Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Are We Witnessing The Death Of Mainstream Media?

There is a lot of chatter these days about the mainstream media and whether or not new forms of media such as blogging and random twitter updates are replacing the standard column within a magazine or newspaper. Some people say the mainstream media is antiquated and that it is slow to react to a modern world. Some suggest this “old media” has long since passed its golden era and will soon be replaced by more modern forms of media that will react within seconds and that are more nimble, directed, and informed.

I’d say those types of people are dead wrong… and I’ll explain why.

The simple truth is the existing mainstream media serves a very legitimate purpose. We can receive in-depth coverage of a variety of topics, and we often have the benefit of reading a column which has taken weeks, months, or even years of research to put together. We can read an article in a magazine which has numerous sources which provide background information, and we know that magazine has a reputation to uphold… thus they likely to print something they haven’t verified and cross-checked.

This isn’t to say these types of media are infallible or that they never find themselves needing to print a retraction or clarification, but the truth is when a person picks up a newspaper, turns the pages on a magazine, or flips the channel to a 24 hour news network, they have a certain expectation of truth. There may be a sense of bias, there may be facts or figures that are questionable, but at the end of the day it is much easier to trust a known source rather than a random unverifiable blog written by a stranger who often may not even provide his or her real name or has no training as a journalist.

The newer forms of media… often called simply “new media” don’t have this same sense of reputation. Often times we find a blogger is more concerned with getting the ‘scoop’ of a story rather than ensuring the facts are correct if for no other reason than they don’t want another blogger to beat them to the punch. The newer forms of media simply don’t have the time, resources, or energy to properly research a story, and therefore the viewer may never understand the full implications of a story or may never reach the same level of involvement on an issue.

However, research and reliability aside, a more significant difference between old and new media is simply the audience they appeal to. David Carr from The New York Times once used the phrase “Echo Chamber” to describe the audience that follows most new forms of media, and I feel that is fair description. The basic premise here is that in many cases these new forms of media are merely talking to themselves rather than reaching the masses.

People who follow new forms of media are presented with blogs and websites that appeal to their viewpoint, and as such they are surrounded by like-minded individuals with similar opinions. If a person happens to be interested in technology and follows a technology blog on a regular basis, they likely will be hearing from peers who share the same interests and who share many of the same opinions. If a person follows a political blog, it will often be because they share that viewpoint and wishes to feel part of a group who all see things the same way.

Many forms of new media could be considered a “vertical column” where one simply feeds from another. Thus if you have a website which results in a blog which results in twitter updates which feed to others who have their blogs and websites and videos uploaded to YouTube which then prompt additional comments on yet another blog and feeds into a Facebook group… you end up seeing this mass of information which is all in a straight column.

There is very little expansion and there is no legitimate desire to feed or integrate this information elsewhere. The end result is a virtual group of head nodding people who have no interest or aspirations to link together with a separate group which may have a similar, but opposing viewpoint on an issue. There is very little collaboration as these groups tend to remain isolated, and for all intents and purposes they remain that way due to the model in which they were built upon.

One reason the old media will remain is for no other reason that the fact they are able to send their message to the masses without a need for the recipient to seek them out, or to subscribe to their message, or to link up with others. Whether it be print media, a cable news network, or a radio station, these forms of media can and do reach a massive audience which is infinitely diverse. Not only do they reach individuals who agree with the message or have interest in the particular topic, but more importantly they can reach those who have no interest and those that without a doubt disagree with the content.

That is the entire benefit – not everyone has to agree and not everyone should. Media should inform, but it should not only inform a small subsection and it should not target a core demographic. Of course we know even the best media sources will never be able to appeal to everyone and there will almost always be accusations of bias, but regardless of these challenges the ‘old’ media will continue to serve a valuable purpose for the foreseeable future. Needless to say, the rumors of the death of old media have been greatly exaggerated.

So does this mean there is no room for new media source? On the contrary – forms of new media can actually strengthen the ‘old guard’ of mainstream media. Likewise old media can benefit from some of the technologies and developments which have resulted in new forms of media. Obviously it is in the best interests of the old forms of media to adapt to the ever changing world around them, but at the same time they need to retain what has made them so strong in the first place.

Blogs and websites can work alongside magazines and talk radio. Electronic versions of magazines and newspapers can supplement the print variety with the added benefit of being able to be updated throughout the day. Twitter updates or text messages can replace “breaking news alerts” on terrestrial radio. All of these various forms of media can and do work together to inform and educate the viewer/listener.

At the end of the day this all strengthens old media rather than competes with it, although at the same time many forms of new media also tend to be free media… and to some degree that model is not self-supporting in any way. There are a lot of experiments happening in the world around us, but when the dust falls rest assured the only way people will be able to obtain a high quality and steady stream of information is if they are willing to pay for it. That either means subscription fees, or the willingness to be inundated with advertisements or other minor annoyances that provide a profit stream to the original creator.

So this all begs the question – if new media eventually falls in line with old media via the desire to be profitable in order to provide a higher quality of content… does this means new media becomes one in the same as old media?

It seems one can only remain on the cutting edge and can only remain the new kid on the block for a finite amount of time. Eventually things are much less exciting when everyone else is doing it, and as such the trend is no longer a trend and instead is merely the status quo.

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