Peter Osnos on Convenience and Quality

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By Peter Osnos, Senior Fellow for Media at The Century Foundation and Founder of The Caravan Project

Every so often in the daily perusal of information -- in print and online, over the air, over cable, or beamed from a satellite -- something leaps out that actually changes the way the world looks. I had that welcome sensation recently from an article on the front page of the Money section of USA Today by Kevin Maney under the headline: "Your Answers Will Play a Big Role in the Future of the Media." The message of the piece is that the transformation of today's world of news and entertainment is about consumer choice. "We" and not "They" are in charge of what we want to read and watch and where, when and how we choose to do it.

That has been increasingly clear to me over the past decade as the proliferation of outlets for content and means of distribution have expanded dramatically. Traditional content providers -- the big newspaper and magazine groups, the book publishers, networks and studios -- have scrambled to keep pace with new distributors: Google, Yahoo, and others with control of data and the systems for sending it around. At stake is nothing less than the share of audiences and revenues, which are, of course, the lifeblood of the media businesses.

What Maney's piece added to my thinking was his definition of how those consumer choices are made. Each decision is a balance of convenience and quality. The article focused on the movie industry, where the battle is theaters versus DVDs versus laptops and handhelds. But the principle extends across the entire spectrum of our time-honored habits. We have always selected one movie over another to see, or one book, newspaper, and magazine over another to read. Now we also can determine where the experience will take place, when it will happen, and in exactly what form. The quality of the content is one pillar of our choice. The other pillar is convenience.

Consider books. For the past year, I have been working in partnership with a group of publishing industry colleagues on a project we call Caravan, supported by the MacArthur Foundation. Each of the seven contributing publishers (leading university presses and other nonprofits) is going to be releasing books in the Caravan demonstration phase next spring in every way technology will permit. About two-dozen books will be released simultaneously in the traditional printed version in hardcover or paperback supplemented, if necessary to keep the book in ready supply, by the latest version of print-on-demand technology. At the same time, the book will be available in digital formats for reading on computers (desk, lap, and hand) either in full or in parts. An audio version will be read by its author or a professional reader and downloadable on to your favored listening device. Finally (at least so far) the books will be rendered in a large-type format.

If this menu seems confusing, apply the book model to how we now routinely watch a movie (the focus of the USA Today piece). Take for example, Superman. This summer's blockbuster Superman Returns has been in, and is now mostly out, of theaters. You can already watch it on-demand in hotel rooms and by Christmas it will be for sale in DVD packages, cable-on-demand, premium cable, and soon (when the contract haggling is completed) will be downloadable on to computers and iPods. This is the same movie made available for sale in a myriad of ways at various prices in a rollout timetable. The theater ticket sale is only a portion of the producers' revenues and parceling out the profits for every other delivery system in the lengthening list of possibilities is where the future power of all the providers will be determined.

Going back to books, the issues of quality and convenience can be interpreted two ways: How good the book is as a work of narrative or scholarship; and how easy it is to read it in today's world. Traditionally, when consumers have decided they want a book, they have relied on bookstores or libraries to have it in stock. Then, once they've located it, they have to carry it around. In the Caravan model, these experiences would be reinvented. Books will always be in stock (because of print or digital delivery on demand) and the manner in which they are read will be up you. The importance of this evolution is profound. Books, particularly the serious nonfiction and specialized works in the Caravan demonstration, have always been limited in distribution. As the technology enables them to be always available in so many different ways, it is fair to predict they will be more widely used.

For everyone who benefits from information and entertainment -- and that means just about everyone -- developments in the quality and convenience of the way material is delivered are as significant as the way automobiles and airplanes changed transportation or the telephone advanced communication. We moved around before cars and we sent messages before the telephone. But most things tended to be slower or harder to accomplish than they are now. Creativity and content are the absolute prerequisites for all of our media now as in the past. Distribution -- the means of getting it around -- is where the greatest challenges are today.

Those of us in the old fashioned businesses, especially newspapers, magazines, and books, need to make sense of these developments or we will be replaced by people who have.

In addition to being senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation and founder of The Caravan Project, Peter Osnos is the founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs.

This column originally appeared on The Century Foundation website, . Reprinted with permission of the author.