Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aldus, The Death of Seattle’s Newspaper, and the Birth of Peer Publishing

Clay Shirky has written an excellent and thoughtful article on the revolution taking place in how news is created, published, distributed, paid for and consumed:

“Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”

While I urge you to read the full article, here are some incisive quotes from the article:

  • The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming.

  • The core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

  • What real revolutions are like…The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

  • The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread

  • Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.

In his article Shirky takes note of great publishers (e.g. Gutenberg, Wikipedia) whose innovations fueled the ever growing “democratization of the printed word.”

I found Clay’s article especially interesting because he paid special homage to the Renaissance Venetian printer and publisher Aldus Manutius whose invention of the smaller octavo volume along with italic type— led to a subsequent revolution in the cost to printers to print books, and the costs for book buyers to purchase books.

Centuries later (in the mid-late 1980s) Aldus’s first name was associated with another innovation in the democratization of the printed word: Aldus Corporation—the Seattle-based company whose PageMaker desktop publishing software (combined with PostScript and the Apple Macintosh) let thousands around the world to be able to become publishers themselves.

Twenty years ago, I had the good fortune of working for Aldus Corp for 4 years--- our crew of Aldusians (including CEO Paul Brainerd, Sales Goddess Jennifer Saffo, Tech Whizzes Ted Johnson & Jeremy Jaech, and countless other brilliant colleagues) felt we were linked in a worthy crusade to share technologies that could radically simplify the means and cost of producing printed works.

At the time, I remember occasional grousing from professional printers and Linotype operators (their hands marked with lead burns), telling me... "this desktop publishing thing will never fly,
our craft and skill can't be replaced by a machine."

In my four years at Aldus, I gave hundreds of presentations on the process and possibilities of desktop publishing but would often conclude my sessions with the timeless quote from A.J. Liebling: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those that own one.”

The economics of media/publishing have been decimated by the efficiencies and reach of the Internet—now anyone who has a blog really owns a printing press. Instantaneous worldwide distribution through essentially free Web-based tools has done away with middlemen. The trade and craft of newspapering (dating back to Ben Franklin’s day) is fast becoming a historical artifact.

Amy Wohl once joked with me that “Stovetop Stuffing and Desktop Publishing both take place somewhere.” The products of the new age of peer-to-peer personal publishing will not be limited by physical restraints like time or location--- they will arise and be shared with thousands (who may choose to also participate in the creative process). Whereas journalists were often gatekeepers between the newsmakers and a reading audience--- peer publishing is more direct, honest, and interactive. Conversations are always better when there’s more than one participant.

As Clay Shirky comments “we don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is,” but today (on the last day of Seattle’s Post Intelligencer as a print newspaper) we can certainly anticipate that quality journalism will continue to be valued. Web 2.0/3.0 tools, social networks and inbound marketing will let us connect and engage with others who share our interests. Return-on-Interaction ROI will yield benefits in multiple directions.
Communications will improve.

The tagline of my friend Paul Gillin’s NewsaperDeathWatch.com neatly sums up the new status quo: “Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism.”

Unthinkable 20 years ago. Very real today.

Let us remember that revolutions are born out of chaos and true democracies are self-derived. Let us create value, community and opportunities for many---in the midst of the maelstrom.


1 comment:

  1. Well said, Patrick! A key challenge I see with the internet, and one I heard expressed by the skeptics of desktop publishing while at Aldus, is how people will differentiate fact and reliable news from opinion and bunk. Responsibility for determining validity of what is read falls to the reader. Education on how to be discerning needs to be a priority!


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