Decline of traditional media
Should the threat to traditional media from the internet really be a cause for concern?
The new social media -- blogging, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube are current faves -- revolutionising the publishing world, for better and worse. Let's look at both the better and the worse in perspective.
The current tsunami of personal choices in communication is slowly draining the profit from mainstream media. These media traditionally depend on huge audiences who all live in one region and mostly want the same things (the football scores, the crossword, the TV Guide, etc.). But that is all available now on the Internet, all around the world, all the time.
One outcome is a death watch on many newspapers, including famous ones like the Boston Globe. As journalist Paul Gillin noted recently: "The newspaper model scales up very well, but it scales down very badly. It costs a newspaper nearly as much to deliver 25,000 copies as it does to deliver 50,000 copies. Readership has been in decline for 30 years and the decline shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, new competition has sprung up online with a vastly superior cost structure and an interactive format that appeals to the new generation of readers."
Traditional electronic media are not doing any better. As James Lewin observes in "Television audience plummeting as viewers move online" (May 19, 2008), mainstream broadcasters "will have to come to terms with YouTube, video podcasts and other Internet media or they’ll face the same fate as newspapers."
Radio audiences have likewise tanked. Overall, the recent decline of traditional media is remarkable.
Some conservative writers insist that mainstream media's failure is due to its liberal bias. But conservatives have charged that for decades -- to no effect. Another charge is that TV is declining because it is increasingly gross or trivial. True enough, but TV's popularity was unaffected for decades by its experiments with edgy taste.
Let's look more closely at the structure of the system to better understand current steep declines. Due to the low cost of modern media technology, no clear distinction now exists between a mainstream medium and a non-mainstream one, based on either number of viewers or production cost. Today, anyone can put up a video at YouTube at virtually no cost. Popular videos get hundreds of thousands of views. Podcasting and videocasting are also cheap. A blog can be started for free, within minutes, at Blogger. It may get 10 viewers or 10,000, depending on the level of popular interest. But the viewers control that, not the providers.
The key change is that the traditional media professional is no longer a gatekeeper who can systematically admit or deny information. Consumers program their own print, TV, or radio, and download what they want to their personal devices. They are their own editors, their own filmmakers, their own disc jockeys.
Does that mean more bias or less? It's hard to say, given that consumers now manage their own level of bias. So they can hear much more biased news -- or much less. And, as Podcasting News observes, "Social media is a global phenomenon happening in all markets regardless of wider economic, social and cultural development."
Understandably, traditional media professionals, alarmed by these developments, have constructed a doctrine of "localism" and, in some cases, called for government to bail them out. That probably won't help, just as it wouldn't have helped if the media professionals had called for a government "bailed out" of newspapers when they were threatened by radio, or of radio when it was threatened by TV. Video really did (sort of) kill the radio star, but the radio star certainly won't be revived by government grants.
Still, the news is not all bad. Yes, new media do sometimes kill old media. For example, no one seriously uses pigeon post to send messages today. But few ever thought birdmail was a great system, just the only one available at the time. However, radio did not kill print, and TV did not kill radio. Nor will the Internet kill older media; it will simply change news delivery. Sometimes in a minor way, but sometimes radically.
Media that work, whether radio, TV, newspapers, books, blogs, or any other, thrive when there is a true need. Today's challenge is to persuade the consumer to look at alternatives to their own programming decisions.
Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.
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