idiot at motley fool
20 September 2001 09:57am
Many people died last week and with them so did many of our cherished beliefs about the world. Most critical of these, perhaps, is our sense of safety, our sense that the street we walk down every day is unlikely to explode in flames in front of us and that our home is almost certainly going to be there when we get back in the evening, with all of those dear to us still alive and healthy. This sense of safety is a privilege we in the West have enjoyed for a good fifty years or so. It is not a privilege shared by much of the rest of the world and who knows when, if ever, we will get it back.
But along with these major preconceptions about the world died a whole host of other, less significant ones in the confidence-shattering, diabolical inferno of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One of these now vanished beliefs (which in the face of what has happened currently holds, I must admit, only academic interest for me) is the idea that there is any very useful competition between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ media, that somehow they’re jostling for the same space.
Last week, we participated in a multi-media experience of a kind which has not really occurred before. There can be no-one reading this newsletter who did not watch the awful pictures on TV, see them in the newspapers, listen to events unfold on the radio and, lastly, log into their favourite news website for the latest news. Many of these websites struggled to cope with the load. Some toppled, so heavy was the demand. We used each media channel for what it was best for, at times when it suited us and, critically, the choice was pretty much subconscious.
This idea that the Internet is special in some way, or uniquely powerful, has been an understandably attractive one for all of us involved in the industry, but as we now know it was a cherished belief that we held onto for too long. Of course the Internet is special –“Hey, it’s amazing, you can get real-time updates wherever you happen to be logged in and on some sites you can even post your own comments. Cool!” But only in the way that a newspaper is special – “Hey, it’s amazing, you can read it on a train, when you’ve finished you can fold it up and take it with you and it’s really cheap and convenient too!” Or the TV – well, you see what I’m getting at.
However ‘cool’ we think it is, and however revolutionary aspects of it may be, at its heart the Internet is just another channel for delivery of certain types of information. It cannot be divorced from the other channels and treated in isolation. At the Motley Fool we were lucky – and I mean lucky – in that early on there was a recognition of the importance of the offline channels, although I don’t think we realised at the time quite how important they were. So, from our pure online beginnings, we developed products including our books, newspaper columns and articles, syndicated radio show and general media punditry. All these had a different tone and feel as compared to the content we, and our users, were producing online and without them I’m not sure where we’d be now.
The reality that we have learned over the years and which was cemented for me last week is that certain channels are appropriate for certain kinds of information. To try to stuff the wrong kind of information down a channel – e.g. a 3,000 word newspaper feature article onto a website – invites disaster. That’s why ‘offline’ and ‘online’ media are potentially dangerous terms. They suggest that the two are separate and in competition in the same way as the national UK newspaper editor in 1998 who refused to take a column from us because ‘people like you are going to put newspapers out of business’.
Well, we’re not going to put newspapers out of business. That much has been obvious for a while, but neither is the Internet as a medium going to go away. People are cussed and instead of using the Internet as we thought they ought, they chose to use it in the way which was most useful to them. (Damn them!) That has led to the Internet finding its natural, unhyped level in the wider media landscape and the more mature way in which we all used it without even thinking in the last week is symbolic of that coming of age.
This in turn means the days of media companies without an online offering are numbered. But companies with nothing but an online offering are also looking at a very uncertain, limited future. Any company caught on one side of this artificial divide had better reinvent itself quickly, because, like so many things, the parochial distinction between offline and online media now belongs to that strangely distant era before September 11th 2001.
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