A few years ago, during the American auto industry crisis, a columnist for a major paper wrote an article about the fall of the Big Three.
I apologize that I can no longer remember who, nor can I locate the column with my trusty Google skills. But I do remember this: The Big Three can’t be “blamed” for sliding sales, the columnist argued, since they could not have foreseen the changes in oil price and the consumer move away from gas-guzzling SUVs and towards more efficient cars.
And I thought: well, yes they can be blamed for not seeing that. And they can certainly be blamed for being too slow to adapt.
This is part of how capitalism is supposed to work, and what all good companies must do: predict, prepare, adapt and survive. If they cannot predict, prepare, adapt and survive, then they are not a good company. I mean, they may do good things. Important things, even. They may be owned by great people and employ great people and make great products. But they are not good in the sense of being equipped to navigate the economy of our times.
I am reminded of this today, after reading Dan Lett’s column in the Free Press.
This is not a response to that column, as such — Dan is, frankly, much smarter than me and knows a lot more about the dollars and cents and politics and economics and business of it all. I’m only interested with what goes on in people’s heads; I’m a psychology professor’s kid, you know?
So consider this simply “thoughts inspired by.”
The common theme in writing about the cataclysmic changes to old media runs mostly along those lines: “well, you readers won’t pay for it. What did you think was going to happen?”
To be sure, I have seen this — not that one would have to see it in order to know it’s true. I have seen commenters on the Free Press say outright that they don’t think they should have to pay to access the Free Press content online. And I’ve heard that from so many people in the world, who sheepishly admit it would never occur to them to pay for the paper, online or any other way.
But if not, why not?
Permit me a very tortured metaphor.
How do people buy Christian Louboutin shoes?
Not in the mechanics of the thing, that much is obvious — black Amex, crocodile-skin wallet, purse that costs the average mortgage — but in the little event. When a person walks into a store that sells Louboutins, selects their shoes, and walks out with a pair of $3,000 heels in their arms, how is that sale initiated?
It starts when you walk into a store that sells Louboutins, and you see them on the perfect glass showcase, and they take your breath away.
They’re up there, on an understated pedestal. There is a subtle spotlight on them. The store is big and bright and airy and yet there may only be what, maybe 30 pairs of shoes displayed, each one given its own six cubic feet of space along the wall. The sparkles glitter when they catch the light; the shelves, polished to a shine, glow with the reflection of that famous red sole.
My God, those shoes have value.
Okay, so I said it was a tortured metaphor, and it is. It is also overly simplistic, an admittedly faulty reduction.
Let’s start with this fact: people will pay for things they consider valuable. This is, essentially, what a consumer economy is based on.
Now, there are a million reasons why people value (and, subsequently, pay for) things, a million little synapses that fire when we’re choosing to shell out cash to claim ownership of something: for instance, necessity. Perception of value. Ease of transaction. Transfer of social status. The fact that our brains get totally drunk when we buy something expensive, no matter what it actually is. All of these must find the right balance for their product; the latter two effects are certainly in play with Louboutins.
But there is also this: if you see something presented as valuable, you absorb that perception of value.
The failure of the media to adapt to the rapidly shifting nature of the beast is partly this: in the rush to try and make full use of the Internet, we forgot to stand our ground and insist to people that what we do is valuable. We — and this is a very collective “we” - started treating the Internet as the splash zone for a giant industrial-sized news vat.
Now we’re trying to convince them that it’s worth paying for. But first, the media needs to believe this, and show readers, and hold it up to a spotlight so they can admire it.
There’s a million ways this can be done, and I won’t pretend I’m the oracle of all the practical solutions. People study this stuff every day. I’m just a storyteller, really.
But I always go back to this: last year, one web designer decided to spend his spare time doing a re-design of the New York Times website, just for funzies. What is so incredible about his post is how different he sees a news website from his vantage, as a designer, than would someone mostly absorbed in the act of creating and distributing journalism.
The whole thing is brilliant and really thought-provoking, but what really stood out for me was this:
Here, news is scanable and lovingly presented, giving it the dignity that valuable information deserves.
Now, this was just one guy, tinkering around in his spare time. His re-designs certainly aren’t perfect, and there are a lot of problems with it from a practical standpoint, though I don’t necessarily agree that his opinions on journalism are “wrong-headed.”
But I would gladly pay for them. They look beautiful. They look like there is content there I won’t get anywhere else. They look like a product the manufacturer is incredibly proud of. They look like something I want to pay to acquire. No, journalism isn’t really about being beautiful. But in an age where design, information, life and lifestyles are more intricately linked than ever before, let’s at least pause to consider how those things work together.
This designer gets it, more than many people scrambling to figure out how to sell stuff online: if you want people to believe your information has value, treat it with the dignity it deserves. Don’t back down, don’t sell it for less. Love your content and hold it up to the light, to show your audiences just how much they should feel the same.
Louboutins never wind up in a bin on the sidewalk.
The Free Press is releasing a new book on the Winnipeg Jets’ first season. It’s beautiful and glossy and has lots of pictures and new, original reporting from Randy Turner as well as loads of stuff taken from the paper’s sports archives.
Since it was announced, I have heard a ton of Jets fans talking about how excited they are to buy it. I haven’t heard one say they were going to wait until they could get it for free.
People still pay for content they value. Believe that.
And so, not to be cliche (totally about to be cliche), but: chicken or the egg? Readers don’t pay for content. But is the media treating its own content as something that should be valued?
More to the point: what message is a company sending when it cuts the exact thing it is asking people to pay for?
What is a business saying, when it won’t pay to support its own content, and then laments that audiences expect it for free?
When media businesses do that, they are reinforcing what readers have already come to believe: that what they’re reading lacks value. That it can be had elsewhere. That there’s no reason they should have to pay for it. It may not be right, but at every level it’s the message you’re sending. We don’t really have faith in this either; at least, not enough to commit our money to it.
That’s why I never lose too much sleep over the people who don’t pay for content. Obviously, I don’t love it. Obviously, if they did, I’d probably still have a job. At the same time, I know — and innovation knows, and capitalism knows, and the people who deeply study the psychology of consumer actions know — that if we as an industry did a better job teaching people why our work has value, and giving them opportunities to buy into that value, they would pay for it.
Predict, prepare, adapt and survive.
(And yes, I wrote this post just to have an excuse to link Louboutins. Oh, my mythical unicorn darlings. Someday, you shall be mine.)