The essential digital-economics library

4 Jan

My older brother used to joke that when I wanted to learn to play baseball, I read a book. Mike’s style: Pick up the ball and throw it harder than seemed humanly possible.

Hey, we all learn differently, right? So when friends – especially newsroom lifers – ask how they can catch up with the digital revolution, I default to books. These are some of the titles that formed my thinking about information economics and the digital revolution.

Read these and you’ll understand that “information wants to be free” isn’t religious sloganeering – it’s the logical outcome of perfect, free copies. You’ll also understand how that same force is shredding the monopolies that traditional media have always relied on to make their money.

Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network EconomyInformation Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy – Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian: An utter classic. The late-‘90s references don’t seem dated (as with too many business books). Instead, they serve to prove the fundamental points Hal makes in his teaching, and in his work at a Silicon Valley startup you may know: Technology changes. Economic fundamentals to not. But they do yield some surprising results when technology modifies key elements in the economic equation. Perfect for a general audience – the math is kept to a gentle minimum.

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to FailClayton M. Christensen: The funny thing? Bosses throughout the media business (including most of mine) read it. Then they went out and made the very mistakes it warns about anyway.

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson. Yes, it seems obvious now: When it costs nothing to stock a million books, or every CD ever made, someone will – and someone else will buy ‘em. It wasn’t obvious at the time. Unlike other business best-sellers (Dow 36,000, anyone?) this one is aging gracefully because it offers genuine insight, not just bloviation.

What Would Google DoJeff Jarvis. Spare me the “web triumphalist” rants. Jeff isn’t some new-media radical who secretly enjoys layoffs and others’ pain. He’s had more great media jobs than almost anyone, and did them well. WWGD? captures the essence of the link economy – and Google’s canny use of it.

Everything is MiscellaneousDavid Weinberger. A lot of reporters I know succumb to the Dewey Decimal Theory of Life: Everything has a place, and only one place. Weinberger shows how the Web’s defiance of easy categorization isn’t a fault – it’s a virtue.

All the News That’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into NewsJames T. Hamilton. Hamilton offers compelling, rational theories, based on microeconomics, for why local television devolves to crime, weather and tear-jerkers. Or why salaries for blow-dried anchors eclipse the reporters and producers who do the real heavy lifting. Or how technology is destroying the scarcity that allowed “objective” journalism to emerge. This is tougher sledding than most – this is an academic work, not a breezy business read – but it’s worth the effort.

Think something’s missing? Think one of these books stinks? Let me know in the comments.

EDITED TO ADD: In the year or so since I wrote the original version of this (for a discussion), a couple others have earned their way onto the list, both concerning the shift in media power to consuemrs:

Here Comes Everybody is Clay Shirky’s discerning look at how technology breaks down the barriers between media producer and consumer. Broadly, that allows crowdsourcing. But more fundamentally, it shatters the economic and political rules that allowed modern media empires to emerge. While scholarly and rigorous, it’s extremely well written and accessible, and a must read for journalists who want to cope with change.

In a similar vein, Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing focuses specifically on how businesses (including media) can and are using the collective knowledge of their customers to succeed.  

Despite the similar topics, each has its own unique value to a well-rounded digital-media and economics library.

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