The Kindle and “barriers to entry”

Will Sullivan threw me off yesterday when he wrote on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits about how the Kindle “removes the print barriers for entry.” He used “barrier to entry” in a different way than I understood it: That which prevents competitors from entering a market.

Using the term differently doesn’t necessarily harm Sullivan’s argument (although it does make it more ambiguous, because now I don’t know quite what he means), but it reminded me of last week’s On The Media, which I had just been listening to. The publisher of the Dallas Morning News was on, discussing why he hadn’t yet signed up his paper for Kindle distribution.

Answer: Amazon gave them a raw deal, or at least one he didn’t find too pleasing, and I could see why. He said the contract would have allowed Amazon to license Morning News content wherever and whenever they chose, without leaving Dallas the option to intervene. As I’ve said, I’m no expert at business models, but it strikes me as fair for Jim Moroney to be concerned.

This isn’t to say that the Morning News faces a barrier to entry to Kindle distribution. It’s still an option to them. But the more popular Kindle becomes, the more people may have to rely on Kindle distribution to find paying customers — and the more clout Amazon has in weilding its terms. Even then, though, I’m not sure it would be considered a formal “barrier to entry,” but it sure would make things more difficult.

::: Update – May 12 :::

Sullivan notes Henry Blodget’s comments about the increase in Kindle sales, especially after the latest version was released. It’s important here to remember cognitive dissonance, I think. That theory says, in part, that we do a very good job at convincing ourselves that we made the right decision, and will continue to act in ways that justify our decisions. The relevance here is that Kindle owners may not actually enjoy reading on Kindles but instead have to tell themselves they really do. (I’ve heard similar anecdotes of enjoyment to what Sullivan has heard — but then again, is it believable?)

Also: Sullivan says the increase of Kindle says as a percentage of book sales demonstrates that “Kindle users are voracious readers.” Not so. There’s nothing to suggest the percentage of book sales demonstrates a “voracious” bunch, so how could there be anything in the percentage of Kindle readers that suggests it? For all we know, it could be 35 percent of 100 books (Danielle Steele books at that).

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Does the AP know what it’s talking about?

Presenting: A small deconstruction of the Editors Weblog interview with the Associated Press’ Jim Kennedy. The interview (and reporting) left me confused.

“One is to start creating pages of aggregated content based around news stories and topics, which would allow readers to find the most authoritative local sources for the news they are searching for.”

So … these pages are going to be dedicated only to stories of local import — like “Mayor gives a speech”? There aren’t really “authoritative local sources” for anything on a national level — all the papers rely on the AP for their stories. But is it the case that users are having trouble knowing what the standard “local sources” are in their town?

Which leads to the next point:

“Also, he asserted, search engines “point people indiscriminately” towards sources, rather than towards the news’ local paper which should have the most authoritative article. The AP hopes instead to offer more of a guide to a topic, with sources that are more intelligently chosen.”

Again, the article doesn’t answer: Who are the enemies here? There are so few towns with multiple professional news outlets. A newspaper and some TV stations — all of which, I would think, count as “authoritative local sources,” especially considering that most are probably AP subscribers and would be a part of these incoming portals. And what if the most authoritative local source instead sends is stories out on, say, MCT?

So if not these outlets, then perhaps the target is bloggers — ones who grab AP copy from Google or Yahoo, post a link and offer a few comments?

“[The AP aggregation pages] will have URLs so that they can be ‘tweeted’ or linked to on social networking sites but they will not be a destination in themselves: “This is a distribution strategy, not a destination strategy,” Kennedy confirmed.”

This is confusing on so many levels. “They will have URLs.” Well, yeah, they’re Web pages. Should I expect otherwise? “They will not be a destination in themselves.” I understand, I think, that he’s saying that the pages will serve only to feed readers to the “authoritative local sources.” But (a) it still strikes me as contradictory for the AP to say they want to drag traffic currently going elsewhere to their own pages and to say they just want to pass readers along; and (b) does the AP think the same number of readers are going to follow through to the local site as go to the aggregated site? Most readers skim the headlines to begin with, right?

“The second aspect is the AP’s mission to “keep up the fight to protect content from misappropriation and protecting it from those who don’t pay.” He clarified that the he was not talking about “small time bloggers who post a link to a story,” rather “people and entities who come along and scrape content systematically and have no intention of licensing it.””

Hm. Well, that kills the blogger theory from a moment ago. So if the AP isn’t targeting bloggers but these big-time scrapers, then, well, who are they talking about? The story doesn’t provide links — did anyone ask him? Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. What sites is he talking about and how much traffic are they dragging away from the “authoritative local sources”?

Thinking the thinkable

I have read Clay Shirky’s Thinking the Unthinkable. I have read the responses, the praise, most recently from Josh Young.

And I am confused.

I skimmed through Shirky’s post not because I didn’t agree with him, but because I couldn’t understand why he felt like mentioning it now. Through the few years now I’ve been reading this “future of news” cohort I suppose I thought half the point was to imagine “a future without newspapers,” or at least a future with newspaper companies that looked nothing like what we’re accustomed to.

Why else would mainstream newspaper journalists be so upset with bloggers and writers who were excited about where the digital world could take journalism. I had assumed they felt a new breed of journalist and medium breathing down their neck. Bloggers, for there part, did what they could to avoid kicking dust on the incoming graves, but were still trying their damndest to prepare the journalism world for what was coming.

When print reporters and columnists ask, “but who will report on city council?”, what would they have in mind other than a world in which their job, as they experience it, did not exist? The fact that bloggers have attempted to respond to their questions

Or so I thought. I don’t mean to say, “everybody’s late to the party.” I suppose instead I’m concerned about having misread these offerings the entire time. If people had been saying what I thought they were saying, I’m not sure there would have been such a fantastic reaction to what Shirky proposed.

So where do I go now?

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Some thoughts on the AP’s announcement

From the NYT: [The Associated Press] said they did not want to stop the appearance of articles around the Web, but to exercise some control over the practice and to profit from it.”

Hoo boy. I’m quite curious to see how AP tries to put Pandora back in the box.

Ignoring for a moment whether AP has a strong legal argument (my media law is a bit rusty), the assumption that readers are aware of AP, how it’s comprised, or what it’s for, seems a bit dicey to me. My apprehensiveness stems from only one encounter, however — where a woman told me about how she didn’t have access to the “wired” stories journalists had back in 1992. But if it’s true that this ignorance is a bit more widespread (who has evidence suggesting otherwise?), then will anyone particularly care if AP shuts off access to its content? Someone else out there will have it. Could be from the BBC, or Al Jazeera, or a trending Twitter topic. Will people care they’re not getting more actual reportage? Perhaps. But more importantly, will they care enough to want to pay to read it? For the foreseeable future, I’m skeptical.

Perez-Peña also usefully points out that “news organizations have called the ire at the search engines misguided, saying that much of their own Web traffic arrives through links on search pages.” If what I said above is true — that news consumers don’t know the difference between the AP and HDTV and don’t much care — then search engines are necessary for news organizations to stay afloat, at least until Web advertising hits its stride.

::: Thanks to Josh Young for the link (via Twitter) :::

Democrats and the census

I’m thinking about how Republicans are nervous about Obama’s pick to lead the census “because he uses statistical sampling.” It seems curious to me that only Republicans are quoted in the story. You would think that if the problem with statistical sampling is academic in nature, then there would be at least a few Democrats among the hundreds in Congress concerned about it as well.

On one hand, this could simply be an instance of poor reporting that ignored Democrats. But let’s pretend for now that most Democrats don’t have a problem with the math, and instead that the offended Republicans are obfuscating because they know “minorities, immigrants, the poor and the homeless are those most likely to be missed in an actual head count” and that more of them help Democrats in elections. If they are, it’s pretty outrageous of them to think of minorities or the poor as less deserving of representation in a democracy than people who are easier to find.

So, let’s say the Republicans are hiding the “real” reason they don’t want statistical sampling to be used in the census.

But then, the Democrats are quiet, too, and they have an incentive to remain so, just as the Republicans have an political incentive to argue against Robert Groves. Statistical sampling may help Democrats in the 2010 census. By keeping quiet, they run the risk of allowing poor research methods into something as important for the nation as the census — important both in the cost of conducting the census and in its implications for the shape of our Congress, and more.

Where’s the Times in all of this? Silent. They couldn’t even try to bring in some “expert” or other to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of statistical sampling? They couldn’t have brought in some comment from their science writers? Hopefully they will do so at some point. But not addressing whether there’s any debate on the question at all leaves the Democrats with a few free points, at least superficially.

A believable story about prisons

It’s a rare moment when I think an anecdote can serve as strong evidence for broad claims. Atul Gawande in The New Yorker may have to be one of those moments.

I was impressed by his last piece, on a smarter way to think about obtaining universal health care in the U.S. In “Hellhole,” he addresses the morality of extended solitary confinement in prison. He asks, is solitary confinement torture? His evidence about the effect of solitary confinement is, for the most part, fairly strong — necessary for his argument, at least, if perhaps not sufficient.

But his ending his killer. After profiling a man who spent most of his youth in prison and young adulthood in solitary confinement — going, essentially, insane — Gawande closes by noting to the man that “the state prison director who had refused to let him out of solitary confinement … had been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison… .”

Gawande asks the man, “If he wrote to you, asking if you would release him from solitary, what would you do?”

The response: “I’d let him out … I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anybody. Not even him.”

And the piece ends. What a finish. Surely, I think when I’m finished, surely the fact that this man would say such a thing means something — even if it’s a small thing.

Information needs people

I love Jay Rosen‘s formulation of a really important assumption for many journalism critics: Weak is the need for current information without a strong culture of participation.

So important.

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