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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 9, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Change: Opportunity, Not Tragedy

When you drive around town, do you find yourself noticing all the places where Blockbuster Video stores used to be? The one on Battleground, where the bagel store still is. The one at the Golden Gate shopping center.

Blockbuster emerged as the complete victor in the rental video competition. And then NetFlix came along, followed by the download video services, and now Blockbuster is gone.

Video cassette recorders were a luxury item in 1980. By 2000 everybody had them and they were cheap. Now nobody bothers. Gone like 45 RPM records.

Audible.com is wiping out the once-growing audiobook section of the bookstores. Yet people are listening to more audiobooks than ever.

But it's hard to notice the shrinking audiobook section, considering that most of the bookstores are gone now. Only Barnes & Noble and a few tough independent stores are hanging on -- by their fingernails.

Thirty years ago, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Crown Books, Books-a-Million, and other big-box chains were putting great bookstores in towns that had barely supported newsstands before.

They killed local stores in Greensboro -- like News & Novels, Atticus, Wills.

Then Crown died because its bestsellers-only policy didn't bring browsers into the store. The rest added coffee shops and free wi-fi, and that helped for a while.

Borders, the one with the best selection, went bust -- but we saw it coming as they cut back on employees, on their CD selection.

Even the main survivor, Barnes & Noble, is diversifying. More games and puzzles. Trying to find reasonably related products to sell along with books, so people will keep coming in, or buy higher-markup items along with books.

There was no evil conspiracy.

The businesses that failed were not badly managed -- or if they were, that's not why they went out of business.

It just happened that a new product or service was markedly better or more convenient or cheaper than the old way, and so the old way died.

Without UPS, there would have been no Amazon.com.

We drive cars rather than carriages. Horses eat whether you're using the carriage that day or not. But cars only "eat" gasoline when you drive them. Plus you get there way faster in a car.

Is it a tragedy, then, that blacksmiths were out of a job?

It's not a tragedy that The Rhinoceros Times can't stay in business using the old advertising-only model.

The Rhino has been well-managed and well-written. The Rhino was the only reason you got the real story about local politics, since the other paper not only ignored many important stories, it actively obscured some of them. It had the highest readership of any paper in the county.

Would a stronger advertising sales team have made a difference? Maybe it might have added a month or a year -- but all newspapers are dying, and no matter how they cut back on pages, no matter how they switch to local news and features, Craig's List is killing them.

"Free" Because of Advertising

People still read the Rhino and look in the Rhino ads. Craig's List didn't have to take every potential customer. It only had to take a certain percentage, and the business model of the free advertising weekly evaporated, slowly but surely, week after week.

The same thing has happened to network television, but you don't really notice that if you aren't an employee of CBS, NBC, or ABC. Because you have more television than ever before. Dozens or hundreds of channels, even if most of them suck. (Bruce Springsteen: "Fifty-seven Channels and Nothing On.")

But you have all these channels because you're paying for them. You pay dozens of dollars a month to have all those channels available, and now the service can include the ability to record any show without using a VCR. Your shows can be stored up till you have time to watch them.

Remember the "good old days" when television was "free" -- advertising-supported like the Rhino -- but you only had four channels?

Why would you remember that? My kids never experienced over-the-air television. We've had cable for more than thirty years.

They also never had to get up out of the couch to change channels.

Electric Cars

The same thing is going to happen again. Right now, electric cars don't work, because they take too long to recharge. And if you run out of power somewhere far from home, nobody's going to be able to bring you a can of electricity.

But electric cars are going to work, and here's how.

The government or the car industry will form a council, and that council will determine a form factor for batteries.

As with D, C, AA, and AAA batteries, they won't determine how much electricity each battery unit will hold. They'll only determine the size and shape, and how you hook them up.

It's not going to make them user-changeable -- that's a lawsuit nightmare. Only highly trained professionals will change out your batteries.

You'll drive till you see your power indicator show that you need more juice. Then you'll pull into the nearest service station -- no doubt we'll start to call them "juice bars" because your car needs more juice -- and drive into the pull-through power bay.

In that bay, you will remain in your car (government regulations!) Or you'll get out and stay out of the bay while the attendant ("juicer") swaps out your battery and replaces it with a fully charged one.

You'll get a credit for the age, brand, and capacity of the battery they take out of your car. You'll be charged for the age, brand, and capacity of the one they put in.

The point is that instead of waiting four hours for your battery to charge, you'll be in and out in five minutes -- time to use the bathroom, buy a soft drink and a bag of potato chips.

Then you'll be on the road again, with a range of 100, 200, or 300 miles, depending on how much power your car uses and the capacity of the battery you swapped for.

It will take about as long for these juice bars to spring up all over the country as it took for Blockbuster Video to show up in every town. The network of juice bars will grow along with the number of electric cars to use them.

Within ten years, it will be hard to find a gasoline station.

With electric power, cars will be quieter and cleaner. Ultimately, their electricity can come from any source -- coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal, natural gas, even gasoline -- but it will be generated in the ordinary power grid.

You'll also have a juice outlet in your own garage, of course, so you'll start each day with your car fully charged using household current that you pay for in your power bill. Driving around town, you'll never stop at a juice bar at all. It's only for the long drive that you'll need the service.

This model has existed before. It's how stage coaches and the pony express worked -- you didn't stop and wait for your horse to rest and eat, you just changed your tired horses for fresh ones.

But only big companies could afford to own that many horses. Everybody who can afford a car at all will be able to afford the batteries to run them.

That's a change that we can easily foresee. And it won't put anybody out of business -- not even the oil companies or the gas stations, certainly not the car companies. It's an entirely benign change.

But it will free us from dependence on oil. We won't have to switch to no oil -- batteries are heavy, so airplanes can never carry enough of them to fly anywhere. Big diesel trucks will probably stick with petroleum fuel.

But, like the demand for Rhino ads, the demand for petroleum will drop to a percentage of what it was before. And when the demand drops, the value drops, and suddenly the vast oil wealth of Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, and Libya will turn into something closer to the value of coal.

Not nothing, but not so valuable that it will control the world's economy or allow the luxury of funding worldwide terrorism.

What about Newspapers?

So if there's a post-gasoline business model for highway transportation, is there a post-want-ad business model for a paper like the Rhino?

Some magazines have "moved to the web," with varying degrees of success. Newsweek has gone to the web -- but will they make money?

The web edition of the Wall Street Journal is doing well, it seems. And Commentary magazine certainly gets my attention with its online edition.

Here's how it works, or might work:

First, a webzine must have new content every day. Because the Rhino has the enormous expense of printing, it groups all its content (and ads) into a single weekly edition.

But on the web, readers don't generally want or have time for a complete edition.

What they want are just a couple of very brief stories -- but they might have time for them every single day.

Commentary sends me an email every day with the opening paragraph of a couple of lead stories, and the titles of a half-dozen others. Click on any, and I go right to a website with that story featured -- and surrounded by ads.

But what if the ads don't work? Commentary is a national magazine for conservative Jews (and non-Jews like me who appreciate rigorous honesty and completeness in journalism).

What is the market for the Rhino? It's Guilford County residents, when it comes to the coverage of local news.

And you aren't going to sign on to a website for a once-a-week issue.

So let's say we put up an issue, with all the content we usually have, including the Beep (which will now be self-generating like most website comment sections), once a week. It's free.

But we charge for delivery. For twenty bucks a year, you subscribe to an app or an email service.

Every day, you get that day's new stories -- still hot and fresh, not yet on the free website.

For the same fee, you sign up for only the coverage you want. News about the schools, say. Or news about city or county government and events. Or my review column. Or Scott Yost's adventures. Or John Hammer's end-of-the-issue column.

You check off which kinds of story you want. Same fee no matter how many or how few get delivered to you.

Then you click on the app on your phone or tablet, or you open your email the way you normally do, and instead of clicking through to a website, there it is right on your device.

My column won't be the 3,000-word monstrosity that it usually is on the web. There might be some long essays, but some days you'll just have my review of a new movie -- posted the day I saw it. Or a book I just finished. Or the adventures of the animals in my back yard.

John Hammer's column is already divided into brief stories. Instead of getting the whole column once a week, you can get one of those short pieces every day.

Would you pay $20 a year for that?

If a thousand of you subscribed, it would pay for the website and software and provide a few bucks for editing and graphics -- done by part-timers with day jobs.

If 5,000 people subscribed, then the Rhino could pay for a couple of full-time salaries. Especially if the paper still sold advertising on the website and one or two small ads per emailed story.

But what about those of you without electronic devices? Would you pay for a mail subscription to a weekly print edition? I know the Rhino has always been free -- but since advertising no longer pays all the bills, would you pay for a mail subscription?

It would have to cost more than the postage, of course, but for 52 issues a year, how much would you be willing to pay to keep the print edition in business?

It may be that some combination of free website and free newsstand once a week, and paid email/app and paid snailmail subscriptions would pay the bills, the way your cable or satellite TV bill supports so many stations which also sell ads.

Or ... the Rhino could simply go out of business and become a happy memory. That's what Mayor Perkins is hoping for, because, like Barack Obama, he really prefers to govern without a critical press questioning all the stupid and semi-honest things he does.

But what are you hoping for?

Let's see just how many of you there are who would like to at least hear about future subscription possibilities.

Sign on to http://www.hatrack.com/rhino . There you'll find a form asking for your email address. That list of addresses will be used for only one purpose: To inform you of how to go about subscribing to future electronic or print editions of the Rhino.

You will not be charged for anything.

This list is only so we can inform you when and if the Rhino offers subscriptions.

If you later decide to subscribe, that will generate a new list, and those are the people who'll actually get issues.

From this list, at most you'll get a couple of notices, and then the list will be destroyed.

If we only get fifty names on this list, then it will be obvious that electronic subscriptions aren't going to work.

But if we get 50,000 email addresses, then we'll be pretty confident that it will be worth the attempt.

Somewhere in between, and we'll have to make decisions based on our estimates of how many of you will actually subscribe.

This is your chance to vote for whether the Rhino should even try to continue providing local news, national commentary, and wide-ranging reviews on a subscription basis.

And if you're one of our out-of-Greensboro readers, remember that an electronic subscription will allow you the option of subscribing to one or two items -- my Uncle Orson Reviews Everything columns, or Civilization Watch, or Under the Hammer, or Yost, or ... whatever.

Maybe getting the non-local items delivered to your phone or tablet or computer might be worth twenty bucks a year to you. If you think it might, then add your email address to the list.

We don't mind having an international readership. Or even six extra subscribers in Danville.

Let's see if we can invent a new business model for the "free" advertising weekly. Like replacing the blacksmith with the garage mechanic, or the gas station with the electric-car "juice bar."

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