Nearly 15 years ago I was asked to give a speech at a conference of Canadian mainstream media types and ‘content aggregators’. I quoted Marshall McLuhan (“Information is always trying to be free”) and told them that, in 15 years, if they didn’t change, they would be extinct. Specifically I told them that they had to do more than regurgitate stories from the newswires, and that if they wanted to be paid for their work they would have to do something valuable — either provide information content that was actionable, or provide some service that added value. I described seven ways to add value to information (see chart above):
The media types laughed at me. They insisted “this is not what the mainstream media do”. I insisted that if that was so, they had better start looking for a steadier job. As usual I was a bit ahead of my time, but not by much. The mainstream media are drowning in debt and losing readers every year, and their only answer is to try to find ways to force us to pay for the same old content, what I call “worthless news”.
Bill Maher famously said “The job of the media is to make what’s important interesting.” And the above list provides seven ways to do so. So why don’t they do their job?
Well, for a start, it costs more to do these seven things, and media companies are notoriously cheap (that’s why, a century ago, media barons were so wealthy). It’s risky. It’s hard work. It requires real skills. And it requires the company to really know its readers/viewers. The mainstream media fail on all counts. The alternative/indymedia, by sheer force of numbers and the astonishing range of new technologies at their disposal, are proving more capable of all seven ways of adding value to information than the stodgy old media.
There are exceptions. Some local newsmedia do some excellent investigative reporting of local issues (corruption, neighbourhood pollution, local culture). The New Yorker provides great analysis on important issues like government torture, American cultural phenomena, and environmental issues. The NYT, in its weekend and special editions, does some admirable long pieces and multi-part investigative series. The Op-eds in both The New Yorker and the NYT are often insightful and informative, not just empty rhetoric. So are many of the environmental articles in Orion.
A lot of people are asking what will happen if most of the mainstream media fold — where will the raw ‘news’ that most of the new media write about come from then? The reality is that most of the ‘news’ in most of the mainstream media are not information items at all — they’re entertainment items. In fact many of them are entertainment items about the entertainment industry — pure pap. Much of the ‘news’ comes from wire services that, increasingly, use vast networks of freelance reporters, rather than having their own staffs, so in the worst case after the mainstream media’s demise, freelancers (who already work for next to nothing) will have to become part-time reporters, and earn their living doing something else. In that case the raw news reports (most of which aren’t actionable in any case — more worthless entertainment) will end up being served up by millions of part-time freelance reporters, who will provide their copy and multimedia free (it won’t cost them anything) just to see their name in the byline of all the narrowcasting blogs and e-newsletters that will thrive once the newspapers and the remains of real radio/TV journalism disappear.
A larger problem is that, even now, there is a dearth of skills at doing the seven things that add value to information. Doing great research is a rare ability, and insightful research is lost in oceans of superficial, thoughtless regurgitation and academic esoterica. Few people care to take the time needed either to do great investigative work, or to think creatively and profoundly about what all the mountains of facts really mean. And the short attention spans of most of their potential audience is not a great encouragement either.
But it’s interesting to see how, no matter how the intermediaries and governments and corporatist packagers of drivel to dumbed-down consumers obfuscate, trivialize, neglect and deny any obligation for doing the real job of adding value to information (and making what’s important interesting), somehow there is always someone out their to take up the slack. Government censorship has never been a match for citizens’ passion to know important truths. The education system can never quite stamp out all the creativity and intellectual curiosity of its inmates. And there is always someone out there prepared to risk everything to speak truth to power, to the deceived, to the deniers, and to the ignorant.
For all the worthless news served up to us by the dinosaur media conglomerates, there is more useful, valuable information available to us today than ever before, and the magical thing about it is that the people providing it are doing it not for money or glory, but because they care about the truth. And the more they inform us, against all odds, the more we come to care too. And when a connected, organized group of people come to care about something actionable, watch out: there is no stopping them. It’s the phenomenon that has brought down tyrants and empires, and brought us just about everything that is worthwhile in our struggling society.
As Margaret Mead said: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Category: The Media