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Ride a Black Swan


Tuesday, 19 April 2011


How the digital age is re-writing the rules of publishing

The following is a short extract from a book published in 1910 and entitled Recollections of a Busy Life: Being the Reminiscences of a Liverpool Merchant, by Sir William B Forwood:

'I may claim that my seventy years have witnessed a material progress on every side, which has been simply marvellous and has eclipsed in the brilliancy of achievement any former period in the history of our country.

'The use of the steam-engine has been increased and extended until it has become the handmaiden of every industrial occupation; and following in its train we have seen the development of the spinning jenny, and the blast furnace.

'And today we see that steam is being dethroned from its high position by the electrical dynamo and the hydraulic ram, and the turbine is taking the place of the reciprocating engine. The internal combustion engine has been invented, and the motor-car is rapidly superseding the horse-drawn vehicle; while the biplane and monoplane have given a reality to aviation which never entered the most visionary dreams of a few years ago...'

Wow, now there was an era of great change. I came across the book online, as it happens, in a digital archive held by the University of California. The slightly obvious point is that the same thing is happening now, not least in the creative world and particularly in publishing. Progress unstoppable and relentless.

Collectively it's what's called Black Swan Theory. Coined by Lebanese-American philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it describes an event which wasn't predicted or expected, has a major impact and is later rationalised by hindsight. Think 9/11, the financial crisis and the rise of the internet and its associated techno-culture of PCs, mobile phones, handheld devices and social networks.

Over the last decade a lot of established publishing companies have watched the digital tide come in and panicked about getting left behind, being stranded at high-water and marooned on an ever-decreasing island of print.

Not that they copied Canute. For the most part they chose to dive in - sink or swim and all that. The best have kept their heads above water and adapted well. But, to wring once last excruciating ounce from this analogy, I think a few have tried to go with the flow but still, fundamentally, been fighting the current. By their very nature Black Swan events are counter-intuitive and often baffling.

I've seen it first-hand at these kinds of places. Terrified of being perceived as old-fashioned and set in their ways, and determined to be 'best-placed going forward', they've re-branded themselves as multi-platform and multi-media. They've retrained dazed-and-confused staff to think in terms of apps, viral campaigns, podcasts and the blogosphere.

Existing digital personnel have been overworked while new faces from young creative agencies have been consulted and recruited, and sometimes their fledgling businesses have been bought outright. All because of the need to understand - and quick - this new fragmented, meritocratic landscape in which the user, the average Joe or Jen, could not just set the agenda, dictating content at no expense and revelling in the role of 'citizen reporter', but challenge nepotism and cronyism in the industry.

(And, to be fair, open a Pandora's Box of unsubstantiated comment, malicious gossip, moronic babble and cyber bullying; but hey, swings and roundabouts).

Only now, as an editorial 'type' collaborating with a digital agency called Brighter Design, have I really begun to look at things from a different perspective - and see the possibilities and potential.

Hark at the new-media neophyte. I'm bound to 'see me arse' for this, but it does feel a bit like an epiphany. Now, it's about how editorial (words and pictures) can work, be refreshed and refined, even dazzle in a digital format with an audio-visual dimension - not how traditional templates can harness and exploit new media for their own ends. I still love a lot of newspapers and magazines and appreciate that they'll survive as niche or luxury products. It's just that their scope feels increasingly narrow these days.

I reckon this paranoia has crept into the visual identity and integrity of the dailies (the 'real', physical ones). The threat to print is real, of course, with so many 24/7 sources of news and information making anything else seem obsolete. But FT Weekend, for instance, still manages to look modern while feeling relaxed and at ease with itself. By contrast Saturday's Guardian, at least in my opinion, is a fraught ensemble of new-media motifs and text-generation tropes in pursuit of relevance and edginess. That said, only one of these two titles is currently charging for online content - up against a formidable, free opponent in the BBC website, which has been there from the start.

I don't think the dust will settle for a while yet, and maybe that's no bad thing. Like a merchant in the middle of Victorian Liverpool, this is a fascinating time to be around.


'Over the last decade a lot of established publishing companies have watched the digital tide come in and panicked about getting left behind, being stranded at high-water and marooned on an ever-decreasing island of print'


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