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home : opinions : opinions
November 14, 2018

The Publisher's Pen
Jason Sturek

What if your newspaper behaved like Facebook?

Hey there, newspaper readers!

I’ve got an exciting announcement about your local paper starting today and can’t wait to detail it right here in my column this week.

Through some really novel and amazing technology techniques, we’ve developed a way to build some incredible capabilities into the physical newspaper you’re holding right now that will really be great news, mostly for our advertisers.

Tiny sensors are now located in multiple locations on the pages, and they are trained to your eyes right now. Some nifty triangulation algorithms allow us to know precisely which articles you’re most interested in as you read, and even how long you spend on each one.

We now also know which photos you’re looking at, and which people within them (is that your old high school sweetheart?). It’s possible to also know which ads you spend the most time with so that we can sell more of them and provide some other direct marketing to you. Even other newspapers will feed you those ads now, as we’re happy to sell that information to them at a nice profit margin.

It’s all very exciting stuff!

In addition, we know exactly when you’re reading the paper and how often. The global positioning system (GPS) chips in the spine of the paper let us know where you’re going with it, and also who you share news with. We can even allow your friends to know when you’re reading our paper, and you can know when they are. It’s always fun to know who is awake late at night, isn’t it?

Now, I know what you might be thinking. What are we going to do with this information we are collecting? Well, don’t worry about that. Because we’re going to sell it as soon as we can, we can dramatically lower the price of the newspaper each week down to virtually nothing.

We know that since you’ll be getting such a good deal, you won’t mind if most of the news isn’t true, has polarizing messages based on self-serving slants or has sensational and misleading headlines. Most of them are pretty disappointing when you read them, but they will lead to more ads so you do have that going for you.

It’s an exciting day for the newspaper industry and our bottom line. Knowing who you are, what you’re interested in, who your friends are, when you’re up and about and a few other things you probably don’t need to worry about is, I am certain, a very small price to pay for something that’s free. Isn’t it?

And you can trust me with all that information. Can’t you?

* * * *

Spend some time with me and you know that I really do appreciate technology as much (or more than) most. The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said that computers are like bicycles for the mind. Of course, now they’re probably more like jet packs, but either way you can understand the value they bring to humanity by unleashing our abilities to conceptualize things and turn those ideas into seemingly magical function.

I buy things online like a lot of people, I do banking that way and I also spend a lot of time reading articles and researching with the help of computers (and by that I mean my phone, too) and the Internet.

The retail store landscape is changing. Just ask Sears. And the way we all do business is changing in a lot of ways.

But the facetious beginning to my column this week is something people really do need to think about. No, of course we aren’t putting sensors into the newspaper that allow us to collect data. Even if I could, I wouldn’t.

Our business model, just like Facebook’s, relies on advertising for us to survive. The cost of printing and mailing out a newspaper roughly equals what we charge for the subscription, so we are more than a little dependent on that revenue source. That said, obviously I don’t think that advertising is an evil thing. It’s one of the cornerstones of capitalism, and it’s extremely important and practical that there are avenues by which businesses can let people know what they have to offer the public.

But the true mechanics of social media give me great pause.

I use Facebook myself, though I’m seriously considering deleting my account in light of the trust breaches that are widely publicized this week about firms being able to use the data stored by Facebook for purposes that I don’t think most users would ever agree to.

For me, the idea that the information is retained by the system at all is enough to give me the creeps. There’s no reason it can’t be expunged, but it isn’t. Why?

I don’t know if my weekly newspaper business model will last forever. It’s much simpler than that of Facebook and Google. We try to highlight the important things facing our communities, and also the best things about ourselves. We try to honor lives with obituaries and accomplishments with school news, and we don’t accept advertising requests from people or entities we don’t trust. Almost weekly, we turn down ad requests from sources we don’t know, usually in the form of classified word ads.

We ask for money from our subscribers, and in turn we try our best to offer coverage they will want to see. If we don’t, they won’t be our customers. We never sell any of the small bits of information we may have about you, such as your name and address.

Ask yourself sometime how much money you’ve handed over to Google or Facebook over the years to use their software. If the answer is zero — and it is — then what you must realize is that their software services you use isn’t really the product. You are.

And if you know you’d never buy a Pender Times or Dakota County Star — or accept a free one — if we put those sensors into the pages, then why are you doing it for multi-billion dollar corporations?

It’s worth thinking about.

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