x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Do not write off the real world just yet

Tom Gara: With the seemingly unstoppable march of internet-based media, it could be argued the days of traditional publishing are numbered. But that is not necessarily the case.

The Technology Entertainment and Design conference has emerged as a kind of yearly Woodstock for the big thinkers of the internet.
The Technology Entertainment and Design conference has emerged as a kind of yearly Woodstock for the big thinkers of the internet.

If you spend enough time reading the technology press it is easy to assume that the internet is poised to disrupt almost any traditional industry and if you read about the media, news of its internet-induced doom is ever present.

Read both combined and the conclusion is simple: companies that specialise in printing newspapers, producing CDs or publishing books need to get with the programme, fast. Shut the presses, close down the warehouses and hire as many web developers as possible. But there is a precedent for what the media industry is currently going through and its lesson is that much is lost in the rush to move to new methods of production. And over the long run, what is lost becomes increasingly in demand and valued.

In the great race to industrialise production, the human touch was discarded in return for cheaper, more reliable products that could be mass-made and globally distributed. The age of consumerism, much like the current period of web disruption, placed a premium on scale. Companies made processed cheese in the millions of tonnes, much like websites today must traffic in eyeballs by the million to be viable. But as the lesson of consumerism taught us, as markets mature the most sophisticated customers start longing for the human-scale qualities that were lost in transition.

And as the world becomes increasingly crowded and resource-hungry, even greater premiums are being attached to the kind of goods that were scorned in the era of industrial consumerism. Things such as hardwood floors, natural cotton and pure wool - things that evoke the real world - keep increasing in value. Today, words such as organic, handmade, artisanal or local set apart products at the top end of their markets. In food, plenty of customers will now pay more for something grown or made the old-fashioned way - less efficient, more expensive, slower and less reliable. But delicious.

The same can be said across any number of consumer markets. And for industries whose businesses have been disrupted by the internet, the same lesson is beginning to emerge. For publishers, the physical qualities of their product - currently scorned in a market that prioritises digital delivery above all else - will eventually become a niche that is in demand. Newspapers that simply print words and images offer little more than what today's e-readers do. But those that take advantage of the format (there are few computer monitors with the size and resolution of a broadsheet newspaper) can produce something the internet cannot compete with.

Mobile phones, tablet computers and e-readers seem destined to become the medium of choice for digesting information and the businesses that dominate the market for delivering information over these devices will set the agenda for much of the media industry. They might be newspapers or traditional publishers but that is far from guaranteed. But, regardless of how well these publishers take to new frontiers, it is not hard to imagine a future where a beautiful magazine or broadsheet newspaper is seen as a luxurious respite from the ever-present blazing screens that surround us. And just like organic food, which was once simply food, a newspaper of the future could cost something that reflects the value and effort that went into its production. Fifty years ago, a tomato grown naturally in a patch of soil was worth little; in 50 years time we may think it comical that a 96-page broadsheet newspaper, produced by a staff of hundreds, cost less than a dollar.

Events that bring people together in the real world will also become a bigger part of the business of media and entertainment companies, and their value will increase. An internet-era artist, musician or entertainer can attract online audiences in the many millions, many of whom will never pay the artist a cent. But as audiences grow and the world digitises, the chance to sit in a room and watch that person live will become increasingly valued.

This model is already proving lucrative for new media companies, which have realised - often faster than their older competitors - that bringing their audiences together in the real world can be more profitable than serving them adverts online. Conferences have become a big earner for websites and online entrepreneurs and the combination of vast online audiences and physical events with limited capacity means the real-world happenings come at a premium.

Consider the annual Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference, which has emerged as a kind of yearly Woodstock for the big thinkers of the internet. Just getting an invite is hard enough and attendance costs upwards of US$6,000 (Dh22,020). So many people want to attend and can't that the 2011 TED conference (already sold out) will be broadcast live to a parallel event, TEDActive, where people will pay $3,750 to gather and watch the event together on big screens. And for those who cannot make it to TEDActive, TED charges $995 to access a live telecast of the conference over the internet.

Extracting every possible dollar from your biggest fans is something the music and film industries have yet to master. Radiohead, one of the world's biggest rock groups, showed keen commercial sense in the release of their recent album. The band let fans choose how much to pay for songs over the internet but charged top dollar for a premium "discbox" that came with the album on CD, two vinyl records, a glossy book of photographs and song lyrics and an extra CD of new music.

At $80 the discbox wasn't cheap but for serious fans (and Radiohead has many) buying it was not a major decision. While broad trends show media is going digital, there is also plenty of evidence that the most successful web businesses are the ones that can integrate real-world experiences into their online offerings. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are increasingly being used to organise and promote offline gatherings and the core purpose of foursquare, the mobile web's trendiest new service, is to help build bridges between the physical world and the internet.

While none of these facts reduces the existential importance for media and entertainment companies to figure out the internet, they do suggest that their historic competence in producing physical things should not be discarded in the rush to get online. While the market for hand-made organic food may pale in comparison to the crowds rushing your local McDonald's, there will always be good money to be made dealing with the gourmands of this world. And sometimes, a gourmet likes a printed newspaper in the morning.

tgara@thenational.ae