Monday, January 12, 2009

They'd seen his face before / Nobody was really sure if he was from the house of lords

Over at The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn is thinking out loud about a possible world without The New York Times, in its printed form.

The Times, as has been fairly well documented, is both on decline as a printed newspaper (although it’s booming online), and in some financial trouble:

But what if the old media dies much more quickly? What if a hurricane comes along and obliterates the dunes entirely? Specifically, what if The New York Times goes out of business—like, this May?

It’s certainly plausible. Earnings reports released by the New York Times Company in October indicate that drastic measures will have to be taken over the next five months or the paper will default on some $400million in debt. With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good.

“As part of our analysis of our uses of cash, we are evaluating future financing arrangements,” the Times Company announced blandly in October, referring to the crunch it will face in May. “Based on the conversations we have had with lenders, we expect that we will be able to manage our debt and credit obligations as they mature.” This prompted Henry Blodget, whose Web site, Silicon Alley Insider, has offered the smartest ongoing analysis of the company’s travails, to write: “‘We expect that we will be able to manage’? Translation: There’s a possibility that we won’t be able to manage.”

Does this come as a surprise? No, I guess not. I never buy a newspaper now. Okay, I bought a Sunday Star Times back in Auckland, but to be honest I didn’t read it. I left it unopened somewhere.

I generally get my news and analysis from the closest thing I have to a daily, my dozens of RSS feeds, and a mix of Google Alerts, and following link trails that take me places I often don’t expect to get to, thus, in a very web 2.0, or whatever it’s become now, way.

The world is changing. Yes it’s a glib statement that doesn’t need saying but it always hits me how fast it’s changing when I hop on a plane and get off in a, shall we say, less emerging nation than Indonesia. And when I say Indonesia, I mean the country outside central Jakarta, which is, for all purposes, a country in itself with a relationship a little like the one NYC has with Idaho.

In this emerging nation I’m always a little grateful when technological or IT advances hit. I was driving down the road a week or five back and I saw a billboard for a GPS unit with Bali on it.

Oh, they work here now? was my immediate thought, before bringing myself back to ground with the realisation that it would likely not work correctly (and the provider would just smile when I complained). This is, after all, a place where, unless you pay big money, beyond the budgets of all but the wealthiest, your internet is slow (often to the point of unusable), very patchy and has suspect coverage. It’s a land where this is controlled by a couple of monopolies designed to enrich the power elite. It’s a land where, as Brigid said, most people don’t even have an address in normal terms, let alone an IP address; it’s a land where almost nobody knows how to read a map. The biggest newspaper in the land, the local equivalent of the NYT, Kompas is depressingly thin every day and it’s English language equivalent, The Jakarta Post has spent the last week on it's site, promoting a huge change on it’s way today. I expected a new site, but no, it’s little more than a slight redesign of their, also thin, print edition.

The JPs tech pages are often full of devices that won't work in Indonesia. Or for banks whose web sites were tossed together a decade ago and barely work.

And when I leave Indonesia (and I do it a lot) I’m depressed by how far and how fast the rest of the world is moving. We are at the very beginning of a revolution as big as the wheel and this revolution is gaining momentum.

But when I say we, I’m wiping out half the world because this revolution is leaving them behind faster than anyone to date had imagined. Whilst the NYT ponders a move to digital because the economics and the bandwidth required to provide a comprehensive digital news experience have collided, an Indonesian newspaper ponders it’s typeface (and likely writes half the stories on typewriters..true).

And the print version of most western media is increasingly redundant. Even on a bus or a train:

In this scenario, would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post, which, until someone smarter or more deep-pocketed comes along, is the prototype for the future of journalism

Half the stuff on the HP simply won't load correctly here in click and wait land.

So where does that leave the world beyond the developed nations? I dunno, and I can only really speak for Indonesia but it’s a pretty scary future as much of the rest of the world leaps eagerly into the next strata of a world where everything is changing, a world which relies on bandwidth, databases, interactive commerce and communication at every level and everywhere….a world which has just fought it’s first US presidential election online and won’t let you enter the USA unless you go onto a web site before. It’s a place where well over half of all purchases last Xmas were online and tertiary education is increasingly reliant on fast networks for information and assessment. Most Indonesians don't even have a bank account.

It’s a massive and quickly growing divide which I really doubt the leaders in this country have begun to come to terms with or have any real concept of. It was, after all, only a couple of years back when the Indonesian Technology Minister thought aloud that the nation would benefit from a few months unhooked from the net..’so people would go back to work’.

Then again, maybe the power will go off and they’ll be smiling in Medan.

1 comment:

nige said...

Love your piece. So many businesses are in complete denial that they're fast becoming irrelevant in their present form. We have seen at close hand what happened in the music industry. Bizarre that other industries think they're still immune. Maybe they're just ignorant.