Digital is an option, not a replacement

Two seemingly disparate things have come together in my mind that help to amplify a point that I think is lost in the rush to declare most forms of hard media dead and to anoint digital anything and everything as the new king.

First came yet another Jeff Jarvis-related firestorm, this time over a New York Observer profile in which he is pitted (wrongly, he writes on his blog) against mainstream media types like the New York Times' Bill Keller. Jarvis is earning a lot of ink (digital and otherwise) because some see him as gleefully dancing on the grave of print journalism. I don't think he is, but I can see why some people think it, and that brings me to the second thing that hit the news today.

Atlantic Records announced that for the first time, digital sales brought in more than those of compact discs. While on first blush that would seem to support the arguments of those who say digital is (slowly, quickly?) killing all other formats, I think it really points out something more interesting: Fully half (or, 49 percent if you want to be specific) of the sales of Atlantic's music products came in the form of CDs. Despite the fact that we are rapidly moving toward a digital-only world, half of the company's customers choose to buy their music on discs of plastic.

I buy more of my music digitally these days than I do otherwise, but I make a decision every time I do buy music whether to go digital or disc. It's exactly the same decision I made back when I was in college and CDs were becoming the norm, only in reverse. If it was an impulse buy that I didn't imagine I would be listening to years later, I would buy it on the cheaper, admittedly inferior cassette. If it was something I knew (or at least suspected) I'd want to keep around for a long time, I'd pay the premium for a CD. Today, I'll get something on digital for a quick reward, but I'll still opt for a CD for the long haul. The superior sound quality, security and storage of a CD far outweighs the convenience of zero storage space that an MP3 offers.

The same thing applies to papers. While Jarvis and others are quick to say that newspapers as we know them are dying off, what they seem to miss is that many, many people still get a lot of their news from words printed on paper. (This is a very small sample, but check out this poll at Old Media, New Tricks blog. Even some of these most-plugged in netizens get their news from a print paper). Steve Buttry of the Cedar Rapids Gazette acknowledged this during a recent online chat. While the digital audience is growing that is where he expects to see the company's growth, "the print edition of The Gazette has a huge audience and large revenue stream that we think will support a healthy business for many years to come."

When I get up in the morning, I like nothing more than to scan headlines in the local paper while having a cup of coffee. The last thing I want to do is get right back on the computer to try to nose around news sites. You simply can't scan or sample on screen the way you can with a paper spread out on the breakfast table. But later in the day, online news is all I peruse. It would be a shame to lose one of those outlets.

The key, then, is for all media to look for ways to improve and bolster the core product while embracing digital outlets as an enhancement. Heck, the digital outlet might soon become the core product, but that doesn't mean the paper product should go away, just like CDs don't necessarily need to completely give way to digital. Choice is the key. The economics of offering choices are the sticking points that need to be worked out, but there are niche markets available all across the spectrum for those who figure out how to do so.

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Jarvis sums it all up

Jeff Jarvis did something today that would be instructive for anyone pushing a particular point of view or who has written extensively on a given subject: He summed it all up.

In a post today on his Buzz Machine blog, he responds to questions from readers who were drawn to a fray between Jarvis and Slate writer Ron Rosenbaum over what Rosenbaum saw as Jarvis' gloating over the death of print journalism. Rosenbaum misrepresented Jarvis' POV, but Jarvis did himself no favors with a rather childish response. So, today's summary was a nice step back. Jarvis has been writing about the shift of journalism for a long time, so it was instructive to read his thoughts distilled in one post.

It put me in the mind of two of the most recent posts I've written here: Friday's reboot and one from a couple of years ago just before taking a long layoff. There I wrote about my efforts to wrap my arms around a unifying theory that could explain all of the things I was thinking. Friday I wrote that I still think, two years later, that those ideas are still valid, and that events over the past two years have only solidified that viewpoint.

Forcing yourself to summarize your position can be a positive thing. I coach writers to do the same thing. Summarize your story in a headline and a subhead. If you can't do it, you probably don't have a focus yet. And if your headline doesn't accurately reflect what a reader finds when they get to the story, then you probably think you're writing about something you're not.

Jarvis clearly knows where he stands, and this post is going to be referred to for a long time to come. Is he right? Not entirely, if I'm any judge. But it's compelling, well thought out and sure to spark discussion, and there is a lot of value in that no matter the accuracy of the prognostications.

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Creativille (slight return)

I’ve begun Twittering lately, and the resulting ability to keep tabs on the ideas of thought leaders from various industries has energized me in the same way that my immersion into blogs thanks to my first RSS reader did a few years ago. I’m not among those who think Twitter will displace blogs, much as I don’t believe the Internet will displace print media. But I do know that information consumers have much more to choose from these days, and that makes it an exciting time for those of us who revel in such freedom of choice.

This blog began a few years ago after I read books by a number of big thinkers – Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Anderson et al – who sparked my own thinking about issues of business, technology, arts and culture. I used the blog to grapple with a unifying theory that could help all of these things to line up in my mind. I finally hit upon the idea of Unlimited Choice. It’s not great, sounding like a generic cell phone or cable television pricing tier, but it gets at what I’m after.

Essentially, the diversity of media through which information is shared means that people can choose how much or how little to absorb. They can choose what they want to hear, read, watch or experience. They can choose when to do so, for how long and at what cost.

This is all restating what I have written here before, but there is an amplification that comes thanks to the deafening debate about the fate of the media going on. As if it wasn’t bad enough to read constantly in online news reports and even-more-frequent blog posts about the impending demise of my industry, I now read such opinions and analyses on a minute-by-minute basis on Twitter.

I drifted away from Creativille (if that isn’t a Jimmy Buffet song in waiting, I don’t know what is) as other pursuits took precedence, but the recent conversation of which I’ve been a part has drawn me back in with a refined purpose.

There is no doubt that the news industry is in trouble. But there are plenty of people who are trying to point us all in the right direction. The diversity of media I mention above has sprung up because technological advances allow for it, of course, but also because consumers increasingly demand such choices. They no longer want to wait for the morning paper to see a sports score, or for the evening news to get the weather, or for the local CD shop to stock a CD to hear a song. They want it now.

At the same time, however, the still do want the newspaper and the evening news and the CD shop, but not for the same reasons they once did. The want the newspaper as a permanent record and a place to read longer stories. They want the evening news to see high-resolution video. They want the CD shop so they can hold that deluxe boxed set in their hands before pulling the trigger on a purchase.

So my purpose here is twofold. To explore the continuing ways that technology, business, media and culture intersect, and to look at ways the new age of unlimited choice is affecting the way people produce and absorb media.

I was able to engage in a brief dialogue about a couple of my ideas during an online chat with new Cedar Rapids Gazette Editor Stephen Buttry this week. I wrote that the media has three roles: gathering news, filtering out what is most interesting and then offering context and analysis. Buttry wrote that consumers can fulfill the middle role of filter just fine thanks to services like Digg.com, which is true. But I’ll stand behind the idea that we’re professional filters, hired by our readers to sift through all of the information out there and present the best of it. That job is harder now, because everyone has access to pretty much everything, meaning no one needs blindly trust our judgment.

So, welcome. I hope to pick up where I left off many months ago with similar content and some new ideas. The conversation is happening, and this is my attempt to be a part of it. In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter and, for those interested in more specialized writing about music and books (or even more specialized writing about the music of Robert Pollard), you can find me elsewhere. And, of course, there is always the Corridor Business Journal and CorridorBuzz.com, where I’m dealing with these issues from the front lines.

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