue

Sure, save that $250 million if you can. But that’s a tourniquet, not a plan for a healthy future.

A Moated Castle
Steve Buttry, on Twitter

@jdland Free sites like yours will thrive if/when newspapers dig pay moats around their content.

White Elephants Wondering the Desert or Terminal Patients in Need of a Convalescent Home
Crosbie Fitch’s Not Suicide, Terminal

I’d say it was more like a group of similarly afflicted purchasing a retreat in which they can end their terminal illness away from the public eye.

Newspapers are white elephants in a barren desert of their own making, desperately wandering from watering hole to watering hole, but the revenue flowing from each tributary of their 18th century monopoly on the sale of copies is drying up. Neither fencing off the copies nor reinforcing the monopoly will help. Their business model faces absolute drought. So they collect, not to commit suicide, but to assemble their graveyard.

Water
Eli Lipmen’s News Is Like Water

Information in the internet age is like water – you try to control and package it as a commodity to be sold, and the information will find another route to reach its destination.

A Joke or Incompetent Painters
Jeff Jarvis’s Decency is the new ad

So here’s the real punchline: Advertising ends up having nothing to do with media. They become decoupled. Audience no longer yields advertising. Hell, advertising isn’t advertising. It’s relationships. Media only get in the way. There’s the corner we’re painted into, the chaos scenario, perhaps the doomsday scenario for media.

A Hurricane and Climate Change
Steve Yelvington, on Democracies Online’s News Online group

The newspaper industry is in the middle of a hurricane that’s hitting
all businesses.

Like a hurricane, the global economic crisis will end. In its wake there
will be a profitable business for many surviving newspapers.

But in the background there is climate change: the long downward march
of print readership, the constant emergence of new competitors, the
disappearance of the scarcity on which newspapers evolved.

Gay-bashing Bigots
Steve Yelvington, on Twitter

Maybe blog-bashing journos are like gay-bashing bigots: Inside, there’s a fear they might not be as pure as they pretend.

A Ready-to-Spew Dike or Carole King Song
Staci D. Kramer’s Let’s Try The Craigslist Model Again Or ASCAP Or …

Some people could see this as putting a finger in a dike that’s about to spew. Fair enough. It also wouldn’t be hard to go the clueless route or the Carly Simon Carole King route—as in “it’s too late, baby.”

Carly Simon
Steve Buttry, on Twitter

Carole King & Carly Simon confused by @sdkstl in this post. But Simon works, too: “You’re So Vain.” http://bit.ly/o67AY via @jayrosen_nyu

Completed Mixed (and, because it links here, completely meta)
David Carr, on Twitter

metaphorically spking, the news biz is on a sleigh ride down a slippery slope over a waterfall & into the ditch.

The Big Die-off
John McQuaid’s The big die-off

A massive asteroid has struck, sending shock waves through the media ecosystem. Old species disappear very rapidly; meanwhile various mutations emerge but most of them die off too. Only a few new species will actually thrive, then diversify and take over. We don’t know yet what they look like.

An Ecosystem
Steven Berlin Johnson’s Old Growth Media and the Future of News

The metaphors we use to think about changes in media have a lot to tell us about the particular moment we’re in. McLuhan talked about media as an extension of our central nervous system, and we spent forty years trying to figure out how media was re-wiring our brains. The metaphor you hear now is different, more E.O. Wilson than McLuhan: the ecosystem. I happen to think that this is a useful way of thinking about what’s happening to us now: today’s media is in fact much closer to a real-world ecosystem in the way it circulates information than it is like the old industrial, top-down models of mass media. It’s a much more diverse and interconnected world, a system of flows and feeds – completely different from an assembly line. That complexity is what makes it so interesting, of course, but also what makes it so hard to predict what it’s going to look like in five or ten years. So instead of starting with the future, I propose that we look to the past.

A Tanker Ship
Paul Bradshaw’s In defence of paywalls

When you’re driving a tanker and you see a big rock ahead – do you ask everyone on the ship to rebuild it as an aeroplane? Or do you start steering away in the hope that your part of the tanker will somehow avoid the worst?

Feedlot Cattle
Mindy McAdams’ Social journalism: Back to the future

Some newspapers still put these things front and center, focus their resources on these, and perhaps hold their circulation numbers steady. It used to be the way newspapers were structured, and it’s part of what changed as newspapers were bought up by big corporations and clumped into feedlots like so many over-doped beef cattle.

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22 thoughts on “Metaphors for the state of news and its future

  1. Thanks for starting this, Nick. Since I suggested it, I should contribute. I have likened the newspaper business in my blog and frequently in seminars and conferences to the pre-Gutenberg monks who made handcrafted Bibles. New technology was going to put their physical product out of business. But their contribution to the world, a message that they believed was the word of God, would be enhanced by the new technology: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2009/04/16/goo… (metaphor is at the end of the link)

  2. Can't believe it's taken this long to get a Jonestown reference:
    http://www.yelvington.com/node/546
    From Steve Yelvington:
    “With all the hyperbolic, ill-sourced and often self-serving End of Days coverage of the newspaper industry lately, we shouldn't be surprised to see any number of really bad ideas surfacing — and I don't just mean paywalls.

    I say: Let the bad ideas flow. Sometimes bad ideas spark good ones. Just don't drink the Kool-Aid.”

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  4. To be fair, the Pre-Gutenberg Monks metaphor was stolen from Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody (or at least, Shirky's use predates the one you list).

  5. Sage, I don't claim the list to be complete or definitive. Feel free to suggest any links or quotes I'm missing. I sure the list is missing plenty.

  6. Yet another maritime model: http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/06/10/in-d
    “When you’re driving a tanker and you see a big rock ahead – do you ask everyone on the ship to rebuild it as an aeroplane? Or do you start steering away in the hope that your part of the tanker will somehow avoid the worst?”

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