21 Dec 2009 1:00 pm   //   Filed under: Media, Technology

How the media broke and how we’re going to fix it

Hey media people: Didn’t this decade suck? So many good brands are out of business, so many good people are out of a job. The media crisis of last two years has been worse than simply a recession-related thinning of the herd. We’re witnessing a famine. Entire species will go extinct.

No serious person expects Denver or Seattle to ever have two daily papers again. Broadcast is suffering (can anyone justify The Jay Leno Show?). Ad agencies are in various states of chaos (BBDO Detroit!). Crowds still flock to the movies and concerts, but CD and DVD sales have evaporated (along with Tower Records and the Virgin Megastore). Online content seems like it’s in the fast lane to mediocrity.

Gone are the “Citizen Kane” days when owning a broadcast license or a printing press automatically made somebody rich and powerful. Fans of good reporting—the hard, watchdog stuff—are standing in shock as we witness the collapse of journalism.

What the hell happened?

To understand, let’s first remember that we are in the early stages some fundamental shifts in human communication. The networked computer represents a social disruption as significant as the oceangoing ship, or the airplane. Historians won’t be able to put this into perspective for some time.

But for now, I think we can look back on the last 10 years and see two important trends that accounted for the implosion of mass media.

1. Personal communication made mass communication less important.

All the time you waste on Facebook? That’s time you aren’t spending reading The Daily Bugle-Intelligencer, or whatever your disappointing local newspaper is called. Media today is less about one-way data streams. It’s more about multi-party conversations among people and their friends. Media companies often play no role other than facilitating a channel between parties.

Your cultural currency—water cooler conversations—is now more likely to be defined by your friends than by a network television programmer.

Out: Reading an expert’s critical review in a magazine.
In: Mobile applications that tell you what your neighbors think of stuff.

Out: Watching the news.
In: Watching Jon Stewart make fun of the news, via a link somebody posted on Twitter to a video clip embedded on some guy’s blog.

We are all editors now.

2. Nobody told the ad buyers anything.

There’s nothing deep about this second point. It’s a simple, stupid mistake that media companies overlooked while they were building their first web sites.

Despite all the chatter lately about “paid content,” almost nobody in the audience ever paid for content. You paid for delivery. When you bought a newspaper or a magazine, you weren’t buying information, you were buying a transmission system: printed paper, and the distribution of said. Tangible products like magazines feel valuable in a way that web sites do not. Subconsciously, you know there is a limited supply of magazines, while web sites can be loaded an infinite number of times.

What really covered the cost of the content on those pages (and over the broadcast airways) was advertising. Virtually every media business survived thanks to old-fashioned relationships between the people who bought and sold ads. Unfortunately, the people who deal in media advertising didn’t get a copy of the memo about the transition from print to digital.

It’s hard to assign blame here. Media companies, usually acting independently of one another, built incredibly cool, popular products that audiences love. But nobody took the time to establish a friendly, negotiation-ready language for online advertising.

Think about the guy who buys ads for a regional car dealers association. Let’s call him Bob. Bob speaks the language of 30-second spots, of quarter- and half-pages, of color or black-and-white. He probably golfs. If Bob knows what a banner ad is, he’s ahead of the curve, and if he understands the difference between a CPM on a local web site and a geo-targeted CPM on a national ad network, that’s a small miracle. But even if Bob is a total geek, he still has to be able to explain these new technologies to the dealers whose interests he represents, and to justify any changes in spending to his bosses. Bob’s business is not based on metrics, but on complex personal relationships.

When Bob’s ad rep at the Bugle-Intelligencer tells him the newspaper is distributing fewer copies and directing more readers to its web site to save money, the relationship between those two businesspeople grows weaker. Over the last decade, many of these relationships have been irreparable damaged, and the result has been less money to support newsrooms and production facilities. Oh, and if our man Bob happens to work for Saturn, Hummer, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saab or Plymouth, he’s probably out of a job anyway.

* * *

Where does this leave us? With shrinking, fragmented media brands that don’t generate anything of economic value and can’t pay their employees fairly. Harsh? Yes, but honest.

Good journalism will survive, just like symphony music survives: In spite of the fact that it makes no business sense. People like it enough to find creative ways to keep it going. (I hate the idea of nonprofit journalism, but I like it better than no journalism.) Cable TV will hang around too, as long as they can keep charging monthly fees for the pipes that deliver live sports to our flat-screens.

Buy beyond survival? The media properties that thrive will be the ones that have something of value to sell—intellectual property (iTunes, Netflix); fun and sophisticated online experiences (games like World of Warcraft); or cheap, highly targeted advertising (Google AdSense).

We won’t build the media companies of the future by thinking in terms of aggregating content and wrapping ads around it. Instead we should study the communications experiences people already enjoy—as well as the ones they tolerate because the have to. Then we should invent ways to use computer networks to make them better.

The carnage right now isn’t pretty, but from this mess will emerge new ideas we haven’t even imagined yet. The teens are going to be a fun decade.