New Media’s Credibility Problem

thou shalt not shill by duncan
thou shalt not shill by duncan

By offering consumers a low cost digital product, the economics of ebooks create a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle. The low price expands the available market by making it affordable to more consumers; low production and distribution expenses allow the publisher to earn a healthy margin; and the larger addressable market allows publishers to sell more units at greater profit margins.

Mark Coker, Why We Need $4.00 Books

One of the problems with the new media business model of trading exposure for content and attempting to monetize the eyeballs (a la The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Geek Dad, etc; all a variation on the B2B editorial model, but with even more of a self-promotional angle) is that it makes the content suspect. Without a firm editorial vision, the result is typically a mish-mash of shallow opinion and punditry, with the occasional gem slipping through.

In his first essay for The Huffington Post‘s new Books section, Smashwords founder Mark Coker offers a half-hearted op-ed on ebook pricing, taking the narrow position that print books are too expensive for many consumers, especially those in developing economies, and that $4 ebooks are the mass-market paperback of the future.

Of course, there’s not a single mention of the prohibitive costs of eReaders, smartphones and their expensive data plans, or broadband Internet access. It’s a classic case of willfully ignoring the forest for the trees.

As a counterpoint, HuffPo also published author Jason Pinter’s “Why the Digital Revolution is Missing the Big Picture“, taking on the misguided marketing of eReaders to people who already read:

By marketing the Kindle to people like me — i.e. ‘adults’ who already read regularly and don’t need to be sold on how great books are– publishing is merely doubling down on the biggest problem facing the industry: not enough people read books. Right now, e-readers are being touted as an alternative to paper. Big mistake. E-readers should be promoted as a cool option for non readers or hesitant readers. Instead, those readers are stunningly being ignored.

It’s a strong piece, and while both Coker and Pinter are obviously writing for HuffPo to raise their profiles and sell more of their stuff — freemium in effect, and absolutely nothing wrong that — Pinter’s contribution actually adds something of value to the discussion (and doesn’t try to take some faux moral high ground), whereas Coker’s feels more like self-serving filler.

Much like the ad-supported print magazines that have been shuttered over the past few years, when the emphasis is on page views and ad impressions, content becomes a commodity and the editorial focus becomes fuzzy. As a result, the brand not only faces a credibility problem, but its long-term viability is challenged as commodities are more easily challenged by competitors and there’s no shortage of contributors willing to offer up free content if it gets them a broader audience.

4 thoughts on “New Media’s Credibility Problem

  1. I don't know. I just read a guest post here. Doesn't permitting someone else access to *your* soapbox dilute its vision?

    Same difference with the HuffPo stuff. If HuffPo has a POV, I'll be damned if I can find it anyway.

    Eh. And now you also see why I say No to requests to do labor for others.

  2. Guest posts certainly have the potential to dilute what I'm doing here, but the two I've had so far both fit well within the theme of “Old and New Media Pragmatism with a Marketing slant,” and neither have been completely random missives; Tara is actually a long-time personal friend from the poetry world.

    Also, this is my personal site, not a fledgling new media brand trying to maximize eyeballs for advertising purposes, which ultimately is the only POV HuffPo has that matters.

  3. This is really a comment on Pinter's argument rather than your post, Guy, but I can't say I find Pinter any more compelling than Coker.

    Not enough people read books? Well no e-reader currently on the market has suddenly made book reading sexier or more fun, at least to non-readers. And I'd argue that lack of book readers isn't exactly a problem to be solved, but a cultural shift that publishers will have to adapt to.

    When the biggest e-readers on the market stop focusing on pushing purchases from a specific retailer, and really focus on frictionless acquisition and sharing of content (whether newspaper, magazine, book, site, etc), maybe then we'll have something to talk about.

  4. Overall, I've been rather unimpressed with HuffPo's Books section; most of the posts I've read are barely worthy of a personal blog, and I'm still confused about who their audience is supposed to be.

    You make a fair point that comes back to the issue of ad-supported new media's insatiable thirst for quantity over quality when it comes to content, not to mention wanting as much of it as possible for free. I think it's the curse of the 24-hour news cycle combined with our celebrity-obsessed culture that social media has tapped into and perverted. Amusing Ourselves to Death 2.0.

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