The End Of Taking Business Models For Granted

from the from-doonesbury-to-xkcd dept

About a year ago, we had a discussion about some comments made by Garry Trudeau, the creator of the comic strip Doonesbury, which has been an institution for 40 years or so. That post was in response to claims by Trudeau that the web was no place for comics to make money, and that the only hope for comics in the new digital era was to have the newspapers "come to their senses" and gate off all internet content behind a paywall of some sort. He effectively was looking for ways to turn the new world back into the old. We noted that perhaps Trudeau should check out the success of webcomics like Randall Munroe's xkcd, which showed how a webcomic could not just exist online, but thrive online -- with a very strong business model to support it.

Trudeau recently made some similar comments in a Slate interview, where he again appeared to be dissing the whole webcomics space:
Slate: Where is the comic strip headed in the post-daily-print-newspaper age? Is the medium healthy?


There's not much future in being a strip artist now. That's quite a turnaround in fortunes, because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip used to be the closest thing to tenure that popular culture offered. If I were starting out now, I'd probably continue on the graphic design trajectory I was on before I got sidetracked with comics. Colbert-like TV would be OK, too, except you have to be brilliant. I advise young cartoonists now to get into graphic novels--or head for Pixar.
Again, in general, our response is similar to what it was last time around. Thinking that there's no future in a space where we're already seeing creative individuals carve out quite impressive models seems pretty silly.

However, there was a fascinating deconstruction of Trudeau's comments on the PVPonline blog, suggesting that Trudeau is correct... in talking about the lack of a future for those who want a career like the traditional syndicated comic strip artist. The folks who have lived off of that model for years probably don't have much of a future, because they're so used to making money in one way, that they're not quite prepared to make the jump -- even if there is plenty of money to be made.

Furthermore, the post picks up on that line about tenure, and how that's really the key here:
Boy, isn't that the truth? And isn't that the real reason that syndicates are getting less and less for their features every year? Because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip is tenure for both the creator and their syndicate partner. Just put it on auto-pilot until the artist dies, then get a new artist and put the auto-pilot back on.

In this interview, Garry discusses his friends Gary Larsen and Bill Watterson, both who felt the time had come to retire from cartooning. And having read interviews with both of those cartoonists, they seem like creators very uncomfortable with the idea of "tenure." But again, how feasible is it for a cartoonist with 20 plus years under his belt to re-invent what they do or start from scratch?

I do a lot of soul searching about what I do for a living. I think about it a lot. The last thing I want to do is take it for granted. And as I reflect on my one measly decade of cartooning, I see an obvious pattern. It's during the times I was most comfortable that things started falling apart. And it was during the moments of struggle, upheaval, change and dissatisfaction with my work that I turned the most important corners.
I think there's actually a much larger point here that applies to much of what we write here at Techdirt. So many of the legacy business models that we talk about really are a kind of "tenure." They're on autopilot. The major record labels know how to sell CDs. Give them a certain type of artist, and they can sell a huge number of units. It's autopilot. But that kind of "tenure" and "autopilot" is going away (or perhaps is already gone).

To be successful today there is no autopilot. There is no magic bullet. It involves constant innovating and refinement -- and that's quite difficult to deal with for those who have had "tenure" for years. The idea behind tenure at universities is that it encourages professors to feel free to research what they want, free of pressure from the university. And that works for some. But, for many, it also means the opposite: with tenure, you can just keep going, without working on anything special or worrying about doing anything big. And that's what we've seen in all sorts of legacy industries that effectively stagnated, due to the easy money of a "tenured" sort of position. But the new digital world is one where there aren't any tenured business models. This doesn't mean you can't make money (or even lots of money -- you can). But it involves constantly evolving, experimenting and innovating. And many of us think that's a good thing.


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:21am

    You could point the "tenure" model at newspapers too - and not just individual publications, but in fact the whole medium: everyone is upset that the tenure of newspapers in general as the best source of reliable news is mostly dissolved, but boy do they love to cling to it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:33am

    best xkcd ever!

     

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    Jay (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:37am

    Webcomics that stagnate?

    Order of the Stick

    Nuklear power

    Penny Arcade

    I don't think this guy is looking hard enough for webcomics that prove him wrong.

     

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  4.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:46am

    Re: Webcomics that stagnate?

    But Garry Trudeau is right. None of those comics have tenure. They cannot coast while newspapers continue to print their less than funny comics. (Think Garfield or Marmaduke.)

    If any of those comics you listed started being less than really funny, people would stop reading, and they'd disappear.

    But Garry Trudeau is wrong that such tenure is needed. Why should comic strip authors be given lifetime employment? Why should less than funny strips be published? Let the readers decide not the syndicates.

     

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  5.  
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    Steve R. (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:46am

    Artist Immunity From Technological Progress?

    When people are laid off at business due to technological innovation or productivity gains, few tears are shed.

    Content creators are also subject to technological innovation; so why all the shrill cries for "protection"?

    If a business model is made obsolete by technology, to bad; the business expires. Time to evolve.

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:49am

    His "comics" suck sweaty balls anyways. They are not funny. they are not intelligent, they are just there. Family circus is gold compared

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:49am

    The "tenure" model involves lobbying the government for more draconian laws that create competitive restrictions for others.

    The first thing the government does is it explicitly restricts those who don't rely on the government (and often those who don't contribute much to campaigns or pay the government in some way) for their business model out of the market with

    A: Patents and copyrights

    You have to pay the government (USPTO) for patents

    B: If that fails, the government just gives monopolies to those who patents and copyrights don't apply to ensure that those who don't depend on the government can't survive

    ie: Cableco, taxi cab, broadcasting airwave, electricity distribution, hotel, mailbox delivery, and other monopolies.

    C: If a company still manages to succeed without relying on the government, and hence without the need to contribute much to campaigns or give the government an unnecessary amount of extra money (ie: Google), the government will then try to go after them with broad and less predictable anti trust laws.

    ie: Google.

    Anti trust laws are designed to be a sorta catch all, if the previous monopoly grants and bad laws don't shut down good businesses to help bad and corrupt ones, the anti trust laws will.

    The previous laws are a lot more predictable and specific than anti trust laws, the anti trust laws are intentionally general so as to be far less predictable.

    Laws are supposed to be predictable and adaptable at the same time (but these two endeavors can sometimes conflict), while the previous bad laws are less adaptable, they're more predictable. Anti trust laws are less predictable and more adaptable, but they're not designed to adapt to serve the public interest, they're designed to adapt to go after honest companies and entities that manage to succeed despite being able to overcome all the bad laws that prevent them from doing so.

    Hopefully this sort of business model of relying on the government to succeed goes away as more people become aware of it and put political influence on our government to stop acting corrupt.

     

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  8.  
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    Jay (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:53am

    Re: Re: Webcomics that stagnate?

    Order of the Stick is more about plots with the humour being a sideline. It's DnD with stick figures.

    NP actually stopped the main comic a while back. Currently the author is working with Marvel on a project.

    And Penny Arcade is well known and has a HUGE back catalog of comics to enjoy.

    Thing is, all of them have to remain relevant in some way, shape or form. They do so by finding different projects that suit them.

     

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  9.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 8:54am

    Does he use email?

    Any position that is privileged and not open to competition has its problems (though not necessarily too serious). We can ask in each case why the competition doesn't exist.

    In this case, the significant problem isn't that some company wants to have a single editor position and keep a single person at that position. The problem is that, to the degree copyright law is too restrictive ("too" is in the eye of the beholder), the problems aren't just about a particular job position but about the lack of possibility for any similar job position near and far and even about many other jobs because the subject matter in those cases would or might be deemed illegal.

    The "only" thing that stops this cartoonist from spending the rest of his days creating more variations of this cartoon and theme would be if he doesn't own the copyright and whoever does decides to fire him.

    Tenure (especially out of a sense of appreciation) is not tied to copyright law, if possibly facilitated by it under the right circumstances.

    If Trudeau owns the copyrights, I hope someone manages to convince him to open up (eg, share-alike licenses).

    Does someone have his "email" address? Is he aware of those people that are providing their works under copyleft/share-alike or other open licenses?

     

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  10.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:01am

    Re: Re: Webcomics that stagnate?

    >> Why should less than funny strips be published? Let the readers decide not the syndicates.

    Today there is competition because of the Internet.

    However, culture is what exists in the minds of people within a society. We can't undo this stuff very readily or communicate effectively if we try to ignore it entirely (or at the command of the copyright holders). This phenomenon in itself "requires" we not give an author a monopoly or at least make sure it is clearly limited. And copyright law is hardly "limited" in duration and scope.

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:03am

    All of the successful business models on the web are either very low effort, or high effort but with a short on stable life since the effort cannot be maintained.

    Text based blog site can be maintained with much less effort - particularly mono-author/mono-topic sites - but they suffer from a limited perspective ; unlike a newspapers which used to be able to maintain specialists in a wide number of fields.

    Trudaeu's comments have a power and pertinence you are failing to grasp.

     

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  12.  
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    NJ, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:14am

    The End Of Taking Business Models For Granted

    "...that's what we've seen in all sorts of legacy industries that effectively stagnated, due to the easy money of a "tenured" sort of position. But the new digital world is one where there aren't any tenured business models." Your forgot about tenure for teachers.... which is alive and well practice that is stifling learning.

     

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    coldbrew, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:24am

    Re: be specific

    Well, go ahead and point out what it is that most of *us* fail to grasp. Don't just vaguely insinuate that there is vast wisdom nobody can understand but you, him, and a few other geniuses. Spell it out!

    The ability to rest on one's laurels is something many people would love, but most fail to understand how debilitating it is in the long-run (esp. when competing with many that don't have that luxury).

     

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    pixelpusher220 (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:27am

    Re: Re: Webcomics that stagnate?

    exactly. The quote from Trudeau "Colbert-like TV would be OK, too, except you have to be brilliant." is really telling.

    Why, exactly, should the public have to accept anything less? If you're not good enough to stand out and draw an audience, maybe you aren't good enough to cut the mustard and need a new line of work.

     

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  15.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:39am

    liberty and debt

    A government can be useful to limit violence and have a minority not be abusive. To the extent the government itself is abusive and promotes the best interests of a minority, the government is not representing or respecting the wider population.

    Monopoly grants can be a very crude approach and very likely to create problems.

    Whenever one looks at limited scarcity and the "needs" for life (as well as the "wants" for life), we end up with a recipe for violence and exploitation. So as an example, simply talking about "personal liberties" without violence is useless in such a world without having to deal with inevitable tough decisions to be made when conflicts arise, when lies arise, etc. Cultures always have groups that get together to plan out within the safety of numbers. Government as exists in the US is one such model and exists only to serve "the people".

    I don't like intellectual property laws that abridge too many would be peaceful and legal freedoms of the majority.

    I do support anti-trust laws even if they aren't perfect. To me, monopolies are suggestive of flaws within the current society.

    Let me consider one example of the problems I see in unrestrained capitalism. If we play almost any game, people usually like to have a reset button. In fact, a "game" almost implies a reset button exists. When people can't start all over and have another fairly competitive shot at the top the next time around, we create situations very uncomfortable to many. This just happens (and you can disagree with me that this effect exists). When it comes to money, I think a similar laid back and cooperative approach ("reset button" of sort) would do much more good than harm. [Obviously this is an opinion because of the judgment call, and I can register a vote but cannot speak for others].

    To take one example of what the government can do, through progressive taxes and taxes matched with deductions for business actions society values, it can create a more positive condition for a significant majority. This would be a weak form of reset button.

    Remember, people, we would all have died if we had been left alone at birth (or mistreated within the womb). We all owe, and many get much shoddier treatment than others going all the way back to that fateful day of birth. Reset buttons of sorts (bounds on capitalism and markets, eg) is only natural for a social species. We all owe and can't escape that.

    [How best to deal with the debts, how to bound liberty, and other similar questions (like defining "fairness") are perhaps things no two humans will ever agree upon.]

     

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  16.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:43am

    Re: Re: Re: Webcomics that stagnate?

    Right, like a line of work that perhaps doesn't make you "filthy rich" but in which you can definitely make a living.

     

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  17.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:47am

    Re: Re: be specific

    I also think that comment is too vague.

    The whole web is our newspaper. It is put together by a very diverse and talented bunch (allowing "students" to also partake) that far exceed the skill level present at any given newspaper yet without the levers harmful to society that a single huge newspaper organization would wield.

     

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  18.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 9:56am

    Re: The End Of Taking Business Models For Granted

    Public education in the US at the lower levels serve also as "baby sitters" for our community of kids. My experience going through that system was that there is ample opportunity to learn as well as a fair amount of opportunity to slack off.

     

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  19.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 10:02am

    It's the *advertising-supported* model that fails.

    In the 20th century we enjoyed FREE radio and television, and to large extent, "subsidized" magazines and newspapers because *advertising* supported them without any *direct* expense to consumers. -- That's just plain going to collapse soon; the web is too diffuse for advertising to be effective, and more importantly, I can avoid seeing ads at all (I do here, and at all sites for which Google serves ads, by way of a hosts file). -- So I see the problem as much broader. If money isn't rolling in from those who collect it for *goods* elsewhere (or in hopes of doing so), then there's obviously no money for either cartoonists or new staff.

    Therefore, Trudeau is likely right that *paywalls* will come up, no matter how "ineffective" they are. If the majority of news services tacitly agree on paywalls -- and vigorously prosecute leeches -- then THAT will simply be how things work, you won't *have* other choices. You can call it old-fashioned, but you've no *other* revenue mechanism that I consider plausible. -- And if you say that people will get around it, you prove that the revenue streams will dry up.

    (By the way, it'd be interesting to know how much of Google's income is from gov't. Google is said to charge $25 for your info. We don't get to see their books, of course, let alone the NSA's, but I just don't see that Google's public "advertising model" accounts for all.)

     

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  20.  
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    out_of_the_blue, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 10:28am

    But you *are* taking "capitalism" as absolute, Mike.

    "The folks who have lived off of that model for years probably don't have much of a future, because they're so used to making money in one way, that they're not quite prepared to make the jump -- even if there is plenty of money to be made."

    After the dashes is the NEVER QUESTIONED premise of all modern economists, that chasing MONEY is the sole goal. But it doesn't *have* to be so, the present is just the *least* transformation of prior *plutocracy* that The Rich could maintain. But there's no "natural" right for a privileged few to amass wealth without limit from laborers, and even less for it to be inherited, not when The Rich are a proven hazard to the rest of us. -- WE are the posterity of successful rebels! *All* of the progress of the 18th and 19th century was achieved by *tearing down* the power of The Rich (and the churches, in cahoots), else we'd still be feudal serfs, bound to the land, taxed down to bare subsistence.

     

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  21.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 10:37am

    Re: It's the *advertising-supported* model that fails.

    Therefore, Trudeau is likely right that *paywalls* will come up, no matter how "ineffective" they are. If the majority of news services tacitly agree on paywalls -- and vigorously prosecute leeches -- then THAT will simply be how things work, you won't *have* other choices. You can call it old-fashioned, but you've no *other* revenue mechanism that I consider plausible. -- And if you say that people will get around it, you prove that the revenue streams will dry up.

    Do you not even read? We've pointed to lots of other revenue streams beyond advertising. What you "consider" plausible and what actually is already working seems to be a distinct set.

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 10:41am

    Re: Re: be specific

    You are asking me to translate Trudeau's comments into what ever structures your brain might readily understand without much engagement ? - I might be able to do that if you can send me your brain specification (is it more than two paragraphs ?).

    In the mean time you might try reading Trudeau's comments with your brain in gear.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 11:15am

    Re:

    Newspapers are also online.

     

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  24.  
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    Prashanth (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 11:32am

    He Doesn't Know What Market He's In

    He thinks he's just a supplier in the market for traditional newspaper comics, when in reality he's also competing against webcomics. It's sort of like how horse-carriage manufacturers drove themselves out of business by refusing to acknowledge that they were competing against automobiles.

     

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  25.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 11:38am

    Re: But you *are* taking "capitalism" as absolute, Mike.

    After the dashes is the NEVER QUESTIONED premise of all modern economists, that chasing MONEY is the sole goal.

    I have never stated, nor suggested, that chasing money is the sole goal. In fact, I have discussed elsewhere why this is not true:

    http://www.techdirt.com/blog/entrepreneurs/articles/20100217/1313528203.shtml

     

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  26.  
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    Suzanne Lainson (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 1:12pm

    Religion

    Why do you suppose religion has staying power? There's a form of tenure there, too, isn't there?

     

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  27.  
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    darryl, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 3:48pm

    From the when are you changing your Model Mike, Dept

    To be successful today there is no autopilot. There is no magic bullet. It involves constant innovating and refinement -- and that's quite difficult to deal with for those who have had "tenure" for years. The idea behind tenure at universities is that it encourages professors to feel free to research what they want, free of pressure from the university. And that works for some. But, for many, it also means the opposite: with tenure, you can just keep going, without working on anything special or worrying about doing anything big.


    Mike Mike Mike, ever read your own advice ?

    How long as techdirt been on autopilot ?

    Or when was the last time you did something different ?

    Oh thats right, you only talk about things, you dont actually DO THEM !!!!!!!!!.....

     

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  28.  
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    Jose_X, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 3:54pm

    Re: Re:

    I think one significant problem for them to solve might be a lowering of advertizing earnings. This lowered demand to rent space can occur because of greater competition by others in providing ad space (eg, the web) as well as less demand for subscriptions for the same amount and type of content as before at traditional pricing levels. [Yes, "duh", right?]

    If the horse and buggy analogy fits, then the conclusion is inevitable, significant shrinkage of that market; however, there is no law stopping the businesses from changing their product or expanding into other markets. Blogs are successful (to some degree) because they embrace audience participation, for example. Have newspapers done the same? Are they leveraging the large amount of "free labor" out there? Are they giving readers a reason to stay loyal? Who said ads is the only way to succeed, just because it was a very reasonable model for many decades prior? Have the newspaper considered embracing an online ad model with a lot more sophisticated ads and appeal to entertainment? If they don't do it, someone else will and attract the eyeballs.. and the writers. There are many potential options. In fact, I have always felt that open source software would be a great marketing and engagement tool (hopefully I'll have time some day to pursue some ideas more seriously). We now have html5 as well to make entire webpages more dynamic in an integrated fashion. Buggies were great in their time but society likes to move on with more empowerment.

    Anyway, they can leverage their press assets and distribution operations to provide something you can't get on the web, but they will have to think and perhaps "tweak" their business. Since paper has an appeal that is distinct form a display screen (scarcity), is published by a large trusted organization (existing brand assets), and has an existing significant and attentive audience ("first mover" and many quality eyeballs), they might hold more audience participation contests (maybe also from the web) and accept contributions from readers which then get distributed to the readership. This distribution has enough value to lead to a significant amateur section (unpaid contributors) that might prove very popular and even lead to new subscriptions. Tap contributors you pay (journalists), contributors that pay you (advertizers), and also contributors that volunteer (the readers), but put more focus on this last group. If most of this content will be new and unique, they need not worry about the contents or the "news" appearing first on the web or even for some time (not to mention the "paper" qualities stated above). And why not court web businesses more aggressively to perhaps offer the "paper" version of their offerings. In short, they have to change from being hot news information keepers to being keepers of the hard assets and distribution that a web cannot match. Build new businesses out with that focus and understanding that the information content itself might appear on the web though very possibly with a delay.

    I expect all of this has already been tried with varying degrees of success. More can always be done, and some will survive and be strong while others will not.

     

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  29.  
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    btrussell (profile), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 4:28pm

    Re: From the when are you changing your Model Mike, Dept

    He is leaving you some room to compete.

    Go start a blog and do all your commenting there. Just give us a link and we'll see you there.

    Good-bye darryl, darryl.

     

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  30.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 5:11pm

    Re: Re: Re: be specific

    The 'you're too stupid to understand' come-back! Brilliant! Chances are that if you cannot explain it, then the connection is ephemeral and limited to your own imagination.

     

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  31.  
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    Ed C., Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 10:06pm

    Re: But you *are* taking "capitalism" as absolute, Mike.

    Very interesting. The problem now is that the pendulum is swinging back to a point before all of the great advances were made--it's momentum sustained by those who have been fooled into believing that the stature of "The Rich" must be maintained for their own prosperity. Even those who govern are becoming increasingly concerned with "The Rich", the class they aspire to join, rather the populous they govern. I see that a revolution is coming, but who is to lead it--who is to awaken the masses from their slumber of apathy?

     

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  32.  
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    Justin Olbrantz (Quantam), Nov 22nd, 2010 @ 11:26pm

    Re: From the when are you changing your Model Mike, Dept

    You are absolutely correct: he does indeed only talk about other people complaining how life is so unfair and they're starving and how the government should give them money and special laws; he doesn't actually do anything like complain how hard his life is or ask for government subsidies for Techdirt.

    Wait, where were you going with that fact?

     

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  33.  
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    Professional Marketing Guides, Nov 30th, 2010 @ 6:00am

    Thank you :)

    This is an awesome article and I'll be checking
    out more of your site! Bookmarked!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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