18 March 2006

We live in the era of Franklin

Ben Franklin, author, patriot and printer, amongst many professions in his life, saw much value in the press and printing. But, he also realized that it was not possible to please everyone, while doing so.

"If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed."
- Benjamin Franklin
And truer words were not spoken as we go through strange times of cartoons not being printed for fear they might offend some segment of some population somewhere on this globe. The Freedom of Speech is a right and a responsibility, but to allow censorship based only on mere offense is to belittle that Freedom with irresponsibility. Mr. Franklin used his pen and press to give rise to writings that, in some instances, may not have pleased some few and powerful or would indict actions that he saw as irresponsible in the many. Still his wisdom lives on in his words, repeated often even in the unknowing of the author of them.

The invention of moveable type by Gutenberg brought about a revolution in thought by allowing the spread of the printed word at a lower cost. The cost of actually owning and running a press and print shop, once the numbers being printed were more than a handful, did increase in cost. Still, it was far, far lower than hand transcription and was a boost to literacy and understanding in many realms. By being available in the time of Martin Luther, the Holy Bible itself became translated and printed in many lands, so that Latin was no longer the sole disposition of it. And in so doing, the word spread and popularized and different meanings than the original were understood, meanings not authorized by the Catholic Church. So some few lives lay at the feet of the press as an instrument used to spread knowledge.

With the advent of automation and cast type, the ability of the press to put out more printed pages at a lower cost increased. And presses became more expensive and soon were beyond the reach of ordinary print shops. But the use of such presses for printing works, old and new, and distributing them at lower cost meant a spread of literacy and learning throughout the world. The use of the press for news was always present, even at the beginning of things, and one of its most common uses was to print weekly or daily summaries of events from everywhere. As the cost of the actual press itself went up, so did distribution as the cost per sheet lowered drastically. Higher volume of printed material meant the actual cost of each page soon started to reflect that of paper and ink, as the cost of maintaining the press and running it for that print run was spread out over the entire run. Longer runs = lower cost per sheet.

Colored inks had always been around, but to apply them within a print run required either a re-run of already printed material or a second impression area that would allow for a sheet to be delivered in an exact way to it so that this would then print on the first area. The cost of a two-color press increases the original outlay and maintenance of that press. It took the color photograph to be separated in a way that inks could replicate to allow a four color process to give rise to realistic color printing. Cyan Magenta Yellow and Black, or CMYK which is a four dot color separation, with dots printed close to or actually overlapping each other to give a color impression to the eye. This became four color press separation and printing. And here the basic economics still reigned as longer print runs meant lower cost per impression. But capital outlay also increased drastically. To this day a large, traditional, 4 color press is out of the range of any but the most wealthy individuals or corporations.

Color printing from laserjets and inkjet printers at the dawn of the digital age allowed for a static cost per sheet, as there was no real maintenance issues involved and the cost soon drops to that of the toner or ink and the paper. But, it is slow and expensive, and the cost per sheet is basically the same be it 1 sheet or 1,000 sheets. Once this was coupled with software to start making small folders, pamphlets and such, reliable desktop printing was born. The large press organizations did not see this as much of a threat even into the early 1990's. And then a few things started to change the entire concept of the press, press freedom and printing.

First up was the fact that computer monitors used electrons and had a different color space than film or CMYK printing. Leaving that entire realm of color matching aside, it had one unique quality: once paid for, there was no cost per impression. A digital document could be brought up again and again and again in its exact same state as it was made. Soon those digital documents were being put onto servers that would serve them up to remote clients. By the mid to late 1990's, and the use of the Internet being opened to everyone, the entire economics of printing was starting to change.

I remember being at a few of the Seybold Seminars and attending Print '97 in Chicago, and going to panels looking at all of the above and trying to figure out where the news press was headed. It was little secret that most newspapers and magazines actually made little or no money from subscribers: their revenue was in advertisements. The main worry was that advertisers, seeing a lower cost to make digital content and nearly no cost to distribute it, would find it more economical to move into that area and spend less money on print. Newspapers in particular dreaded this as it would reduce their profit margin and force a reduction in content. There was worry about freedom of the press (in this case the news organizations) slowly dying on the vine as electronic media would eat into their revenues.

Ways were discussed to keep readers and diversify content. Perhaps allow subscribers to get only sections they wanted, so long as all the ads went with it. Perhaps a fax machine in each home that would only print out the types of stories each subscriber wanted, along with an ad or two. Putting content online along with their traditional advertisers was batted about. There was much hemming and hawing and general discussion, but no firm conclusions except that national newspapers would suffer before local ones. And so local newspapers, already being gobbled up by meganews corporations were gobbled up faster.

What impressed me was that everyone was missing the point of the electronic media. The cost of a computer and network connection would drop over time via Moore's Law and Metcalf's Law. As the seminar years drew on this realization was recognized and played out. The driver for this was retail and wholesalers, however, that began to disintermediate retail stores from goods delivery. News organizations worried about this and gingerly stepped into things, and dithered and generally worried about how to make money off of something given away for free. Charging subscriptions turns out to only really work if you have content worth charging for. As more and more content was being made available freely, there became fewer online differentaitions between news organizations.

What these people never wanted to address was that personal computers and low network cost, lowered barrier of entrance to the marketplace for spreading information. Essentially, for that cost and the cost of the software to run the computer, an individual now OWNED their own printing press and distribution system! And after the first wave of personal vanity web sites died down, a new form of web site arose: those that were devoted to commentary, analyses and, yes, providing news. The real kicker is that these were offered for *free*.

The cost of a press (the actual physical printing device) was spread out over the number of sheets printed, as was the cost of maintenance and ink. More impressions meant a lower cost per impression per press run. A totally digital media had only a minor upfront cost, minimal network cost and no cost per impression, unless the end user wanted to print it out themselves. The free press (as in new organizations) suddenly realized that the one thing they could have used to distinguish themselves, namely commentary and analysis, was now being sliced out from under them. As more and better commentators appeared to give their ideas away for free, or through the use of low cost advertising, the essential reasoning behind the need for a free press was being eroded. The old Bulletin Board Systems and Usenet groups were being outmoded and replaced by interactive many-to-many communications systems. And the free press had no answer for this.

I stopped attending conferences in this realm around 2000 or so, as it no longer met my work role or needs. But my own personal habits changed drastically from that of magazine oriented to that of online content oriented for technical use. Soon my own interests and past-times moved to digital formats and that changed the way I thought and behaved. I could now do my own news and analysis comparisons amongst many individuals and organizations to determine what was really going on in the world. As with the entire Open Source Software movement, the more individuals looking at events the faster inaccuracies were found and addressed.

This would have been a dream world to Ben Franklin. Everyone, effectively, owns a printing press for distributing thoughts and ideas. They also have their own instant communications systems. They have a versatile computing device that will allow them to do many hobbies and past-times directly through it without the need for additional materials. In point of fact this allows individuals *today* to do things that just a decade ago would have been impossible and limited to large groups or companies. Today we have new Star Trek episodes made by fans, digital distribution of music on a global scale, and many, many other things that could not be afforded now coming out of the exosphere and into your desktop computer. And this allows Citizens in the US and all across the world to interact in ways that could never have been forseen by Mr. Franklin.

And while the traditional free press (as in news organizations) begin to restrict themselves harshly through self-censorship so as not to offend people, the new found freedom of making, distributing and using information provided freely is growing hard and fast. And Mr. Franklin would probably be delighted at how the ideas of James Burke are making a new era come to life, even to those who don't know a single thing about him. For as we gain new knowledge and interaction, so we expand our horizons and gain new perspectives on the world around us. And when you see things differently, then you hit The Day the Universe Changed.

The news organizations have been talking about this for a decade or more. And while some remnants will always be with us, the need for large overhead, large scale distribution and printing setups will wane. Our perspective is changing, and so is the universe... and the news universe is growing outside the bounds of traditional news into something entirely different.

Made by people freely exchanging thoughts and opinions to guide their lives.

For me, this is the era of Ben Franklin, giving common wisdom to the common man to enlighten us all.

Thank you and rest in peace Mr. Franklin. And let us hope we can keep the Republic you helped to give us.

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