Friday, April 3, 2015

Life and Communications, Unbundled

The good old days, when things were bundled and nobody complained.

Last month the Canadian Radio and Television Commission ordered Canada’s cable companies to unbundle their offerings—no more forcing consumers to pay packages of channels they don’t want in order to get the one they do want.

In so doing, the CRTC is finally catching up to the great unbundling that has been going on in society for a while now.

iTunes unbundled music; no more buying a CD of ten songs to get the one you want.

Digital photography unbundled the connection between the photographer and the camera store, eliminating the need to transfer photos from film to prints.

Online shopping is unbundling the shopping mall. There’s now no need to go to a central location to find a collection of stores when you can visit thousands of retailers using the Internet.

Online courses threaten to unbundle universities. By bundling all the professors and courses into one location, schools achieve an economy of scale. Today, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and Special Private Online Courses (SPOCs) remove the need to put everything that is offered in one place.

Unbundling is also happening in the world of communication to newspapers and magazines.

For centuries, the most economical way to share information was by bundling it into daily, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly packages called issues.

It was uneconomical to print an article, then mail it to subscribers. The costs were prohibitive, and would lead to financial ruin.

So publishers waited until they had enough articles, coupled them with advertising, and bundled them into an issue.

In other words, publications were not set up for the convenience of the readers, but for the publisher.

But the Internet has eliminated the constraint on distribution.

Today, if an article is finished, it can be released to the public immediately—online.

Making people wait a day, week or months to get information is a path to a different kind of ruin today—the ruin or irrelevance.

When people can Tweet or Facebook about events in real time, nobody needs a publication that promises to tell them tomorrow what happened yesterday.

For communicators accustomed to bundling material into packages, this is a scary time. But there’s no going back.

No longer does it make any sense to make readers wait until we're ready to share information. They're ready now.

The challenge is that not everybody is online, or wants to get their information that way.

At my place of employment, we navigate that challenge by still publishing a newsletter four times a year—it's a good way to serve that shrinking, but still very important (and very generous) group of people who prefer their information that way.

But before those articles land in a mailbox, they are all posted on our website and Tweeted and Facebooked out. 

It’s a middle path between the two worlds of print and online, and so far it seems to be working. But one day I know it will stop.

Just like the need for the bundling of many other things in the world today is coming to an end. 

My hometown newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press (which I also write for), is experimenting with unbundling. It is instituting a unique paywall that lets reader pay for only the articles they want to readsports, entertainment, horoscopes. You will create your own newspaper each day, in other words. Click here to learn more about the experiment.

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