There's a great new essay out that attempts to explain why it would have been virtually impossible for successful, thriving newspapers back in the 1990s to have done the things to allow them to compete on the Internet in the 2000s. The problem, Michael Nielsen argues, is not a story of failure but of success -- newspapers had developed an elaborate architeciture to do the things they did well, and making changes to adjust to Internet start-ups would have done more harm than good.
For example, he notes that newspapers spend thousands of dollars to send the nation's best photojournalists out on a story, but now they must compete with Web sites or aggregators using stock photos or other low-cost alternatives. To compete, a newspaper could lay off that award-winning photo talent -- but at what cost to morale, to the paper's brand name, and to its internal way of doing business?
As for why Google News was invented by Google and not the New York Times, Nielsen explains:
To see how such an immune system expresses itself, imagine someone at the New York Times had tried to start a service like Google News, prior to Google News. Even before the product launched they would have been constantly attacked from within the organization for promoting competitors’ products. They would likely have been forced to water down and distort the service, probably to the point where it was nearly useless for potential customers. And even if they’d managed to win the internal fight and launched a product that wasn’t watered down, they would then have been attacked viciously by the New York Times’ competitors, who would suspect a ploy to steal business. Only someone outside the industry could have launched a service like Google News.
Nielsen saidly notes:
If a person inside an industry needs to frequently explain why it’s not dead, they’re almost certainly wrong.
The worst part now is that every proposed cure seems worse than the disease. The latest "idea" making the rounds -- floated by the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Connie Schultz, who just happens to be married to a U.S. senator (Sherrod Brown) -- is to change the U.S. copyright laws to, in essense, make it harder for sites like the Huffington Post or the Drudge Report to aggregate stories from other sites.
Like a lot of these plans, this is like closing the barn door after the animals have escaped and are now several miles down a country road. Such a move would hurt the aggregators yet it would also hurt newspaper web sites by reducing their traffic, and the gravity of the Internet would flow toward other spaces where the information is free. Plus, all these arguments seem to assume there's a pot of gold for Web sites that can capture traffic, when no such gold seems to exist.
Back to your drawing boards, people.