|Industries that cannot or will not adapt to changing customer needs die. That has been the case since our economy began. Public opinion about the trustworthiness of the media and their ability to meet customers’ needs is abysmally low (only tax collection authorities rank lower). The number of customers of newspapers, radio and television, and the amount of time those customers are willing to invest reading, listening to, and watching the media, is in long-term decline. So are the number of customers of the so-called ‘entertainment media’, though the companies hide the decline by reporting revenues instead of units sold. Oligopolies control substantial amounts of many of the information and entertainment media, and each year they are reducing the amount they produce (fewer articles, fewer new titles) and becoming more and more dependent on a few ‘blockbuster’ entertainment releases and on inexpensive freelanced or shared information sources for their economic survival. Meanwhile the number and popularity of independent producers of both information and entertainment are soaring, filling the gap left by the retreating mainstream companies.
Perhaps because some of the media oligopolies are in both the information and entertainment media, many of them seem to be unaware of the fact that the function of these two types of media are completely different. The purpose of the information media is to provide actionable information. The purpose of the entertainment media is to provoke emotion. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the National Review are in the information business. Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, CNN, Jon Stewart, lots of editorial columnists, and Fox ‘News’ are in the entertainment business — they are satirists (“artists using sarcasm, derision and wit”), out to provoke you, not to inform you. Different objectives, different audiences. Many young people may rely on Jon or Rush as their main source of ‘news information’, but that ‘information’ is sterile — it does not form or ‘inform’ their actions, even though it might well influence their beliefs. Even the antiwar music of the 1960s was emotional preaching to the converted, and though it led to an important action — the end of the Vietnam War — it was not the music that informed us of the need for that action.
So let’s look at them separately, starting with the information media. As I explained recently, a small majority of Americans, and a growing number of young people in other affluent nations, are essentially disengaged from the political processes in their countries. My reading of their beliefs is that they don’t believe anything they do will make any substantial difference in the world, so to them, there is no actionable information. They are lost forever to the information media. They’ll watch CNN if there are interesting car chases, bomb explosions, celebrity scandals or tracer pyrotechnics to entertain them, for the same reason they will switch to The Simpsons if there aren’t. So we have a steadily dwindling market for information media — the ‘news’ sections of some newspapers, and some news and public affairs programming on some radio and television networks, are fighting over fewer and fewer customers. A lot of them have chucked it in and migrated their information programming to entertainment programming, calling the new segments ‘human interest’ or ‘lifestyle’ stories. Some days you can read USA Today or watch a ‘public affairs’ program and not find any actionable information in it whatsoever — the market for entertainment seems to be larger, more durable and less expensive. But this is a losing proposition — these programs can’t hope to compete for the entertainment audience with programs that pander purely to provoking emotion, like all the so-called ‘reality’ TV programs, or video games.
So what about the independent media, including blogs? They, too, have two distinct audiences. The New Technology indymedia and blogs provide some useful, actionable information for people in technology businesses. But a lot of them also focus on tech toys and tools that enable technologies to be used substantially for entertainment. Likewise some political indymedia and blogs provide information not available anywhere else (principally local information), and some useful analysis that may suggest the need for some specific political action (again, usually at the local level). But a lot of them are echo chambers, preaching to the converted with little more useful information content than one of Dylan’s 1960s protest songs. As I mentioned in my Saturday post, their purpose seems largely to be to provide emotional reassurance that you, the disenfranchised, disgruntled, outraged minority, are not alone, and are justified in your outrage. And that makes them entertainment media — fun, satisfying, but not really informative in any actionable way. I read a lot of progressive blogs, and I enjoy them, but most of them are short on useful ideas and new information you can act on.
Ten years ago I addressed a conference of Canadian information media representatives and told them that, if they wanted to rebuild an audience, and become more profitable, they would need to start providing more actionable information, and more analysis of information that would tell readers what they should do about the information they were reading. I told them that actionable information is usually local (e.g. Wal-Mart proposing to rezone parkland in your community for a distribution centre). I told them people would probably pay for analysis that could lead to constructive action that would make communities and people’s lives better. I told them that no one would pay them much longer to edit and reprint stuff from newswires, and that printed classified ads would probably be extinct in a generation. They chided me for my “doom and gloom” predictions for their industry. Perhaps if I repeated my remarks today they would listen.
The information media, if they are to survive at all, need to:
I am dubious that the legacy media will be able or willing to make this adaptation to survive. Today they collect and pontificate, tomorrow they must analyze, partner, facilitate and organize. It’s a very different skill set. I think it is more likely that the newspapers, radio and television will decide that there is little profit in information media, and they will (with a few exceptions) either migrate to all-entertainment formats (some of them are already there) or fold.
The indymedia and bloggers have a better chance of succeeding in this role, but I would say the odds are not good. They (we) are very disorganized, overly enamoured of our own personal and collective points of view, too lazy, busy or cowardly to become truly investigative journalists, and lack good research and facilitation skills. We are too inclined (when we become popular) to mimic the failed example of the legacy media, too addicted to the daily ego-gratification from our small ‘audiences’ to get away from the computer and do some of the real, in-the-trenches, thankless, time-consuming fact-finding and organizing work that could really change things. We find it too comfortable to re-report, rather than doing original reporting. And we would find it humbling to have to focus attention, at least at first, on small, local, messy issues instead of presuming to add valuable analysis from our armchairs to the global issues of the day.
It is possible, however. We are acquiring skills, and those with whom we could network online have the remaining skills we would need to pull this off. Imagine if every bribe of a local politician, every local incidence of pollution, every corporate decision that would have an impact on a community, every attempt to hush up a local scandal, every rezoning application, were being scrutinized, investigated, analyzed, publicized, critiqued by thousands of networked ‘journalists’ in every community, and publicized to everyone in that community. And once those local journalist networks have cut their teeth on local issues, imagine if they started banding together to do the same work, with eyes and ears everywhere, drawing on thousands of now-trained, relentless volunteer activist journalists, to dig into state, national and global issues, and showing and telling the world what was really going on.
If we’re lucky, that’s the future of the information media. No profit in it, most likely, but enormous personal satisfaction, grass-roots empowerment, and real impact.
I see the entertainment media as engaging in a race to the bottom. Once we have movies that are so violent and disgusting that people start to find them offensive and exploitative rather than ‘thrilling’, once we have dumbed down the oligopoly music ‘product’ to pretty, choreographed, all-sound-alike resampled nursery rhyme chanters, once TV starts showing live executions instead of just people prostituting themselves eating worms for cash, we will run out of ways to shock and manipulate people into watching or listening to crap. I figure that will take another ten years. By that time, I suspect, real reality lovers will be able to tune into any of millions of tiny, hidden cameras over the Internet and watch anything from live sex to street fights to emergency ward admissions to celebrities’ bathrooms. Why watch phony scripted ‘reality’ when you can watch the real thing, in real time, and chat with millions of others watching in?
During this time, independent entertainment will continue to flourish, and with the Internet it will be able to evolve a market for virtually every taste. It will learn to be better at entertainment, it will, in ways the mainstream entertainment media have never been able to do, find and connect with and respond to the needs of its audiences (some independent artists are already accepting ‘commissions’ for personalized compositions). This is the real entertainment marketplace (as Jon Husband says, “a true market is a two-way conversation”), and it will flourish because every one of its millions of independent songs, videos, games, films, programs, and works of art will be a learning experience that everyone will share and build on.
And most importantly, a certain proportion of the work of each artist will be available free, commercial-free and on demand, delivering a knockout punch to the mainstream entertainment media who still see the flow as product-down, cash-up, with the producer in control of the transaction.
What will transform this more than anything else will be the facility for high-quality online collaboration. Millions of musicians and writers and film-makers will instantly be able to find like-minded talent to work with, and be able to produce new works asynchronously. And if you like parts of a song or film you may be able to disaggregate it, keep the parts you like, and create your own compositions on that foundation. With the evolution of animation, you might even be able to produce your own drama or comedy production with invented, realistic characters of your own creation.
With all this technology power in your hands, entertainment could once again become something that people do for themselves. And with the skills we will be able to acquire, and the power of networks, this could allow spontaneous, community-based entertainment to flourish again.
These two media evolutions could have something more in common than being grassroots and networked — they will both allow us to contribute our time instead of our money to meet, collaboratively, our information and entertainment needs. Throwing a ton of money at them has not resulted in development of better information or entertainment products — in fact there’s lots of evidence that big budgets and preoccupation with profit has made the products much worse.
You hear a lot, from all over the political and moral spectrum, about the need to ‘take back the media’. Maybe it isn’t the media that we need to take back, as much as the work that the media has failed so utterly to do for us.
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