Information Distribution Being Shaken Up In More Than One Way
More and more pressure is being placed on traditional publishers as the economic crisis continues to bite. Recently there have been major newspaper publishers filing for bankruptcy protection, with the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times filing within four months of each other. Within that timeframe, the Rocky Mountain News has completely closed down, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has given up print editions.
It isn't just newspapers that are feeling the pressure. Microsoft has made the decision to shut down their Encarta encyclopedia website and software lines. In explaining why they have made the decision to close down this service, it appears that it is due to the changing way that people seek and obtain information.
Ready access to a seemingly-limitless tap of free or low cost information is going to make charging for access to the same (or even slightly out-dated) information more difficult. Be it encyclopedia or print media, both faced the same problems from the way people obtain and consume information. Economic struggles in the wider marketplace are just a catalyst, the real struggle has been with maintaining relevancy and a paying client-base in the face of increasingly free and comparative quality services.
The big risk is that it could see a decline in investigative journalism as fewer organisations are capable of providing the resources for journalists to spend weeks and months developing a story. There is also a fear that the quality of journalism is going to decline as the number of potential news sources rapidly increases online.
Counter to this argument is the claim that much of what has passed for journalism in recent years has been poorly written and researched, with much content lifted from the online sources that are now moving in to take over the role that the print media once had held in those areas.
No one will really miss this aspect of journalism.
It doesn't help that circular reporting continues to take place (where one single source is the spawn for numerous articles that busily cite each other as proof of something happening), but at least with an online-primary means of reporting and distribution, this cycle will take place much quicker, though involve more articles of dubious quality re-reporting the same factoid.
In the face of this news, it might be surprising, then, to find online information providers also cutting back on their capabilities and reach. Rather than having people find the same information from other sources, it seems that falling advertising revenues are making it difficult to retain all the writers on staff.
The first to go in any downturn are the freelancers and contractors. Many who were in this position 12 months ago have found their services suddenly no longer needed (including some of our own staff who were writing freelance material in recent years).
Content providers are struggling to find the balance between delivering quality content in the right quantity, with fewer people. The fewer articles that are published and the fewer number of site visitors, the lower the advertising revenue and the harder it is to retain writers. And so the vicious cycle continues.
Long term Internet users like to argue that much of the advertising is overbearing and annoying, especially on sites where simple, short content is spread across several pages in order to maximise potential ad revenue and the number of ad impressions per article. There are numerous methods by which site visitors can block the advertisements that site operators try to get them to view. Some methods block the requests completely, saving the advertisers the cost of an impression that isn't seen. Other methods download the advertisement, but then discard the data once on the local system. This gives the site operator the impression revenue, but forces the advertiser to pay for marketing that is never seen.
With advertising continuing to push in on the content of many sites, falling ad revenues, and increasing methods to fake impressions or click-through rates, it should come as little surprise that this is causing content providers who have built their business plans around advertising fees a lot of trouble and concern.
It hasn't quite been an Internet 2.0 bubble, at least not yet, but the online environment and many global information collation and distribution networks are going through some fairly major changes at the moment. Changes that will set out how we seek and interact with information into the future. Some of the changes are going to be a step back from what we have now, but it is the unknown technological improvements that will come along that will really change the world.
3 April 2009
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