The future of mainstream media

Armand writes about his chat with Wired’s Chris “Long Tail” Anderson about the potential decline of traditional media in the face of proliferation of mass participatory media (blogs, wikis etc.), and he asked me to give my opinion…

First of all, it is necessary to more finely define the term “traditional media”; a distinction needs to be made between traditional formats and distribution (i.e. paper, fixed-schedule television) and traditional philosophies of organisation (centralised, top-down, push). The first implies the latter, but the latter philosophy can be delivered online – i.e. the so-called “Web 1.0”; this is what Wired, The Guardian and virtually every other website provided by the mainstream media currently model themselves on.

Chris Anderson says traditional media should “embrace” RSS and the blog as technological solutions, but plenty have already; this isn’t necessarily meaning they are going to get all Web 2.0 on us. Case in point – the much-vaunted Guardian’s Comment Is Free has the look and feel of a blog, and employs tagging, but still reflects a highly centralised service. The main contributors are by and large established journalists; readers’ responses are submitted and collated on the page itself in an unthreaded and disparate manner. Other blogs are left out of the picture; there are no links to Technorati or a Trackback link advertised, which means those of us who would rather respond and publish on our own blogs or linklogs are left out. As for tagging, it can only be performed by the publisher, not by the larger pool of subscribers: it is this mass-participatory nature which makes sites like Flickr and turn tags from just another <meta> into something actually, y’know, useful.

So despite adopting blogging technologies and techniques, Comment Is Free is still highly centralised, which results in little variety, a narrow range of ideas and little that helps the consumer in the way of useful metadata or finding out related items (which as I understand it, are necessary for a successful “Long Tail” to come about). Merely adopting technologies is not enough to bring about a change in attitudes towards how media are produced and consumed. I’ve focused on the Comment Is Free site but the same could be said for nearly all the mainstream media’s attempts at blogging or tagging, at least in the UK (e.g. Nick Robinson‘s blog, or Boris Johnson‘s).

As they stand, some mainstream media outlets have kinda bought into Web 2.0-style formats and mechanisms, but still haven’t quite caught the boat; though as Chris Anderson points out in Armand’s post, there are honourable exceptions, such the stuff the BBC’s research labs are coming out with, such as their recent reboot competition and the Creative Archive. But then again, as Armand points out, the BBC’s revenue stream is very different to any other media organisation’s.

As it’s clear that most mainstream companies are not whole-heartedly going down the Web 2.0 route, will they be overtaken by blogs? I don’t think so, at least not at the rate suggested. Blogs and other mass-particpatory media depend on traditional media much more than they like to let on; the primary source of news which gets commented upon and dissected by many blogs are Big Media such as the BBC, CNN, Wired etc.; plenty of what gets sent to Digg or Slashdot are press releases or news stories on mainstream sites; YouTube is dominated by adverts or clips of TV shows; MySpace (Murdoch-owned, remember) is now the target of sustained marketing by record companies (so much so I’m surprised it hasn’t jumped the shark yet).

This is not to say the social media are nothing, of course; there’s plenty of original, interesting new content out there, especially in media to do with the tech sector, or in cult television, film, art and music; aside – perhaps this is why geeks have tendency to see a revolution happening, as it is primarily in their own back yard? But if those participating in mass-participatory media (who are still a minority, albeit a vociferous one) continue to use the mainstream media as a major source of news, entertainment and education, then it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the population.

So, the mainstream media still have an important role to play; there is not going to be any sort of Schumpeterian orgy of destruction, at least not in as short (in history of technology terms) a span as 10-15 years as Chris Anderson predicts. Mass-particpatory media has only gained a small foothold and much of the mainstream media’s interaction has been more cosmetic than desirable. Am I being pessimistic? I don’t think so, I think and hope that mainstream media can still change; the people behind Web 2.0 are tech-savvy, very dynamic and have plenty of disposable income, which makes them highly desirable market from the mainstream’s point of view. But there’s a battle to be won, one which needs to be more evangelising and less soothsaying, if Web 2.0 is going to co-opt and transform Big Media, rather than the other way round.

6 thoughts on “The future of mainstream media

  1. I should flag that what we were talking with Chris Anderson was the traditional business models for mainstream media (i.e. ad-funded print/broadcast model) versus new, online business models – neither of us believed that Wired, the Guardian etc, wouldn’t be around in 15 years – they’ll just look very different. If you put it in the context of the ‘long tail’, then you’re looking at ad funds being a lot more broadly distributed as time progresses… which means high costs (large staff, glossy print, even large studios) will be a problem for those who don’t evolve their revenue streams accordingly.

    And we didn’t really drill into detail on what ’embracing RSS’ means – this was just one example of how embracing the new, longtailed media landscape needs to happen. Agree to your points re: Comment is Free.

    I think the key point that came across from my discussion with Chris Anderson is that if an intelligent re-evaluation of business models doesn’t happen as the way we ingest media changes — then traditionally ad-funded print and broadcast media will face severe challenges. And embracing RSS etc. will be part of that re-evaluation, but not it in its entirety.

  2. I agree, I went off on a bit of a tangent, but I still think my sentiments apply. Advertising in online media is often monolithic and top-down and has been slow in adapting. Moves towards a long tail-friendly form of revenue have been largely a failure – micropayments have never really worked; targeted/custom advertising depends on accurate profiling of users (tricky) and finding the right kind of metrics to judge them by (trickier), with mixed results…

    Google’s AdWords system is perhaps the best example of success in this area, implying you need vast resources (digital, intellectual and financial) to get contextual ads to work. Which makes me question the multilaterality of the system – I’m not sure how universal or free the long tail is if one company holds a monopoly on its means of revenue.

  3. I agree with your tangent, but it’s probably worth pointing out that “mass participation” isn’t necessary for long tail economics to apply. Certainly, long tail does mean that both a larger number and a wider range of content producers will find an audience to sustain them, but the division between “creator” and “consumer” can still be (although doesn’t have to be) a fairly rigid one. Long tail (as understand it) rests on the mass dissemination of work, not the mass production of work.

    I think, in the case of newspapers, it’ll be interesting to see how their acceptance of long tail-style “roll your own” thinking affects – or is affected by – their current Sunday Supplementitis. Currently, Sunday papers that run into several volumes and need a fork-lift to pick them up are the antithesis of long tail thinking – huge, unwieldy bundles trying to tick every consumer box, but only available to the consumer as a single package at a very high unit cost (as compared with daily papers). An adherence to this production/business model might provoke a disinterest in any methods of allowing consumers to pick and choose in – but equally, any paper that allows greater personalisation for online readers might eventually be tempted to experiment with unbundling their physical products as well.

    In other news, does anybody know why the comments on Comment is free… are so poorly implemented? They’ve got that silly “Your location” bit which doesn’t work, but the threads are ugly, unformatted (and not threaded), there’s no preview feature, no user profiles, and they’ve tied the login to the Grauniad’s main, horribly buggy, sign in mechanism. Ugh.

  4. For me there’s something wishful, almost Underpants Gnome about these forecasts of a media (or any other) landscape transformed by Long Tail producers. All the signs are that exposing a ‘tail’ of niche diversity is good for the big companies who have the resources to mine it – and, if anything, bad for the small players who might otherwise have colonised a local niche. Ask your local bookshop, if you’ve still got one.

    (Incidentally I loathe ‘Long Tail’ as an image – it derives from an extraordinarily poor choice of statistical visualisation – but I guess it’s stuck.)

  5. Local bookshops don’t fit the same model – because their distribution is not positively effected by the internet. A niche small online bookshop, however, could follow suit.

    I agree with some of what’s said here. I had an offline discussion with Chris in which I hopefully managed to make a couple of points.

    (1) I don’t think 15 years will see the ad model disappear completely. But there will be some impact – and media that doesn’t have an intelligent online strategy will be suffering. Advertisers are slow to catch on but 20 years… is probably enough time for them to clock that they’re not reaching their target audiences as effectively. A study yesterday put US citizen’s belief in TV advertising down to 8%, an all time low… New models are needed by that industry, as well.

    (2) As such it will be an evolution – not a wholesale revolution – into something different.

    I agree that it’s not clear how the evolution will take place – social media co opting big media or vice-versa. Suspect we’ll find new ‘pseudo’ big media emerge from the social media camp (already seeing some ‘a-list’ sites; BoingBoing, Engadget, even Scoble to an extend – who has 29,000 RSS subscriptions!!)… but equally things like Comment is Free might evolve into something more effective.

    We’ll see… Not convinced that 2021 will feel dramatically different – but am fairly certain that a lot of niche ad-sponsored print publications will begin to be moving online, and that some of the less forward looking ‘mass media’ publications will be feeling pain, if not shifting media…

  6. I agree that the little local bookshop maybe isn’t the greatest counterexample to long tail. For a start, I’m fairly sure that the decline of small independent bookstores was well under way long before the thought of Amazon turning a profit was even a glint in Jeff Bezos’ eye. It’s happening for the same reasons that all other high street shops are becoming homogenised, which is anything but long-taily or new media in nature.

    The other reason is that yes, one model of long-tail business involves a small number of large, centralised retailers, which is a shame for your small, independent retail outlets. But the wide-eyed utopian benefits of long tail were never suggested to accrue to small, local retailers – it explicitly benefits large-scale retailers. Rather, it’s the small, independent creators, producers and distributors who gain, as they’re no longer squeezed out by large, mainstream works and products which monopolise shelf-space.

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