Disintermediation Denial

Dumbest move this week™.

Microsoft and The New York Times unveiled software on Friday that would allow readers to download an electronic version of the newspaper and view it on a portable device.

With Microsoft’s new Windows Vista software, to be available in January, virtually any newspaper, magazine or book can be formatted into an electronic version and read online or off. The software would allow The Times to replicate its look — fonts, typeface and layout — more closely than its Web site now does.

I agreed with Dave Winer’s comment, (“Bill Gates helps the NY Times turn the clock back.”) but then I thought about it some more and went further.
This is so lame.
First, there’s this thing called the “Web” – maybe you’ve heard of it? It has a structural markup language called HTML, and a styling layout language called CSS. If you use this, your stuff can work nearly anywhere, Mac, PC, Linux, mobile phone, TV display, etc. The Microsoft/Times approach is so 1996, and probably has more to do with DRM than anything else. This announcement is very disappointing, and indicative that the Times is not thinking clearly about digital disintermediation.
Second, there’s this other thing called PDF. It’s been around for years, and it’s pretty well debugged (unlike the yet-to-ship Vista, nee Longhorn, with it’s constantly slipping schedule and on-going feature-kill). Even better, PDF currently allows “virtually any newspaper, magazine or book [to] be formatted into an electronic version and read online or off.” [Is there an echo in here?] Only one problem, it’s from Adobe, and Microsoft would never think of using that!
Instead, what they should be doing is figuring out how to engage the army of bloggers to use Times stories as a focal point for their efforts. Who freaking cares if the formatting looks good offline? I’m reading most of my news in generic text via NetNewsWire anyway. It’s very train-friendly already.
Hint: The advertisers care. Therefore realize that the “customers” of the Times are advertisers, not readers. What the readers are is not clear, though “consumers” might fit. I’m surprised Umair hasn’t written about this yet, perhaps because it’s such a dumb move that it’s not worth commenting.
Face it. The Times is going to be very distracted for the next year. They’ve moving into a new building late this year or early next (I forget) – the whole staff, moving a new place for the first time since the 1800’s or somesuch crazy-long time. They’re building the building, so you can imagine the impact on your “core competencies” if you’ve ever built or renovated a house. The Bush administration is going to sue their ass off for the NSA spy leak; you can see pretty clearly that it’s going to get ugly. And they’re still hamstrung by the myth of objectivity. They (along with everyone else) still print whatever the Administration says, even when it’s a blatant outright lie (c.f. anything Cheney has said for the past several years).
Imagine instead if the Times had a Blogger Research Program. It would work like this: Bloggers would sign up, and there would be a nominal annual fee to separate out the serious from the hasslers. Say, $20 a month. For that you get access to a password-protected RSS feed of story drafts in development. (You might also include a subscription to Times Select.) You submit your thoughts, corrections, research notes, and op-ed comments to a private forum or blog, where there is one topic/post per story. Every time the Times uses one of your quotes or research in a published story you get paid a nominal amount. Say, $5. The goal for bloggers would be to earn some income (eBay style). Maybe some people are occasionally invited to write an op-ed piece for full publication. Maybe some longer pieces are commissioned based on the blog posts. Maybe the super-pros rise to a full-time gig at the Times. The goal for the Times is to get hundreds of people competing for pixels and ink in a national pub. Their quality would go sky-high. The online dynamic would change too – bloggers would write for broad appeal and re-use, not just for venting. The Times would be hungry for their blogger army contributions because they could never pay for such a large and well-distributed research staff.
The details need more thought than the 15 minutes I’ve put in. But this is what comes off the top of my head, and IMHO it’s a hell of a lot more pragmatic and clear-thinking than what Sulzberger and Gates came up with. [How’s that for ego inflation?]
To my loyal Times employee reader: I would love to help implement something like this, and guess what? I’m already an experienced consultant working in the field! How convenient is that?
Have your people call my people and we’ll do lunch.