Pity the Newspaper

March 24, 2008

Of all media industries assaulted by changes wrought by the Internet, it’s a toss-up as to which is considered the more beleaguered, newspapers or music. Not an enviable prize for which to compete.

Certainly both receive plenty of coverage of their varying woes — their problems are not well-kept secrets. But I’ve not seen such a damning indictment of the newspaper industry as the one appearing in today’s New York Times. In an article titled “Newspapers’ New Owners Turn Grim,” journalist David Carr focuses in particular on the wealthy (and dare I say egotistical?) individuals and/or their private equity firms who convinced themselves in the last several years that newspapers looked like a good bet for the future.

Opinions are apparently rapidly changing. According to an article quoted from The Baltimore Sun, Sam Zell, “the motorcycle-riding real estate mogul who took control of Tribune in an $8.2 billion sale in December, ‘The news business is something worse than horrible. If that’s the future, we don’t have much of a future.'”

Brian P. Tierney, who bought The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News in 2006, is quoted in The Times article saying “I’m an optimist, but it is very hard to be positive about what’s going on.”

David Carr notes that the newspaper industry has not yet hit the bottom of the rocky shoals. Last year overall newspaper revenues dropped by about 7 percent, he notes, but meanwhile publishing, like so many other industries, is only now confronting the second whammy: the U.S. recession. He quotes one (anonymous) analyst predicting a 15% revenue drop in 2008.

Further, newspapers are undercutting their own chances of bouncing back after the recession because in order to weather the current downturn they’re cutting staff, undermining the quality of their product, and any likelihood of readers (and advertisers) rushing back in the future.

It’s a terribly grim picture of this once-grand industry.

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Putting Humanity Back Into Technology

March 21, 2008

It was some time after I finished school that I first heard about the trend towards co-operative non-competitive games and sports. I had been raised on games and sports the relied upon killing your opponent before he killed you, and so was taken aback by this new twist on things. It sounded kind of OK, a superior approach in some respects, yet I always had the nagging feeling that there was a little too much idealism in the concept, and a shortage of realism about how people really prefer to interact, in games as in life.

A March 12th Wired Campus blog entry on the The Chronicle of Higher Education website called “Putting Humanity Back Into Technology” describes how this concept is being transmuted to the Web, at least one attempt to do so. Last weekend the University of Central Florida’s digital-media department Interactive Performance Conference “to show what this new discipline is about.” According to Jeff Wirth, the director of the Interactive Performance Lab, much of the research works in an “emotion-based framework.” The article continues, attempting to clarify the meaning of “interactive performance”: “For example, while traditional video games are goal oriented (‘get to the next level’), research in interactive performance focuses on creating games where the success is in human interaction.”

So far so good. What startled me were Mr. Wirth’s own illustrations of the new discipline. “When you go to see a movie,” Mr. With explained, “and you see a character evolve in an understanding of his or herself, or a relationship to their world, it’s not about if the character survives,” he says. “It’s about whether the evolution during the course of interactions in that character is engaging…” Apparently Mr. Wirth views only a certain type of film, and appears to have missed the entire oeuvres of Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal and Bruce Willis.

By way of example Mr. Wirth said that one of “the exhibitions” at the conference would be an unscripted role-playing session that simulates a prison. That is just the beginning. The article points out that there are larger ambitions afoot: “For example, a class could re-enact parts of World War II.”

They seem to have a pretty good grasp on moving gaming away from traditional competitive role playing, but I think that may have some work to do on the scenarios.

The Slow and Ugly Demise of Ziff Davis

March 8, 2008

The New York Times stated it tastefully: “Ziff Davis Media Seeks Bankruptcy; Ad Revenue Down”; The Wall Street Journal‘s Deal Journal a little more directly: “Billionaire Brand Joins the 2008 Bankruptcy Bonanza.”

As the Deal Journal points out, Ziff-Davis is a company with a proud history that only in the last decade-and-a-half fell prey to the birds of prey that have unceremoniously gobbled up so many different media companies hoping for…convergence? Power? A quick flip? Who really knows?

Ziff-Davis Publishing Company was founded in 1927 by William Ziff and Bernard George Davis. With two subsequent generations of the Ziff family at the helm (Davis was bought out in 1958), in 1994 the company was finally sold in a series of transactions for a total of more than $2 billion.

Alan Meckler, who runs JupiterMedia, was not shy in his commentary on the sad story. “The history on this mess is profound. Lots of mistakes were made. None of the mistakes were made by the Ziff family that sold the business in 1994 for a ton of money to the private equity firm of Forstmann-Little. A year or so later Forstmann sold the company for about a $1 billion profit to Softbank. Softbank then went about methodically destroying a great company.” His analysis continues in some detail.

The finale is contained in The New York Times account: “Ziff Davis…said in a court filing that it had total debt of $500 million to $1 billion and total assets of $100 million to $500 million.”

A Major Announcment From Quark

March 6, 2008

Check out the new section of the Quark Web site on what they’re calling the “Quark Dynamic Publishing Solution.” (1-1-2011: No longer there. Very dynamic indeed.) Dynamic Publishing is something altogether new for Quark, and reflects, I think, the relatively recent infusion of a host of senior staff from the old Arbortext (now owned by PTC).

Arbortext offered what was called an “enterprise-class” high-end XML-based publishing system. It cost plenty, and was strictly directed at the largest publishing organizations that could consider spending $1 million to get “mission-critical” information into print (and on the Web). Great technology, but very limited because of price and complexity. How do you take the best of the concepts from a high-end system like Arbortext’s and bring those into the world of mere mortals? When you mix the culture of a group from Arbortext with a consumer-oriented off-the-shelf software company like Quark interesting things are bound to emerge. They could be calamitous; they could be fascinating.

Quark’s Dynamic Publishing is fascinating to me for several reasons. First, it recognizes (finally) that print is no longer the sheriff in this town — the Web shot the sheriff. Second, it fully embraces that publishing is a content-centric endeavor, and the particular output medium is secondary to the content (for traditional publishers — Facebook is another story!). Of great importance in this announcement is that Quark has become the first big-time software publisher that appears to appreciate that the XML in Office 2007 can and should be fully exploited in contemporary publishing workflows.

Finally the technology acknowledges that the future of authoring is the assembly of what I call RCOs (reusable content objects — Quark calls them “content components”). I define RCOs as “the smallest content blocks which have discernible meaning.” These blocks have to be assembled in very different ways depending on the output medium, and few cross-media publishing systems appear to have a clue about how important this has become to authoring.

OK, Quark Dynamic Publishing is just an announcement so far, but it’s got more good ideas built into it than anything I’ve heard about in months.

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