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Publishing News: The threat of censorship, from a non-government entity

PayPal is censoring, pirates are opportunities, and newspapers are doomed.

Here are the publishing-related stories that caught my attention this week.

Censorship disguised as a business decision

Censored.pngThe PayPal-as-content-police saga continues this week. Publishers Weekly reports that PayPal is backing off Smashwords a bit: “As it stands now, PayPal has contacted Smashwords about the possibility of relaxing the enforcement and has assured the distributor that their account will not be in immediate risk of limitation pending ongoing discussions.” The post outlines the background on the situation:

“The issue began February 18, when [Smashwords founder Mark] Coker received an e-mail from PayPal notifying him that Smashwords had until February 24 to correct titles with the controversial topics or else the Smashwords account would be limited. PayPal told Coker: ‘Our banking partners and credit card associations have taken a very strict stance on this subject matter. Our relationships with the banking partners are absolutely critical in order to provide the online and mobile services we do to our customers. Therefore, we have to remain in compliance with their rules, which prohibit content involving rape, bestiality or incest.'”

Several anti-censorship and privacy rights organizations, including the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and the Internet Archive, have signed a letter to PayPal in support of Smashwords. The letter concludes by noting exactly how dangerous PayPal’s intended actions are:

“The Internet has become an international public commons, like an enormous town square, where ideas can be freely aired, exchanged, and criticized. That will change if private companies, which are under no legal obligation to respect free speech rights, are able to use their economic clout to dictate what people should read, write, and think.”

Magellan Media founder Brian O’Leary also highlighted a bit of the bigger picture:

As the tools of creation and production have become increasingly democratized, efforts to control supply have shifted to the platforms that support this more open process. After all, it’s a lot easier to shut down Smashwords than it is to get its thousands of authors to stop writing.

The PW post includes comments that claim PayPal’s demands are not censorship, just a business decision (… a decision that just happens to prevent people from being able to buy or read something). You didn’t like SOPA? Meet the bankers.

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This kind of consumer demand should make you drool

Inspired by the Oatmeal cartoon detailing futile attempts at legally watching the “Game of Thrones” TV show (and several subsequent responses to it), David Sleight over at Stuntbox takes a look at the current state of piracy and makes a compelling argument to corporate America that pirate consumers are an opportunity:

“The audience is telling you, in no uncertain terms, they want your stuff. And they are telling you precisely what stuff. The people you’re calling ‘thieves’ are telling you where you need to be. They are jumping through hoops only slightly less complicated than the ones you set out for them via official channels, displaying the sort of pent-up demand that should make you drool. This is what’s commonly referred to in business circles as an opportunity.”

Sleight points out that behind private, closed doors, corporate America acknowledges this but can’t get seem to migrate the mindset into the boardroom. He offers several proposals to help them get a move-on. A few teasers include: “Start projects by picturing what the user wants to have in their hands and build up from that.” And, “… the future is about frictionless access …” And, “Stop thumping the table with these [bogus] stats.” Sleight’s piece is well worth the read.

And publishers might take a page from the TED playbook: Joshua Gans at the Harvard Business Review profiles the TED publishing platform, noting not only the openness of the TED talks themselves (the videos are freely available), but also the TED name (adhering to a few rules, anyone can hold a TEDx event). Gans concludes: “TED could have done the traditional publishing thing — put up walls and sold exclusivity. Instead, it has chosen to embrace the notion that information has the most value when it is shared widely. Perhaps traditional publishers of other forms of media should take note.”

And in case you missed it, here’s author Neal Gaiman on the opportunities of piracy:

What we have here is a failure to visualize

A new study from The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that newspapers’ digital efforts are falling short in making up for losses in print revenues and that “most newspapers continue to contract with alarming speed.” Fear of rapid failure seems to be fueling the slow, steady decline. One newspaper executive told the study group, “There’s no doubt we’re going out of business right now.” The report continues:

“The problem, he [the newspaper executive] explained, is the dilemma that faces many trying to innovate inside older industries. If you changed your company and did not succeed, that could hasten the end of the enterprise. ‘There might be a 90% chance you’ll accelerate the decline if you gamble and a 10% chance you might find the new model,’ he said. ‘No one is willing to take that chance’.”

PewStudyNewsRevenues.pngThe study investigates the decline in the industry from many angles — digital advertising to mobile to cultural obstacles. The study also asked newspaper executives to look five years down the road; the results were grim and highlighted the industry’s lack of vision. Response highlights include:

  • The most common scenario was that the newspaper would be printed and delivered to people’s homes less frequently, perhaps as little as two to three days a week-or even just on Sunday. This has already occurred in some markets, such as Detroit.
  • One foresaw a looming era of significantly downsized newsrooms. Another suggested the papers would inevitably get “thinner and weaker.”
  • One thought it would be possible for papers to “limp along,” but that another recession could be catastrophic to the industry.

The study report points out what is “probably the strongest underlying finding of this study: The people who run the newspaper industry are unsure of where it is heading or what it will look like.”

Got news?

Suggestions are always welcome, so feel free to send along your news scoops and ideas.

Photo (top): Vitruvian by Mr.Enjoy, on Flickr

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