Writ Large: Will Apple’s new iPad save print’s sorry ass?

There will come a time when the sleek, electronic tablet device known to all as the Apple iPad will look as quaint and anachronistic as an abacus. Until then, we cannot help but marvel at its glory as we once did over squares ping-ponging across the dark void of a cathode ray tube.

The iPad has been heralded as a prospective savior of the ailing publishing industry with particular emphasis put on how it will reel magazines back from the brink and escort institutions like the Gray Lady across the digital divide and into the 21st century. As is oft reported with Nietzschean succinctness, “Print is dead.” However, that does not mean that the New York Times is penning its own obit. On the contrary, it and its brethren are on the eve of a renaissance.

What the arrival of a multimedia device such as the iPad really means to publishing is the emancipation of written content, which, heretofore, has been distributed via ink and paper and, to a lesser degree, cut and pasted onto the web. If the iPad proves as virulent a market maker as the other devices in its gene pool, we will soon consume our media diets with our fingers, pinching and swiping at apps from a radiant touch-screen.

There was a time when the medium and the message were the same, but, alas, Marshall Mcluhan is dead, too. The iPad seeks to make the message the message, and the message is, in the words of Sausalito-based tech visionary Stewart Brand, that “information wants to be free.” Mind you, that’s not “free” in the pecuniary sense but rather in the running-naked-and-bat-shit-crazy-down-the-Infinite-Loop sense of the word.

The connective tissue that links analog and the digital media has always been the information it contained. It’s as if content has gone from a solid (analog media like books and vinyl LPs) to a liquid (the malleable digital media of CDs and DVDs) to a gas (content literally stowed in the “cloud” and downloaded in digital drops). Or how about: books, magazines and newspapers are to rolling papers what the iPad is to a bong. And by “bong,” we mean the kind sold as kits from the nether reaches of the internet and assembled in garages into bubbling, wheezing edifices that outshine their purpose.

Indeed, the iPad’s relationship to content is akin to how the tobacco industry once referred to cigarettes as a “nicotine delivery device.” The quiet hope among media moguls is that we will become addicted to content as never before in its flashy new digs. Of course, Apple is not without its missteps. In its Jurassic period, circa 1993, it rolled out its first tablet device, the Newton. A clunky, chunky so-called personal digital assistant, the Newton cost the equivalent in today’s dollars of $1.5 billion to develop, and its deficiencies relative to its abilities resulted in a product that did little more than function as a pricey paperweight.

Of course, this all went down before Apple’s in-house messiah Steve Jobs returned, bringing with him the era of the lowercase i appended to everything (surely the iBong is being beta-tested in some Silicon Valley bedroom). But what’s in a name?

The Long Tail retail concept, as popularized by Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson in his 2006 tome The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, found expression of sorts when Apple finally revealed the name of its tablet to general derision a few months ago. Somehow, unbeknownst to its marketing department, MadTV had produced a sketch parodying the iPod by linking it to the feminine hygiene aisle, the “iPad,” back in 2005.

The five-year-old sketch enjoyed a brief surge on the YouTube charts (nearly as fast as the rapidly trending Twitter topic “iTampon”) and snagged CNN coverage for its star and lead writer along the way. Who’da thunk Apple would fail to Google its prospective product name? Who cares. It beats sliding beads along a wooden frame.

Transmedia: From One Many

In the wrong hands, an emerging buzzword like ?transmedia? could end up as Craigslist slang under either ?auto parts? or ?casual encounters,? especially for those who ?like to watch.? A recent University of California, Los Angels and University of Southern California ?industry symposium? attempted to clarify the term at a conference dubbed ?Transmedia Hollywood: S/Telling the Story.?

Despite its unfortunate title, which looks like something Roland Barthes might sneeze into, the conference put ?top creators, producers, and executives from the entertainment industry? and ?scholars pursuing the most current academic research on transmedia studies? in a collegial cage-match helmed by Henry Jenkins, Provost?s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC.

Jenkins is the author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, in which he describes transmedia storytelling simply as ?the art of world making.? You know, like God. Or George Lucas.

?To fully experience a fictional world,? writes Jenkins, ?consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion group, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience.?

This sounds like a lot of work for the couch potato of yore but at least it doesn?t sound like ?gesamtkunstwerk,? the term Richard Wagner used to describe a comprehensive, all-encompassing artwork expressed across several media. Of course, in Wagner?s day, what was known as media could be sewn up in his 15-hour Ring cycle, arguably the first attempt at a transmedia experience despite the relative lack of interactivity (yawning doesn?t count). These days, entertainment (and its marketing) is often prefigured as a multiplatform franchise with toe-holds in cinema, graphic novels, video games and (gasp!) the written word. ?Mythologies? are created that adhere to ?bibles? that describe the law of fictional lands with an eye to creating an ?aesthetic that is specific and archetypal simultaneously,? as Louisa Stein, head of the TV and film critical studies program at San Diego State University, put it during the conference.

This, of course, is precisely what Lucas has done with myriad iterations of Star Wars (particularly those not tied to the screen) and what Tolkien et al accomplished with The Lord of the Rings, ditto the creators of Lost, Heroes and True Blood among others. Of course, not all content is appropriate for all media. Consider the sage words of director David Lynch, who, in a popular YouTube video packaged as an iPhone commercial parody, opined ?Now, if you?re playing the movie on the telephone, you will never, in a million years, experience the film. You?ll think you have experienced it, but you will be cheated. It?s such a sadness that you think you?ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.?

Sure, a lot of films, particularly David Lynch films, are not optimally viewed on a mobile device, or online, or sometimes anywhere. However, a two-minute short that expands and elaborates a subplot first launched in a longer format piece has synergistic value the thinking goes. As author David Kushner wrote in a Fast Company article last year, ?In the analog era, such efforts might have fallen under the soulless rubric of ?cross-promotion?? The difference is that cross-promotion has nothing to do with developing or expanding an established narrative. A ?Happy Days? lunch box, in other words, does nothing to advance the story of Fonzie’s personal journey.?

Not that the Fonz had a personal journey worth charting but plenty of characters do upon whom real world dollars are spent creating fictional worlds for us to inhabit with them. Of course, the trend is not without its critics. As ?badvegan? tweeted during the conference, ?More shame, for sure. Seriously: I guess I have too much respect for 4th wall. It?s worked for millennia.?

Sure, but could you imagine what Wagner could have done without it?

From headlines to breadlines: Old media is toast

Back when I was in J-School in the mid-90s, or more specifically, studying creative writing at San Francisco State University, my classmates and I knew nothing of the then-nascent Internet and the havoc it would eventually wreak on a bevy of industries. We knew nothing because A) We had the misfortune of studying at SF State and B) The web seemed little more than a computer lab curiosity responsible for introducing the tilda to English speakers, when web addresses looked like cartoon talk bubbles full of profanity (“‘#@%~!’ you too, Dagwood!”). We had little reason to believe that its once blue “hyperlinks” and primitive grey screens would soon swallow all media that had preceded it and permanently reorganize the industry in its image.

It’s as if some bastard offspring of Edison, Bell, Farnsworth, Gutenberg and the Lumiere Brothers cooked up a Dream Machine upon which all human desire may be projected, reflected and perhaps even perfected – always on, always aglow. Of course, the road from the boob-tube to YouTube, from movable type to blogs with typos is laden with casualties. There’s an entire generation that will never purchase music in a record store or read a printed newspaper, let alone call a travel agent and say “Get me out of here before the Singularity and the sentient Internet turns us into slaves.”

When I canceled my subscription to the New York Times, the mawkish voice on the other side of the line (a VOIP line I should add), plead the Grey Lady’s case as more than merely “all the news that’s fit to print.” She reminded that it’s an institution, a daily tribute to truth, justice and the American way. We agreed that the Times is superior to the Daily Planet, especially since Clark Kent got canned and replaced by a blogger. What she failed to realize, however, was that I wasn’t quitting the New York Times, I was just quitting the paper. My appetite for Times’ content remains the same but now I prefer to consume it via the iPhone app they’ve provided for free so I can read the news for free. If they charged for this service I’d gladly pay but they don’t. I can only assume their subscription department didn’t get the memo.

It’s ironic new media types once used the term “eyeballs” as slang for “market share” since they were evidently blind to the fact that they were dooming their own model with the free content they used to pluck those very peepers. These days, media pundits chide old school content producers for not having the foresight to establish fee schedules for their product a decade ago. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark often gets the blame for mortally wounding newspapers with his online want-ad juggernaut that effectively replaced the newspaper classified ad market (and created a cottage industry for “erotic services” in the process).  But blaming Craig is like saying that Mesozoic mammals killed the dinosaurs when anyone who saw Disney’s “Fantasia” knows it was a meteor.

The meteor is back and this time it’s on a collision course with traditional media. At present, the big guys have decided to take a page from the little guys’ playbook. The Times is currently beta-testing “The Local,” their hyperlocal online news portal with the ungainly tag “Your town. Your neighborhood. Your block. Covered by you and for you.” I dare them to come to Sonoma. Local coverage has proceeded here just fine for 130 years. The Sonoma Index-Tribune has weathered all sorts of teacup tempests (anyone remember the Sonoma Valley Expositor?) and has managed to evolve and embrace all matter of new media in the process. This is good for readers like me because, admittedly, I read it almost exclusively online (which, as a contributor, sort of makes it user-generated content – how vogue).

Anyway, I’ve realized that contributing to a local paper means more than merely giving David Bolling a headache once a week. It means overcoming my 21st century prejudice against wood pulp and participating with the product and indeed, Sonoma, with greater commitment. I put my money where my keyboard is. I subscribed.

Media Wipe Out

McLuhan
No magic bullet for media.

Regular readers will know that I frequently refer to my ?burgeoning media empire? as the hope and salvation of all humanity, you know, by way of my bank account. It seems to me, however, I should qualify the term ?media empire? seeing as there are enough Neros fiddling in traditional media to fill a string section. Also, when I say “empire,” please know that this my scene?s slang for “creative work that contributes meaningfully to one?s household.” For that matter, the ?scene? to which I refer consists mostly of, well, those in the aforementioned household and a handful of welcomed stragglers.

I’m pleased to say that the plan has worked thus far, having had my fill of? traditional media start-ups wherein my collaborators and I are invited to drain the coffers ? then walk the plank! ? only to hear of content that has sunken to little more than a “mayday” with an undertow of mutiny. The lessons we castaways learned, or rather had reinforced (media professionals, like rats, intuitively know when their ride is about to capsize), had been buoys drifting in this sea of uncertainty for some time. They’ve been netted in two recently published books that serve as astrolabes to those hoping to wash ashore with something better than an extended nautical metaphor.

Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson follows The Long Tail with Free: The Future of a Radical Price, an insightful analysis of the ?free economy,? with a deep exploration of how media will be monetized (or not) given our proclivity for giving it away. And how did Anderson?s favorite price point jibe with his book?s asking price? Several versions of the text, including an audiobook (285 MB .zip) and a Google edition, were (and in some cases still are) free. Read Anderson?s book in one of these capacities and you?re participating in the new wave of media consumption, though at first you might not notice how.

Likewise, as a co-host of NPR?s On The Media (the podcast is mandatory listening ? I recently sent piffling $5 to WNYC, which produces the hour-long media industry chat show as a small token of my gratitude) Bob Garfield has long steeped in the vicissitudes (and ineptitudes) of our media landscape. Garfield is also a contributor to Advertising Age, which provide daily email digests are well worth receiving. His new tome, The Chaos Scenario, humorously subtitled Amid the Ruins of Mass Media, the Choice for Business is Stark: Listen or Perish, is a frank call-to-arms regarding the media and marketing’s End of Days. Like Anderson, Garfield proposes a paradigmatic shift in the way media and money might intersect with refreshing frankness. And it wasn’t even user-generated. I think.

Here’s a link to a charming and edifying chat on NPR?s Talk of the Nation wherein Garfield and host Neil Conan explore the inevitable demise of their vocations. Here is a link to Chaos Scenario, Garfield?s blog and recruiting station for October?s 30 Days of Chaos, a sort of month-long immersion in ?what happens when the old world order collapses and the Brave New World is unprepared to replace it ? as an ad medium, as a news source, as a political soapbox, a channel for new episodes of ?Lost?? Welcome to The Chaos Scenario.?

Yep. Surf the tsunami.

Monetizing Sonoma Media

Extra! Extra!
Extra! Extra!

Recently, Ad Age?s Michael Learmouth published ?Wanted: Online Payment Plan for Print,? in which industry pundits grope for a monetization model that won?t incite readers of traditional print media to scurry to the blogosphere by mere mention of paying for content.

As a 15-year media pro working a micro-market with more than its share of newspapers and their corresponding web-presences, flanked by open-mic style broadcast media and an island mentality from which at least one entity seems eager to recover, the view from the inside is not cluttered with dollar signs. However, given the burgeoning brand-equity of ?Sonoma? to national and international lifestyle marketers, it would seem local media is rather well-poised to leverage its native provenance to attract a readership outside the valley. Attract readers interested in the Sonoma brand and attract affinity marketers who seek affiliation with the brand and all that it entails. And, of course, don’t charge the readers for the privilege of being sponsor-bait.

Interestingly, legacy newspapers like the New York Times, or indeed, the Sonoma Index-Tribune, for which I pen a weekly column, have over a century of longtail content that can be aggregated and packaged into modules edible by smart phones and on-demand publishing projects. Wine and travel guides as well as publications that speak to the historical tourism trend are a natural for the valley. Likewise, those with an eye to the future might embrace the fact that the denizens of the local mediascape are experts on Sonoma. Who better to represent the ethos of the town and its myriad experiences to interested parties worldwide? Targeted content could be subsidized online with the same ?brought to by? sponsorships already getting traction in blogs such as Mashable.

Does this model fall outside the purview of the traditional small town newspaper, whose m?tier is a printed product that encapsulates the civic and cultural experience of its community? Yes, but in a finite market such as Sonoma, I submit that growth will come with exporting the Sonoma concept beyond our borders. What we do with wine, we can do with words. And beyond.

Indeed, it’s an exciting time to be a Sonoman in the biz. Lest my local readers think I’m too Pollyana about the state of media monetization, I’ll keep off the sunny side of the street.

Kachingle offers another solution: