By Christopher B. Daly
In his latest column, the New York Times‘ David Carr makes a smart argument about how the media — both entertainment and news — are coming apart under pressure from the Web. That’s coming apart, not falling apart. They are coming apart in the sense that the “bundles” of material that arose during the pre-digital era no longer make sense.
Here’s his lead:
For the longest time in the media business, the concept of the bundle has been foundational. Ads go with editorial content in print, commercials go with programming on television and the channels you desire are paired with ones you did not in your cable package.
People were free to shop for what they wanted, as long as they were willing to buy a bunch of other stuff they did not. The box score last night for your home team? It was wrapped inside a bundle of paper that included everything from foreign news to ads for lingerie. If you liked a song, you generally had to buy an album full of others to get the goods.
I think he’s on the right track. Consider the newspaper, for example, as I did in my book Covering America. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 13:
Another problem besetting newspapers (and, to a great extent, magazines and television news as well) was even more existential. When seen against the backdrop of the Internet, one fact about newspapers becomes painfully obvious: a newspaper is a fixed bundle of coverage that is good but ultimately second rate. Offering readers no choice, a newspaper presents coverage of a set matrix of topics: politics, crime, business, sports, arts, and something called lifestyle. In each case, though, people who really know or care about those fields understand that they are not going to find the absolute best, most detailed, most passionate coverage of their favorite topic in a daily newspaper. They know that the best coverage will be in some niche on the Web where obsessive amateurs or professional experts gather. And with the coming of the Web, the absolute best coverage is available to everyone, everywhere, all the time, for free. In politics, for example, readers can find pretty good coverage in the Times or Newsweek. But if they really live and breathe politics, they will want it faster and at a much higher level of granularity, so they will log on to a site like Politico or Real Clear Politics instead and get what they are looking for. The same is true for business, sports, even crosswords and recipes. Thus the question arises: What is the remaining value of reading merely pretty good coverage (and paying for it) when readers can unbundle the newspaper, go online, and plunge into first-rate coverage, written by real aficionados and provided at a price of zero?
One way to understand the decline of the newspaper is to ask the ultimate question: If newspapers did not exist, would it make any sense to invent them?
I wrote that about two years ago. The only change I would make now would be to drop the reference to Newsweek. The venerable weekly print newsmagazine went broke in 2012 trying to sell a fixed bundle of pretty-good coverage and was absorbed into a born-digital enterprise, The Daily Beast. I might also amend the statement that all the high-quality niches are free, since a small but possibly growing number do charge something.