Ken Doctor’s New Book ‘Newsonomics’ a Vivid Dispatch from the News Wars

Ken Doctor’s new book published Tuesday, “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get,” sounds as if it is going to be a treatise, but it’s not. Sure, there is plenty of solid analysis, but “Newsonomics” reads more like a series of battlefield dispatches from the hunkered down camp of beleaguered old media and the loosely organized fronts opened by new media insurgents.
 
And Doctor is a virtual Christiane Amanpour of the news wars — quick-moving, observant, solid in his interpretations and engaged without being a cranky partisan.
 
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I should pause right here and say this is not exactly a review of his book. Doctor and I have been professional friends for several years. He spoke last November at our Poynter conference on the Future of Advertising. He acknowledged me in the book as one of 28 fellow commentators with whom he likes bouncing around ideas.

 
That said, Doctor delivers the book I would have expected, given his balanced perspective and consistently rewarding Content Bridges blog. Here are three things I like about the book.
 
Close-up reporting: Doctor’s consulting practice gets him around the country. Without going all featurish, the book includes well-observed details, such as the contrast between the mammoth, half-empty newsroom of The Philadelphia Inquirer with the studio apartment-sized digs of voiceofsandiego.org (one of the biggest and best of the independent, nonprofit start-ups).
 
Opening the second chapter, Doctor describes New York Times brand-name tech columnist David Pogue holding forth on a stage in Monterey, Calif. Then he wheels into a solid discussion of how much money the Times may be making on Pogue’s work alone.
 
In the manner of John Morton in his heyday, Doctor taps into insights from questions he is asked and from what he hears from his clients. The result is authoritative.
 
Good with numbers: Doctor has an eye for the telling statistic. He explains them without a lot of jargon and avoids some of the more convoluted modeling that creeps into some whither-the-news conversations.
 
A case in point is a commentary on why digital ad rates are still only a fraction of their print counterparts. One reason, Doctor suggests, is the short time that all those millions of unique visitors spend on each site. So, he suggests, most news consumption still occurs in print.
 
That sent me to my calculator. (My numbers here, not Doctor’s.) If there are about 70 million unique visitors per month on newspaper sites and they spend an average of 30 minutes there (on all newspaper sites, not just their hometown paper’s) that’s 2.1 billion minutes. An average of 43 million print papers are purchased daily. Figure a very conservative 20 minutes per day reading time (and we’re not counting pass-along readers), times 30 days. That’s 25.8 billion minutes in a month. Ten times as much, about the same as the print/online ad split!
 
First-person perspective: Linear is out, right? Doctor does not proceed in a straight line, breaking up the loosely knit chapters with newsy sidebars.

The book is organized in the manner of John Naisbitt’s 1982 classic, “Megatrends,” around 12 stories within the big story. None of the trends are oh-my-God startling, but they add up to a far-reaching overview of what’s decaying and gone and of the new order that is emerging.

Most chapters close with a short Q&A interview or two with digital doers. That adds to the from-the-trenches feel of the book and accommodates varying viewpoints. Doctor asks a nifty final question to most people: “What lesson in digital media do you wish you had learned faster?”

 
Mike Orren, publisher of the Pegasus News site in Dallas, replies (among four takeaways): “Ad sales will ramp 70 percent slower than your most dour prediction. But if you can hang on, they will ramp.”

 

Some readers may be disappointed that the book is not totally up-to-date. But that’s inevitable when you try to match the pace of book production with a fast-moving subject. Thus Doctor doesn’t really address the course of the recession and likely post-recession scenarios, and his discussion of paid online content is informed but missing the important developments of the last six months.
 
The book also lacks a grand synthesis or a definitive take on where it will all end. I take that to be a mark of Doctor’s intellectual honesty. One can identify important trends, but there is a disorderly, world-turned-upside-down aspect to the current state of the news. Too tidy a book would not be true to that reality.

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