First, apologies for the thin posting last week. I was in New York for the usual frenzy of back-to-back meetings, both Long Tail and otherwise. (I did get to see the Gates, but sadly only at night. It's not the same). I'll try to catch up with a few quick posts here on some loose threads, and then return to your regularly scheduled stream of observations, answers and other half-bakery.
One of the eyebrow-raisers in the media world last week was the transcript of Michael Wolff's keynote remarks to the 2005 SIIA Information Industry Summit in New York City. [Disclosure: Michael is the media columnist for Vanity Fair, which is a corporate sibling of Wired. ] It was controversial (so much so that he reportedly asked for it to be removed from the site that originally posted it) because in the midst of some quite smart observations about the challenges facing mainstream media he made a rather broad swipe at the Wall Street Journal, claiming that it lost its currency with the chattering classes when it put its online content behind a subscription wall.
I, however, thought it was interesting for an entirely different reason: flagrant "endism".
In the Q&A, according to the transcript, Wolff suggested that Consumer Reports was also suffering from consumer rejection due to its policy of charging for access to its website. "It once occupied a very clear position in the opinion market, and it now occupies a kind of marginal position," he said. "Marginal" is one of those words that means "effectively dead" and represents the sort of wording that Wolff wields often to great effect; his latest book, after all, is "Autumn of the Moguls".
A questioner then challenged him, and his response was far more reasonable:
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Consumer Reports has almost two million paying subscribers, so I'm just curious. This thing you keep saying about how paying for content devalues it ... I'm confused by that. Can you just elaborate on that a little?
WOLFF: Well, I think Consumer Reports at one time was the brand in product evaluation. That's what you would say: "Check Consumer Reports." But if you want to buy something now, it's "Check the Web." It's not that Consumer Reports doesn't have a business, but it has certainly lost its position as the grail of product evaluation.
Actually, Consumer Reports says it has about 4 million subscribers, which by anyone's estimation makes it non-marginal (although I don't get the magazine, I do pay $26/year to subscribe to its excellent website). Vanity Fair, or for that matter Wired, would love to have anything close to that. But I think I know what Wolff meant. To understand his claim, you have to realize that there are three kind of people, which being a science geek, I will describe in physics terms (that noise is the sound of a readership stampeding for the exits):
A) Position People
B) Velocity People (first derivative)
C) Acceleration People (second derivative)
Category A people think: "4 million subscribers is a lot. Consumer Reports must be doing something right."
Category B people think: "It used to be 4.2 million. Consumer Reports is in decline."
Category C people think: "They lost 200,000 readers in three years! Consumer Reports is dead."
Now I should quickly add that I have no idea if Consumer Reports is indeed losing readers; I just made those figures up for illustrative purposes (and to add to the evidence that blogs are not journalism). The point is that you probably know all three kinds of people I've described, and you may have noticed that while the first two perspectives are accurate, the third, which is clearly false, is the one that gets all the attention. People are drawn to grand overstatement, especially if it's in service of a broader point.
The pinnacle of grand overstatement is endism, the declaration that the moment something stops growing it is effectively dead. In this, Wolff is in good company. If a corporation stops growing, Wall Street investors not only treat it as roadkill but usually clamor for the CEO's head on their wall. After a former colleague of mine at The Economist wrote "The Death of Distance" about the communications revolution, another colleague wrote a piece noting the several hundred other business books whose titles start the same way. And we at Wired do it all the time, including our new cover story on "The End of Radio" (although in fairness we did add an "as we know it").
The reason endism is not necessarily a sin is that all three of those perspectives are legitimate. It is, of course, important for some people to keep their feet on the ground and focus on the absolute reality of what's around them, thus category A. It is also important for some people to keep an eye on trends, thus category B. Finally, a few people should be looking around the corner, trying to spot leading indicators that may turn into trends and finally into absolute reality, which leads us to category C, where Wolff and Wired occasionally meet.
At The Economist the unofficial internal motto was "simplify, then exaggerate". This is obviously a successful model in sure hands; the art of analysis is knowing the line between dramatic distillation and reductio ad absurdum. The secret, of course, is to be right. If Radio is indeed about to be transformed by technology and readers are persuaded by our evidence and arguments (as I'm sure they will be; it's an excellent package, which should be online later this week), then they will understand our meaning of "End".
We at Wired, like Wolff, live in the whiplash world of acceleration space, where tiny fluctuations in trend velocity can either be blips or the beginnings of the next big thing. We're pretty good at telling one from the other, and thus I think our occasional endism is seen as the effective rhetorical device it is. Industries really do crumble and reshape, and it's our mandate to spot the signs first.
As for Wolff, he too has a point. As much as I like Consumer Reports' website, I tend to go to Amazon reviews and even Google first because I'm more likely to find a recent review of whatever I'm thinking about buying. And I'm a subscriber; non-subscribers don't even have that choice. I think of Consumer Reports mostly for big-ticket items and consumer durables, like cars and washing machines. That's enough to keep me as a subscriber, but it's not enough to retain the position as "grail of product evaluation". Does that make it "marginal"? Perhaps not, but it's worth noting all the same.