Last Friday, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that newspaper monopolies are gone forever. Forever is an awfully long time, and Ingram’s argument rests on the semantic supposition that the word “newspaper” will continue to describe a particular, stable medium ad infinitum. Quibbling aside, I think that Ingram makes his point persuasively. The eruption of captive audiences into uncontrolled market spaces has rendered the newspaper business model obsolete. “Commodity news” no longer makes sense as the meat of a newspaper’s content. I strongly agree with Ingram’s advice that “publishers need to focus on unique information, not commodity news.” Instead of merely rehearsing Ingram’s analysis—link love above, for your reading pleasure—I’d like to offer two reasons why the end of newspaper monopolies could be “a good thing,” either in terms of content quality or politics:
1. Content Quality: Assuming that newspapers choose to reinvent instead of liquidate, the shift from commodity news to hyper-specific and unique content will signal a universal improvement in quality. Increasing the volume of handcrafted and carefully edited content will increase the relative amount of well-written, “good” content versus commodified content.
2. Democratized Information: Since 1602, the Bodleian has been a reference library—no one can borrow the books. Now, Oxford University is proposing a major change: a transformation of the Bodleian into a lending library. ”It is worth asking how we propose to charge £9,000 a year when we’ll just lend out books to whoever, so that students can’t read what they have been invited to read,” said Dr. William Poole, a tutor in English at New College. Considering the value and fragility of the Bodleian collection, it is perhaps not appropriate to cast it as an emblem of cloistered and anti-democratic knowledge. Nevertheless, I do think it is an interesting metaphor for our lost world of newspaper monopolies. When newspapers monopolized the distribution of information, the newsroom—and newsmaking—were regulated and bounded systems. Although the breakup of the newspaper monopoly poses its own problems, much as the Bodleian’s transformation, the breakdown of barriers to information seems to me a necessary, if intensely complicated, good.