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The Future of Media: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying That the Internet Will Consume Print

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Having spent the past three months focusing on the future of media -- as guest editor of a special double issue of Media magazine -- I'm ready to make some predictions. I'm ready, despite knowing, after decades in the media business, how difficult it is to predict accurately the future of anything as mercurial as the media -- tossed, as it is, on the illogical seas of pop culture and pulled by the currents of technology. So here they are:

1) Within two years, a major city daily will transform itself into a free paper. Home delivery will still require a paid subscription. The Sunday paper will continue to be sold and will morph into a hybrid of the best of a pleasurable Sunday-paper reading experience and a week-long events resource.

2) A cable channel will pass one or more of the Big Four broadcast networks in total viewership, chiefly because it makes better programs.

3) Google will lose significant market share, because viable competitors will create as good or better search engines and incentivize people to use them.

4) The Internet will not consume print, because it's not strong enough, it's not better, and it's too busy consuming itself.

The future of media will boil down to, and pivot on the axis of, one thing: imagination -- how creative we are in exploiting technology and, equally important, with content. The future will not be a war between new media and traditional media, but between obsolescence and vision. In that sense, it will be far more apocalyptic and transformative than just a bunch of old-line companies going away.

That does not mean that print has nothing to worry about. It has, quite literally, everything to worry about: from the expense of its materials, workforce and delivery, to loss of revenues and the erosion of its dominance as a source of information. But the print medium can fix that set of problems. "Can" is the operative word.

Too often publishing executives complain about their ill fortunes rather then set about the necessary reconstruction, like depressed home owners shocked to discover their homes are not impervious to nature and weather. Newspapers have to change, because they've become anachronistic. Magazines are going through a natural (and I personally think very useful, if we're smart enough to learn from this) market correction, as Wall Street likes to call the periods when the floor gives out from under them.

I know the conventional wisdom: that readership is being lost to the speed and efficiency of the Web. But I think the decline of traditional publishing, especially magazines, is more deeply rooted in an arrogance and laziness that goes back 30-plus years. It was once so easy to make money from publishing -- paper, printing and distribution were so cheap and newsstand sales and subscriptions so profitable that advertising revenue was gravy. Then it got more difficult, imperceptibly at first, and gradually more complicated. But, for some reason, whatever other market realities they acknowledged, publishers refused to accept that the perfect magic formula had spoiled.

The Internet hit traditional publishing like the asteroid that struck the earth and killed the dinosaurs. But in the wake of that cataclysmic shock, we forget that the Internet is not a thoughtful entity. It's a fertile ecosystem spawning a dazzling array of exotic flora, with the potential to improve mankind exponentially. It's an infinite network of railway tracks, along which travel an unfathomable number of rail cars loaded with thoughts and information, some of the cargo precious, some worthless. But the Internet didn't create any of it. It only delivers it.

So those in publishing should pick their collective chins up off the floor and realize that the future couldn't be brighter, as soon as we recognize that digital technology is the modern-day equivalent of color printing and faster presses, and that the thing that feeds the new machine is the same thing that fed the old one: imagination.

Offline media companies should use the Web to do a better job of competing with one another and worry less about competing with Internet-natural companies, who have their hands full with each other anyway.

I think the Internet has a looming financial crisis which, when it explodes, will birth a new and invigorating way that media is created and distributed. Funding came too easy to too many digital businesses, and that always leads to an investor panic when one of the giddiest investments goes bad, as invariably happens. The valuations are once again seriously out of whack with earnings, and business models presume too clear a road ahead of them.

A guaranteed audience is presumed, no matter how many times the cell of an idea divides into multiple copies. But people are not chickens, at which you can throw a handful of grain and then watch as they scurry around pecking at the dirt to find it all. People will choose what they want and won't turn up in as many actual places as they do on business plans.

The amount of choice will greatly raise the bar of quality and performance for competing media. At that point, I think the advertising model will shift -- as unlikely as that seems now -- from the unrealistic promise of infinite audiences to smaller aggregations of people really engaged, really interested, and predictably present. Along the way, several smart and unique business practices will evolve: some obvious, most inconceivable to us today.