The road to anywhere starts from where you are, so I was not a bit surprised to find that the first item up on the agenda of the International STM conference last week alongside the Frankfurt Book Fair was fully aligned with the themes of the Outsell meeting the previous week. And as I ranted (now an over-used term) in my last blog about neutral platforms and the architecture of content delivery to a multiplicity of devices, so in turn I found myself listening to an organization that aspires to do just that. Accordingly, Stephen Dunn, Head of Technology Strategy at Guardian News and Media is my Player of the Week, and I shall watch out for his slides coming up on the STM site ( with great interest. He gave a clear description of how you use a neutral platform to respond to very different customer expectations, and I reflected that the Guardian’s problem is common to most of us. Different customer types in different cultures and geographies whose level of intensity of use is very varied and whose connection to the brand ranges from committed to peripheral. So when we got to Q&A I asked Stephen who gave the Guardian its brand mandate – the 300 thousand or so who read the paper or the 36 million online registrants who identify with something of the aura of moderate liberal politics exuded by its communications. In a sense this was a cheat, since I had once asked the editor in chief, Alan Rusbridger, the same question. He ducked and weaved but eventually came back to the newspaper and its mission. Stephen was much smarter: he coolly said that he didn’t know, leaving his audience with the feeling that it might have been divine, or at least, manifest destiny. The God of the Nineteenth Century sent the Scott family to earth with a purpose, and a right to perpetual existence to deliver it.

I wish, however, that I had asked the next question. When he was asked about the size and margins of the business that he was building in the ruins of a once profitable Manchester newspaper, the answer came back that it was a profitable business, though its margins were not dramatic, and that in revenue terms it was a smaller business than the newspaper at its apogee. This is a secret fear that we all feel. While we can demonstrate explosive examples of growth businesses created in the network, with very high margins, these start-ups disguise the fact that it remains very hard to point to real world media businesses that have fully migrated to the Web and grown at both top and bottom line. Now the Guardian is a charitable trust and its equivalent to the “Do no evil” incantation is “Make no losses”, since it is only the impact of long term losses which can sever the trusts mission to keep publishing, and in print. But for other, commercial players, the thought of being smaller in revenue terms, and not nearly as profitable as print was in its heyday, is a very dubious sort of salvation.

I had not meant to go on at length about this, but I sat there reflecting that this problem is widely faced in B2B, and in professional publishing fields like STM, and everywhere whenever someone is trying to extend brands from print to digital. It arises from the lower cost expectations of users around digital, whether that is in advertising or access, and it is fundamentally formed by the unspoken idea that content on a screen is somehow ephemeral unless it does something – enables an action, or a transaction. By contrast, print feels permanent, meaty, residual in value, even if it enables nothing. The problem is chronic in STM, and is present everytime a major publishing player negotiates with a university librarian.

So it was not a problem for my interviewee, Bob Massie, the President of Chemical Abstracts (American Chemical Society) when we reached the public interview item on the end of the agenda. Chemical Abstracts (CAS) is an example of a service born to be digital, but born a little early and briefly encased in print. Here was an example of service values which could produce growth, margins for re-investment and an unchallenged position in the industry through being the instrument of user willpower. No question about who wanted the comprehensive certainty of the CAS Registry of every searchable molecule known to Man. No doubt about who mandated the workflow modelling of SciFinder. As Bob put it, the industrial and research chemists had driven solutions to their content handling dilemma in the world of content overload, and  there is chemistry in all scientific endeavour” which explains the growth (as does the geography, since Bob strongly reminded us that Asia is now the critical centre of research and usage).

Avoiding more of the Fair, I pushed on to Lisbon and a conference in the misty hills of Sintra. I had no copy of Vathek, William Beckford’s Gothic tale (actually an Arab horror story) written in these woods in 1787 and one of the key influences on the romanticism of the next century. But I was reading William Gibson’s new thriller, Zero History, which in its way is an exact echo of Beckford. One of its protagonists wants a piece of information that no one has ever been able to have. He calls it the “order flow”: “Its the aggregate of all the orders in the market. Everything anyone is about to buy or sell, all of it. Stocks, bonds, gold, anything. If I understood him, that information exists, at any given moment, but there is no aggregator. It exists, constantly, but is unknowable. If someone were able to aggregate that, the market would cease to be real”.

But maybe that is just it. The networks are not Publishing, an abstraction, but they are Life. Only when they we are able to replicate the forms and processes of our real lives in our virtual worlds will we get anywhere near the return that we seek.


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3 Comments so far

  1. The Road to Vathek – David Worlock | Developing digital strategies … | World Media Information on October 13, 2010 05:14

    […] See the original post: The Road to Vathek – David Worlock | Developing digital strategies … […]

  2. Peter McKay on October 13, 2010 10:49

    As interesting as Stephen Dunn of The Guardian was, I thought it all the more striking when one knows that he gave almost exactly the same presentation to last year’s inaugural TOC Frankfurt conference. STM may think that it “leads” with digital adoption but in this instance it lagged behing the “trade” in hearing this bit of thought leadership.
    I’d highlight his (perhaps glib) phrase that they aim to be “of the web” and not “on the web”.

  3. Anne Foster on October 18, 2010 12:33

    “First make no losses”. Or to quote Micawber “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen six, result happiness, annual income twenty pounds ought six, result misery.” Maybe we need to redfine our expectations – away from explosive growth forever, requiring eternal seduction of new customers, towards sustainable margins with optimal reach to customers.