Noodle VII: Tombstones and Milestones in Publishing

Tombstones and Milestones in Publishing points to the end of an era and the evolution of authority.

Noodle: Tombstones and Milestones in PublishingMy family lives on Lake Shore Drive, just east of Lakeview, a Chicago neighborhood which is known for mobility in every dimension. Consequently, one is accustomed to seeing all manner of abandoned flotsam and jetsam along Aldine and Roscoe avenues, even when not really paying attention. Many a stroll presents once-significant objects that don’t make the move, their value deemed less than the cost of moving or even donating them.

Returning from the neighborhood grocer yesterday, I saw this paragon of authority standing tall, perhaps not realizing its new status.


As I approached, I expected the spines of this tower to reveal some Reader’s Digest collector’s edition. However, as I approached, I thought I recognized something else (click to enlarge). In disbelief, the familiar spines came into a focus that didn’t lie: the Encyclopedia Britannica, once the dream of families and a jealously hoarded jewel of libaries’ reference collections, was marooned by the roadside, apparently too worthless to merit space on the bookshelf any longer.

Tombstones and Milestones in PublishingIt is one thing to reference, as I often have in good company during Web 1.0, the comparison of Britannica with Encarta and now, in the throes of Web 2.0, with Wikipedia.  These are well bantered facts. It is another thing altogether to see a complete set of books for which the former owner likely paid $3-4,000 USD littering the curbside. Arresting for me, as I have used Britannica for many a research project: the articles themselves were uniformly excellent, and the bibliographies yielded more treasures. I am surprised at how I am still reeling from its stark apparition. Mourning.

Remember, too, that both of Chicago’s once-famous dailies, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times filed for bankruptcy in 2008. They are being joined by newspapers around the country. Truly an epitaph of two publishing models that once stood for authority and country.


The decentralization of computing has morphed into the Internet’s infrastructure, which is increasing known as “the cloud.” These distributed processing and storage resources form the infrastructure of The Knowledge Economy. Evolution is also distributing authority, which is increasingly established by interacting with “the crowd” rather than having hierarchial powers control information creation and distribution. As The Long Tail aptly chronicles, the means of production and distribution, which heretofore were capital intensive, are now essentially free and in the hands of ordinary citizens. The dominance of the producer-consumer rhythm is dissolving fast.


Where does this leave publishing and authority? Clearly, most publishing leaders do not know, and the market is a stern taskmaster. As a recognized advisor on Web 2.0 and social networks, I have been party to numerous conversations in which hue and cry ensued: “Bloggers say anything they want and have no code of ethics, and they are destroying our newspapers…” It is natural to regret the appearance of an antithesis to a virtuous thesis like Britannica or the Chicago Tribune, but the antithesis simply challenges and proves the irrelevance of something that has outlived its usefulness. But let’s not mistake the antithesis for a new thesis: bloggers will not “replace” newspapers per se.

The synthesis seems quite clear. Expertise is being reorganized, and organization is increasingly emergent. Collaboration among actors with various roles will become dominant in many situations. Here is a very short list:

  • ProAms—Collaboration among Professionals and Amateurs is producing fantastic results in astronomy
  • OhmyNews, an exceptionally popular newspaper in South Korea 80% of whose content is written by citizens
  • Wikipedia needs no introduction nor hyperlink ,^)

Parting Shots

  • For the last several years, I have used Britannica online alongside Wikipedia. Last year, I allowed my Britannica subscription to lapse because it too rarely had articles on subjects I was seeking. Yes, Wikipedia’s articles are of uneven quality, but they are usually relevant, and some are amazing; they often have solid links as well. I can add to them, and I do.
  • You certainly noted the irony above in which I linked to Britannica’s entry in Wikipedia; unfortunately, I can’t do it the other way round.
  • Can I take pictures as well as a polished newspaper photojournalist or write as well as a trained reporter? Certainly not. But I—and we—are everywhere, and we work for free. By combining amateurs and professionals, we can produce high quality at a far lower price. Publishers that recognize this and act on it will thrive, and I wager that quality will even be superior in many cases, once people understand the ProAm concept and its best practices emerge.
  • The Industrial Economy featured a paternalistic system in which the “common man” was a minor actor and a consumer. In the U.S., this has had disastrous results because people also consume media: citizen awareness and capacity for independent thinking has been falling precipitously for decades.
  • Creating content is more active and can motivate people to take more charge of their destiny. Of course, there will also be disasters and mistakes as with all human endeavor, including old-style publishers (recall the Tribune’s headline of Truman’s defeat at the hands of Dewey?)
  • Companies will only thrive by inviting customers and their publics to get actively involved in pervasive innovation.
  • For related thoughts, I highly recommend David Weinberger’s Transparency is the New Objectivity and Tablets Won’t Save Mainstream Media But ProAm Might.
  • Tombstones are milestones. What do you think?

2 comments to Tombstones and Milestones in Publishing

  • [Please pardon if this is a duplicate comment.]

    Hi. I came to here via Jack Vinson, which is my first case in point because, for example, when it comes to navigating certain topics, I’d prefer to route through Jack than through Google. That said, as your piece is really well put together already, I’d like to collegially pose some off-shoot thoughts.

    When you said “Authority”, I first thought of “credibility”, not of “power”. My reading of your Authority description is that it is about power. I think the credibility issue is more critical to pursue. I would compare not the old hierarchy of a production “pipeline” versus the newer flatter production “collaboration”, but instead the old value “chain” versus the new value “network”. So far, I think the new production paradigms distinguish themselves primarily in terms of convenience, not credibility nor value: what does happen is that I can presume to meet information deadlines “cheaper”, and maybe “faster’, although far less certainly “prettier” (even though the acceleration of work is economically “sexy” so to speak). Tech innovation a la the web poses essentially the same risk that process automation does: it is now much easier to do something poorly more often.

    And when you said “Knowledge Economy”, I again experienced a related but tangential thought. Much of the widespread discussions of these affairs appears to me to terribly confuse “content”, “knowledge” and “information”. Each term respectively already carries a relatively new and trendy mythology about “producers”, highlighting in common the newfound convenience of being one. To this I say that being a producer is “valuable”, but being a producer does not “cause” value. And more to the point, the confusions I fear are the heavily marketed notions that content producers create better knowledge, that information producers create better content, that… well you get my drift. I suppose if I could make a practical point here, it would be that while the innovations in production may be revolutionary, the innovations in knowledge are instead still evolutionary. We are experiencing an expansive Content Economy that far outstrips the growth of actionable knowledge.

    This brings me to the last thought to share for now: the notion of “reference”. By exploiting the vehicles (let’s not call them sources yet) for acquiring information, we do one or both of two different things, and it is worth knowing the difference. One of them is “referencing”. The other is “researching”. Part of the competency of KM is knowing that there is a difference while knowing how to relate them; to create a reference from competent research is still something that is a practice with differing degrees of acquired skill, differences that are more important than whether we are known as professionals or amateurs.

    All that said, you hit a big nail right on the head. To summarize my takeaway from your posting: an inconvenient reference will lose out to a convenient one, for better or worse.

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