In a Wall Street Journal piece, author Orson Scott Card puts forth the theory that, among the many benefits it has delivered to society, the Internet has turned the tide and made the work of historians easier. Now that may seem obvious once it is stated, but to those who’ve been in the business of preserving and analyzing history for the past several decades it is also a blessing.
Card opens his column recalling an exchange with his father-in-law, himself a historian:
My father-in-law is a historian, and about 20 years ago he mentioned his concern that cheap long-distance telephoning was going to make the work of future historians far harder.
“Letters are one of our best sources of information about the past, but these days nobody writes letters—they just call.”
“Yes, and I hate that,” I said. “Interrupting what I’m doing right now because this is the moment when it’s convenient for them to call.”
Little did we know that both of us were about to get our wish.
Having grown up in the era of written (in ink) communication – letters, thank you cards, party invitations, birthday cards, etc. - I have lamented the loss of the art. But I never considered the treasure trove of historical information that was bleeding away during the gap in time between the explosion of telephone communication and the advent of email.
Two of the most prolific letter writers in US history were John and Abigail Adams. Imagine how difficult a job David McCullough would have had writing his magnificent biography of Adams if not for the hundreds of quill-penned communications between the two. Think how much poorer we would be as a country if we did not have such as intimate insight to two people who were critical to the founding of the USofA.
What would we really know about either of them, their relationship, the inner most thoughts and ideas about what they were going through if John had had the ability to simply pick up a phone and give Abigail a call from Philadelphia or Paris?
I will still, from time to time, lament the loss of the ink-written letter, but having read Card’s wonderful column I will do so knowing that his father-in-law is now preserving and analyzing history by scouring electronic communications.
I tweeted about this earlier today and I think it deserves a blog post.
Rupert Murdoch – media mogul to the extreme – announced a plan to charge for all on line content. I asked in my tweet is he gutsy or nutsy. The pay for play train of web-based news has long left the station and Murdoch plans to hit the breaks and throw it in reverse. The man hasn’t gotten where he is by not taking risks, but this is going way out on a limb.
Imagine how different things would be if traditional media had embraced the Internet from the outset. They could have charged for content from the start, but their late entry – out of arrogance, ignorance, or some combination of the two – rendered paid subscriptions all but impossible. The Wall Street Journal is an obvious exception, but it is also a dramatically different publication. And so here we are with News Corppreparing to remake the model by adding a field for your credit card at the entry gate to the rest of its on line publications.
How this will play out is not known, but here are a few possibilities:
1. Ka-Boom.Murdoch’s plan blows up in his face with nobody – but family and friends – paying the bucks to see his content. It probably won’t take long for a complete failure to become apparent. When the gates go up and registrations don’t materialize he will see the folly in his plan and abandon it.
2.Cha-Ching. Murdoch becomes a multi-multi-billionaire when paying customers appear in huge numbers and, because of this success, he is able to raise the ad rates.
3. So-So. There is money coming in, but some sites are performing better than others so Murdoch offers bundles, twofers and other promotions to keep his plan alive.
4. Bandwagon. Like an airline raising and lowering rates, it doesn’t take long for the competition to follow suit. I just might happen that other news outlets join Murdoch and begin charging for their content. It would take a coordinated effort to make it fly, but think about the pressure it would put on consumers when their access to free news and information goes away.
At this early stage – without knowing what Murdoch’s model looks like – my money is on So-So. If he really wants to build a paid subscription base, Murdoch will have to go beyond the news and offer value added content that people are willing to pay for. Weekly live chats with news makers and anchors might be one that people are willing to pay for.
Whatever the outcome, Murdoch is forcing the hand of both the industry and the market and the result will likely set the model for web-based delivery of news and information for the foreseeable future.