Q01: The Publishing Industry’s Quandry


Networked and digital media have forced a change in the organisational structure of the publishing industry, rather than dismantling it, as Shirky (2009) suggests in his work ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’. The demise of the publishing industry is easy to deduce, given the increasing redundancy of the of the traditional “top down” model. However, the publishing industry still persists beyond its role to merely facilitate, ‘making something available to the public’ (Shirky 2009). The problem it stands to solve today is far more complex. It strives to facilitate navigation through the enduring ‘world of flow’ (Boyd 2009), and further still, find an effective means for media producers to penetrate the highly personalised streams of content and experience that users create for themselves in this ‘world of flow’.

The publishing industry was established as a vehicle to disseminate information to the public, in response to the events that followed the advent of the printing press and movable type. Hence, it was ascribed for solving a ‘problem’ as Shirky (2009) claims, albeit unforseen. Its structure resembled a dichotomy between producer and user. Of this ilk, broadcast media has maintained an industry model that prioritised the ‘efficiency of a single, centralised source’ (Boyd 2009). Under this model, a limited number of platforms such as television, magazines, newspapers and radio, all pushed information the public. In fact, Boyd (2009) incites nostalgia in referencing the iconic image of the ‘1950s nightly news [where] everyone tunes in to receive the same message at the same time’. Thus, the primary role of the publishing industry was to produce content to be distributed via this model, with the expectation that full attention will be given to at least one of these few channels. One only has take note of multiplicity of equivalent platforms owned by News Ltd. in Australia to observe this logic in practice. With metropolitan newspaper monopolies in South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, Murdoch is sure to get his message across, assuming the level of attention expected under this model. Under this unidirectional model, the content producer predominantly determined user experience. Contrary to the assumption that the Internet has broken this general model for traditional publishing (Shirky 2009), the Internet and networked media have in fact posed a fitting challenge to the otherwise unconscious industry.

Boyd’s (2007) assertion that ‘technology has made networks essential’ is pertinent to understanding the role the publishing industry now plays.  The shift from broadcast and networked media has fundamentally changed the means by which information flows (Boyd 2009). All traditional definitions imply distribution by the publisher to the reader. Now however, the publishing industry has grown to be defined by the concept of a ‘produser’ (Bruns 2009), whereby the distinction between producer and user becomes blurred. Salvo declares the Information Age to be over as a consequence of the ‘once-precious data’ tending towards low value ubiquity (Dodson 2009). However, Boyd (2009) observes, society now ‘lives in, with and around information, peripherally aware of it as it floats by, grabbing it at the right moment when it is relevant’. Users can choose who they send information too and whose information they wish to see. This deduction, accurately assigns agency to the public, recognising their ability to prioritize their attention as they see fit. This is, as Shirky (2009) correctly presumes, because society does not need platforms, they need content. Boyd (2007) goes as far as saying ‘today’s youth traffic in content’. Hence, the publishing industry has grown to place less importance on the creation of content, and given greater leverage to the means by which content can be distributed, accessed and shared. In this context, publishing expands its role to include gathering together, reflected in Google’s mission statement, ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’ (Google 2012). Furthermore, it not only stands to gather together, but to do so as an aware participant in the networked world.

Shirky (2009) comments, with reference to newspapers particularly, that the traditional organisational model was born out of the shared costs and difficulties of printing. Hence, the assumption can be made, that in a networked world, there is not one correct organisational structure for the now dynamic publishing industry. Instead, as a consequence of increased platform diversity, numerous models will emerge and be continuously reshaped to suit the state of flow. In 2008 Jeremy Rifkin remarked that the forms of distribution and aggregation he was observing come from the age of inflexible, centralised control, and were not suitable in the transitional climate of fledgling network media. Although these structures are more so optimised for digital data (Shirky 2009) than they were at the time of Rifkin’s comment, his awareness highlights state of fluidity that characterises the networked world. Today, Google+ is one of the obvious leaders in this pursuit, having declared in their ‘Ten things we know to be true’, that above all, by focusing on the user, all else will follow (Google 2012). This suggests, that their frameworks are not only susceptible to change, but they aware of their duty to operate in this manner. Alongside them, Microsoft, Facebook and Youtube are all diverting the focus from their product to their service, by placing an emphasis on their enabling capabilities. Although the shift presents exciting prospects, an industry characterised by uncertainty, change and collaborative content presents marked challenges for the respective business models.

The organisational shift caused by networked media demands a significant consideration of agency and attention, previously somewhat overlooked in the broadcast model. Digital and networked media allow audiences to be drowned in information, so much so that attention becomes a scare and desirable resource (Goldhaber 1997). Thus, the natural economy of cyberspace (Goldhaber 1997) dictates that the publishing industry must also specialise in the distribution and aggregation of attention in order to prevail.  An industry focus on distribution and aggregation requires complete immersion in the world of flow that Boyd (2009) describes. Producers must simultaneously become users, in order to understand the motivations and patterns of data movement in which they intend to partake. Erard (2009) suggests that attention becomes allocated by way of pricing the available information, made overly abundant by networked and digital media. As Boyd (2009) mentions, “just because we’re moving into a state where anyone has ability to get information into the stream does not mean that attention will be divided equally. Opening up the structures to distribution is not democratizing when distribution is no longer the organizing function of this space.” Again, the audience is attributed a conscience that informs what information they prioritise and consume. Hence, motivation becomes an important consideration when distributing content with the desire of reaching a particular audience. This has profound consequences on content creation from an industry perspective, as it determines the parameters for what is likely to be received and shared, and by whom. Furthermore, it dictates that these parameters are constantly subject to change.

The dynamism of the publishing industry also had profound consequences for forms expression and content. The essence of what can be distributed by publishing has shifted beyond text, images, sounds and code. The functionality of digital media allows complex things, previously considered invisible, to be expressed with ease. Thus, experience displaces content, or rather, becomes content. One only has to look at the popularity of Instagram, the free photo sharing platform that allows users to take, filter and distribute the photos that they take, by way of tracking their social movement. Users revel in the opportunity to communicate their experience, with less emphasis placed on the professionalism of the photo – it’s likely to be nothing more than a photo of their breakfast. Gauntlett (2012) stipulates that creativity is essential for society to flourish as they are granted the opportunity to make and share things rather than being mere consumers. The process Gauntlett is referring to is the common societal desire to participate in imaged publics, as one assembles and reassembles their relationships in the networked world. In this instance, Instagram acts to form an imagined public as a consequence of publishing real life individual experience. Hence, as digital media transforms the nature of expression and content within society, it also transforms the nature of its culture. The intensity of user experience is modulated with ease, with the ability to constantly reassemble platforms, be it changing font size or re-organising apps. Thus, the way they engage with both real and imagined publics, mirrors the oscillation of the networked world. For the publishing industry at present, the challenge is to enable these transforming desires.

Although it has not been dismantled, as Shirky (2009) put forth, the publishing industry has incurred significant costs in the transition from broadcast to network media. Shirky (2009) reflects upon the difficulties faced by the newspaper industry in the dawn of the Internet age as a signatory of the industries demise. In fact, rather than a damning prediction, his work should serve as a reminder of the possible detriment of ignoring change. The most potent cost networked and digital media have imposed is potential redundancy. The advance of networked media and digital platforms has come at the expense of the less financially viable and one-dimensional media, like the newspaper. The publishing industry must now engage in the world of flow, it must reflect knowledge of its inhabitants, their motivations and patterns of data reception. Since these factors are all transient, such content is far better suited to the short shelf life of digital media. Traditional platforms may not exist in a naturally symbiotic relationship with the Internet, as Shirky (2009) makes clear, but content it is quite the contrary. Within his projection he claims, “Society don’t need newspapers, what we need is journalism.” (Shirky 2009) In doing so, he highlights the promise for the industry, whilst intending to condemn it. Thus, the costs incurred by the advance of digital and networked media are largely potential, contingent on ignorance of the characteristics and consequences of a networked society.

Contrary to Shirky’s (2009) statement, it makes more sense than ever to talk about a publishing industry in a state of flux. Digital and networked media have advanced the ability of users to produce and consume and share content that was controlled from the ‘top down’ in previous models. At present, the audience’s continual quest for content drives the creation and modification of platforms in order to deliver their desired experience. This presents difficulties for content production as users prioritise attention and actively transform means of expression and content. However, immersion in the world of ‘flow’ brings with it an understanding of user motivation and patterns of data reception, that enable the industry to flourish in its new configuration.


Boyd, D 2007, ‘Information Access in a Networked World’, paper presented to Pearson Publishing 2007, accessed 27 May 2012,  <http://www.danah.org/papers/talks/Pearson2007.html>


Boyd, D 2009, ‘Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The flow of Information through Social Media’, paper presented at the Web2.0 Expo 2009, accessed 25 May 2012, <http://www.danah.org/papers/talks/Web2Expo.html>


Bruns, A 2009, ‘From Prosumer to Produser: Understanding User-Led Content Creation’, paper presented at Transforming Audiences 3-4 2009, accessed 2 June 2012, <http://eprints.qut.edu.au/27370/&gt;


Dodson, W 2009, ‘Dawn of the Systems Age’, ScienceBlogs, weblog post, 28 December, accessed 1 June 2012, <http://scienceblogs.com/seed/2009/12/28/dawn-of-the-systems-age/#more>


Erard, M 2009, ‘A Short Manifesto on the Future of Attention’, Observer, weblog post, 8 December, accessed 31 May 2012, <http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=10297>


Gauntlett, D 2012, ‘Making is Connecting: The 4 minute presentation (2012)’, online video, accessed 1 June 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA-IYHM7u6A&hd=1>


Goldhaber, M 1997, ‘Attention Shoppers!’, Wired, weblog post, accessed 31 May 2012, <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.12/es_attention.html&gt;


Google 2012, Google, California, accessed 28 May 2012, <http://www.google.com/about/&gt;


Interview Jeremy Rifkin 2008, online video, accessed 27 May 2012, <http://www.eenvandaag.nl/swf/player.swf?videoID=95012&gt;


Shirky, C 2009, ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’, Clay Shirky, weblog post, 13 March, accessed 25 May 2012, <http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/>


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