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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 16, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    There’s a chill in the air…

    Hugh Linehan

    Back in dark, drizzly Ireland after a week in dark, drizzly Denmark, where I had many dark, drizzly conversations with media types from around Europe about the future of newspapers. It’s not bright, apparently.

    One speaker talked about the ice-cutting industry in 19th century America. Back then, ice-cutting was big business. Thousands of mutton-whiskered men worked at cutting blocks of ice from wintry shorelines, and shipping those blocks in container ships to the UK and the West Indies, where ice was a highly prized luxury.

    Then, someone invented the ice factory. Now ice could be made in London or anywhere else. But it was a complicated process, involving dangerous chemicals. The ice-cutters reckoned they could stay in the game by wrapping their ice better and building bigger ships. They had the market share and the business relationships to beat these upstarts, didn’t they?

     10 years later, they were gone.

    Flash forward another few decades, and the rich and happy ice factory owners heard about the invention of something called the ‘refrigerator’, which would allow anyone make their own ice. No problem, reasoned the factory owners. We have the proven technology, the established network for delivering ice around the country. We know our customers, we’ll just make our ice delivery service even better.

    Well, you know the rest…

    The question troubling my European confreres last week was: ‘are we the ice-cutters or the ice factories? And how the hell do we get into the fridge business?’

    • barbera O'Shcokenzy says:

      Well it just takes one good idea. There was James Watt’s his name sitting in the kitchen one day just looking at the kettle boil – and before you could whistle stop the whole world was running on steam power, which was a horse of a different story to what preceded it – horsepower I believe it was called. Fast forward to nuclear power, which was always problematic but I reckon pretty soon the Chinese, the Japanese or the Americans or some European genius (and probably all at the same time which strangely is how these things seem to happen) will nail COLD FUSION and that’ll be the energy problem solved; but what kind of communications media will evolve along with it and will print media survive. Fascinating is how aerial views of cities like New York look like the motherboard of a computer and who hasn’t noticed that; and maybe we’ll all end up plugging our heads into communal sockets to get our daily news fix – but I think it is important to remember that Superman was really a mild-mannered reporter who worked for the Daily Planet – a broadsheet. Could be the “end Times” in more ways than one, though, if the prophets are right and news these days does feel eerily apocalyptic …
      (Love that old-time-feel of the sepia photograph – which, oddly, reminds me that the Malahide viaduct is back up and trains are running again).

    • Liam says:

      Did the people you met think the analogy right the way through? All the industries you mentioned provided, in essence, a single product: a low temperature. The method of delivery just changed, and the ice-cutters could have stayed in business had they moved with the times – if they’d realised they were in the low-temperature business rather than the ice-cutting or ice-factory business. Most papers have already embraced new platforms or are heading in that direction. The problem, therefore, is not the march of technology so much as the fact that, even though most people still accept they have to pay for a fridge, they’re no longer as happy with the idea that they need to pay, directly or indirectly, for news, however they prefer to have it delivered. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch is right: any product has a value; business is partly about making people believe that the product is worth paying for. He persuades people to subscribe to Sky, for example, even if it’s just to the basic package rather than a premium film or sports service. Yet many of Sky’s most-watched channels are available with just a dish and a set-top box – no subscription or viewing card required. Why do people pay? Because they believe it’s a simple and convenient way to get content. And they no longer notice the subscription disappearing from their bank account each month. Perhaps newspapers should be looking to offer for a package so appealing that people sign up and never cancel.

    • Tormentor says:

      The best thing about the end of newspapers will be the end of articles about the end of newspapers.

    • robespierre says:

      Hugh why is it taking so long update the on-line edition these days. Is this to drive the print edition a la the Sunday’s staying offline until 6pm.

    • Ciarán says:

      Silly ice-cutters. If only they realised that they could have charged mobile phone companies, banks and insurance providers to carve giant advertisements into their blocks of ice thereby paying for their production and transport costs.

      Newspapers do need to seriously think about charging for online content but why jump into it if there might be a way to make more money from online advertising.

      Don’t ask me how to achieve that but so far the debate seems to only focus on paywalls and the like. Advertising revenues will pick up again as we emerge from a global recession and I’m sure that Rupert Murdoch knows that too.

      Maybe he’s just trying to force us into Wapping 2.0 while he can.

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Liam@2: the analogy was presented as a way to start people thinking out of the (ice)box. Personally, I did find it interesting that a lot of the reaction was a mournful ‘we’re all doomed’. There are indeed many ways to think about making money out of content.

      Tormentor@3: Not sure about that. Given the way journalists love to write memoirs, I can imagine them (us) still going on and on about it long after the fact.

      Robespierre@4: I’m not aware of any big problems with the publish. There’s certainly been no policy change.

      Ciaran@5. Yes, the recession is focusing minds, but the bigger picture is that the lion’s share of online ad revenue isn’t going to display, it’s going to search (hence Rupert’s ‘Google is eating my lunch’ mantra).

    • barbera O'Shcokenzy says:

      I suppose the basic issue here is survival, which is material; revenue obviously, and resources – as in running out of natural ones, like paper, and how many times can the same old garbage be recycled, etc. Perhaps it may be possible to think outside of the www box and of something along the lines of an attractive little mini satellite gadget, designed exclusively to ‘catch’ only Irish Times daily transmissions of Editorial, National news, World news, Opinion, Sport (if they must have it), etc., and which could be viewed only on special IT monitors, for which there would be a standard charge for rental (from the IT); and an appropriate IT licence fee could be charged. It would be like having a permanent rechargeable newspaper, except that it would be a ‘newsmonitor’ – and the licence fee would have to be paid it because IT would have heard all the excuses …

      Pity, though, if the “actual” IT newspaper goes. There was something comforting about the tangibility of the “actual” newspaper. And I don’t know if this has all been said before but there was even something stylish about having the “actual” Irish Times draped over the arm of the couch and it was nice to be able to fold the paper in 4 and actually hold the paper while doing the crossaire and scribbling – especially outside the scribble box. And when the inevitable happened on account of a really difficult clue and the ‘out-of-their-box’ frustrated ones began tearing out the hair and flailing the newspaper about, they knew that the newspaper could withstand such frenzied assaults – unlike monitors, for example – so fragile – and you can’t peel potatoes on them or put them all over the floor when the washing machine leaks and it is the end of the cold war and spies are redundant but it was useful to be able to hide behind the newspaper and still is, on the dart, for example, when you are up close and personal with a stranger and you don’t know where to look. Got to keep up with the virtual times though if you don’t want to get frozen out. Some cultures did useful things with ice though – igloos, innit!
      (Ice ice Baby – under pressure – wonder what the twins will do next week!)

    • Frank says:

      Really puzzled as to why the Irish Times doesn’t have an iphone app yet? Even the Indo has one now! The Irish Times did well to get onto the Kindle early, but e readers are more suitable for books. The iphone , and the long awaited apple tablet will be where its at for newspapers and magazines.

    • Emperor Zero says:

      “Ice is civilization” as Harrison Ford says in the Mosquito Coast. I use my newspaper to light fires, clean windows, mop stains and there is no glossy magazine, no Amazon Kindle and no LCD touchscreen can do that. People are just fascinated with gizmos but ol’ papyrus has been around for a long time and writing would have to disappear first. Although now that Twitter has come along …:(

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