Review: The Cult of The Amateur

I started reading The Cult of the Amateur at the suggestion of a close friend. The main context of this book is that we as members of internet are somehow degrading the quality of external creative works like Music, News, and Movies. The author puts forth some interesting points, but mostly I disagree with his conclusions.

His major argument is that free and cheap media will win out over the expensive expert media. I disagree. People will pay for quality. People would pay for better news if better news were available for a reasonable price.

The web can actually do the converse of what the author is suggesting. The web could force us to improve our quality. The web could force retailers to have to create an experience that merits the expense of a few extra dollars. Perhaps I’m overly idealistic about human nature, but my belief is there are still things people spend money on even when they are tight on cash. Creating a significantly better experience or product will warrant money.

The problem is that retailers used to drive the price. You could walk into a store and pay a price the retailers deem is appriopriate for a given item, even if it is a %150 mark up on something. In the old economy retailers decided the cost on everything. In the new model, consumers can see through inflated costs by using tools like Amazon and Google.

This doesn’t mean consumers won’t spend. Look at the iPhone (yes, I’m an Apple fan, take this with a grain of salt). It is just a cell phone. You can get cell phones for free with plans from most providers, but the iPhone has flourished with its $400 price tag (yes, there are cheaper models, but for a time there wasn’t, and the iPhone was still doing well then). Granted this isn’t traditional media, and the argument in this book is about media, not necessarily products, but there is a connection between the economy of media products and the general economy.

What it comes down to is that our economy is evolving. What used to be of high value was information distribution. Information used to be hard to get so you had pay people (newspapers) to find it and bring it to you. Now that bringing it to you is easy, just go online. The service isn’t worth what it used to be. Is there still a market for information? Yes, of course there is. What is really valuable is well written, thought-out reporting. The information and validation of the information is still valuable, but the distribution is not.

In order to combat this, newspapers have started distributing online. The model that most news sites are using is ad revenue based. Newspapers get paid based on how many ads they can show you on the same page as your news. For this reason, newspapers have been changing the format of journalism. In high school, when I was trained to report, it was all about the lead paragraph. The lead paragraph in a newspaper article would cover all the details of the story in brief, the who, what, where, when, and why. The remainder of the article would delve into more detail and get all the information out.

Todays articles are different. They try and stretch the information out of many pages. The benefit of this approach is that you get more ad space as you expand pages. By keeping people reading to try to get the meat of the article, you get them to click through your pages, thus creating more opportunity for ad revenue. What you end up with, though, is news that is hard to read and not catering to what consumers really need, and therefore isn’t valuable.

Some newspapers have realized this and they are weather the storm better than others. A Graphic History of Newspaper Circulation, shows how some newspapers are still creating relevant content are having a healthy distribution. The Wall street journal is a leading the pack. The WSJ is selling online subscriptions just as they sell their paid subscriptions. Because their revenue is partially subscription based, the articles tend not to use pagination for more ad space. There are still adds on the page, but they are clearly separated from content, and allow the articles to be read easier.

The author, Keen, comes to similar conclusions towards the end of his book. He mentions how consumers will be in charge of driving the price of products in the future. We as consumers do have a responsibility to set pricing. What he misses is that the responsibility isn’t not just on the consumers to pay, but on the retailers to continue to make products that are valuable.

While I don’t agree with the author throughout most of the book, it did get me thinking. If you have an interest in art, music, video, or blogging, this book may be wroth you time. On the Tubbs scale, I’d give it about a 4/10.

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