My first “real” job out of university was in publishing. I had spent a couple of years pretending to study accounting (with daytime chartered work financing my studies), until I finally realized that it was not my cup of tea. It was my first real chance to re-think my life and career.
So I then spent a few more years studying drama, computing, psychology and literature … only to find myself with a generic degree and no clear vocation. My dream of becoming a playwright or a poet was never going to pay the bills and I just so happened to land a job with a legal publisher who liked my combination of skills (oh — and sparkling personality). Yes, clearly, it was time to re-think my thinking … and accept a new approach.
It was in the early ’90s and the publishing industry was in a state of upheaval. The newspaper typesetters that were displaced by automation in the ’80s had found their way into the business publishing houses, but even here there was short term respite. Desktop publishing and online coding was biting into the role of the production department and the IT teams were bringing in bigger servers, databases and new distribution and search methods.
Looking back on this, I can see that there was a lot of workplace fear and uncertainty. Jobs and skills were being re-imagined and there was no place for a 30-year publishing veteran who could not understand the new markup schema. The whole industry was quivering … the steps between writer/journalist and published item were being truncated. But as a new entrant, I found all this exciting. Challenging. Cool, even.
This was business transformation powered by technology. The computers came in and the people went out … and with it went history, know-how and community. The publishing industry’s “job for life” was facing extinction and the great dream was a “paperless office.”
Yet I wonder whether the changes achieved the outcomes first envisaged … in fact, knowing that a large percentage of IT project fail (in excess of 80% I believe), I expect the answer is an open secret. But in a world of technological progress, we move onwards towards the next shining beacon of innovation … we don’t pause to re-evaluate or re-assess. Re-thinking was off the agenda.
With the growing power of social media forcing another round of structural and business changes to the publishing industry, it is somewhat disturbing to see many of the same arguments being deployed again. However, this shift seems to be ABOUT people. The technology is pervasive, but it has taken a backseat on this ride to extinction. These changes are about thinking … about the roles of thought, thought leadership, news and opinion — all very human.
Underlying this shift are the citizen journalists and citizen marketers of the social media world who are taking centre stage. This strange cult of niche celebrity gives us all the opportunity for 15 seconds of fame … about the time it takes a media snacking public to click between headlines. All the talk is, again, about a “paperless office” — just this time the talk relates to “newspapers” and not the stuff they are printed on.
In many ways, the publishing industry has taken this to heart. They have seen the shifts from print classifieds to digital and they have witnessed first hand the rise of digital advertising powerhouses like Google. And we bloggers shout the claims of a new industry … a democratized, levelled playing field where the latest news can be captured on a mobile phone and shared globally within seconds. But rather than embracing and building on the benefits of this, publishers appear (for the most part) to be focusing on staking out their own turf. They appear to be turning inwards upon themselves rather than re-thinking their position and embracing the opportunities being presented.
Each week there are news stories that are disparaging of new and social media … there are “online exposes” spreading fear and anxiety, living cheek by jowl with heartwarming stories of connection and human emotion. As Katie Chatfield points out in this great post:
The ability of the online medium to tell stories and to allow journalists to create new ways of creating understanding and describing the agenda seems to be lost in the contemplation of dwindling revenue.
But there is some re-thinking occurring … in pockets. There are those who do embrace technology and the new opportunites that social media presents. Bruce Nussbaum is looking at the changing face of magazine publishing … indeed, he is up to his armpits in a revision to the status quo. Will Business Week succeed? Will we see a rennaissance in journalistic in-depth storytelling of a kind that will re-engage a disillusioned public? I truly hope so.
Sometimes we need to re-think our positions on social and industrial change, and sometimes we really can learn from the past. This Information R/evolution is supposed to be about the “human web.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all benefit from its opportunities?