If someone, and that someone is me, can spend almost of all of a thirty year journalism career in what’s still being called “new media” and then take early retirement, isn’t it time we started calling the silicon-based multimedia something else?
The word “new” in “new media” has become a slogan, no different from a consumer product such as shampoo where there always is a “new and improved”version with a tweak here and a thunk there.
“New” is part of the problem, “new” is the reason why most media executives have failed to come to grips with the current crisis of falling revenues, dwindling audience and distrust of our work. Those transnational media managers, editors and executive producers are all under the impression that all they have to do is hire yet another consultant to find the right bottle for the new formula shampoo and all will be well.
After a decade of that kind of stumbling, it can definitely be said that’s wrong.
From the perspective of being part of thirty years of technological innovation, challenges, responses, successes and failures, if the new media is to survive and thrive, a different (not new) perspective is needed.
Change the word, change the perception, change the response.
We are living in the era of evolving media.
If we stop thinking that the latest innovation (today it is the iPad and competing tablets, tomorrow who knows what it will be) as a new toy, but as new (or even invasive) species in the media ecosystem, then, uncomfortable as it is for quite a few us, then, if survival matters, and it does, then adaptation is the key. In the era of rapidly evolving media, repackaging fails, because repackaging is not adaptation.
It also means facing the unknown, something most of today’s media managers are loathe to do. So when I say “we are living in the era of evolving media,” the “we” I am referring to the people who, as a friend, then an editor with the London Sunday Times, once quipped, actually “commit journalism,” the ones who have to face the unknown and the routine, the reporters, editors, photographers, videographers, web designers, and even the few managers who haven’t been purged or retired from burn out, who love and believe in the principles of
journalism (no matter how hit and miss those flawed human beings actually implement those principles). More and more that includes “the people,” “the public”, the “ordinary citizen” with mobile phone cameras, tweets and blogs–who actually report rather than rant.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
Let’s look back at the evolution of ecosystems: To the Cretaceous, the last great age of the dinosaurs and the time when there was the sudden explosion of new varieties of flowering plants, the angiosperms, which pushed into the ecosystems then dominated by ferns and conifers. It truly was a time, to quote Mao Zedong from 1957 in a different context of : “Letting a hundred flowers blossom…”(the thousand flower was a later, urban legend, misquote, just like “Play it again, Sam,” rather than “Play it Sam,”)
What Mao said (and quickly relented when the campaign became a threat to his power) was “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”
So using this analogy, evolving media will bring that progress in the arts and sciences (forget about socialist culture, at least as it existed in the 20th century) but over a longer time scale than the quarterly results report period so beloved by the financial markets.
The first primitive angiosperms probably appeared sometime in the first age of dinosaurs, the Triassic, about 200 million years ago, but had little impact, perhaps evolving in isolated areas or islands, until (at least according to the current fossil record) 100 million years ago, there came some sort of tipping point and there was the explosion of flowering pant species from the tiniest flower to great new deciduous trees.
Consider the Internet, the Web, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, phone and tablet apps, the new flowers, as part of an media ecosystem undergoing rapid evolutionary change, with more to come.
The large scale appearance of flowering plants then triggered evolutionary changes among animals, insects,birds, dinosaurs and quite likely mammals. So it is inevitable there will be new “species” of journalists emerging now and in the coming years.
In the short term, the prognosis for the news media is not that good. The world is in economic turmoil, and the financial and corporate sectors, trapped in mid-Twentieth century models that no longer work, are failing to adapt. Governments are also failing to adapt to escalating challenges.
As for the media, the corporate level is also trapped in mid-Twentieth century models that no longer work. On the level of the actual news story, the media workers, the ecosystems are also in turmoil, those Cretaceous new flower species are spreading through the ferns and conifers, and crowding them out.
In the long term, I am optimistic for the future of real journalism, the kind that tells significant stories about people and events, and for those who “commit journalism,” whom ever they may be. After all, the emergence of those first significant flowers 100 million years ago, led eventually, to William Shakespeare writing in Rome and Juliet, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The disappearance of some of those fern and conifer species led to fields of beautiful flowers and trees with juicy apples.
Some form of journalism will survive even a probable crisis of climate and civilization, just as life, including flowering plants, eventually recovered from the impact of the asteroid that shattered planet Earth 65 million years ago.
The Epic of Media
So imagine that someone far in the future is producing a documentary about the media crisis of the early 21st century, modelled on the dinosaur epics, first pioneered by a public sector broadcaster the BBC, and now a mainstay on Discovery and National Geographic, especially during the November sweeps.
Storyline: Now to the evolutionary flashback. The giant, apex species, brought down by the tiniest newly evolved species
First the weather forecast, so beloved by media consultants. Over the coming months and years, unsettled, with storm warnings and sunny breaks. Long term outlook, increasingly volatile weather and climate patterns.
The transnational media, giant trees that dominate the landscape today are threatened by the tiniest of creatures, call it a tweet. This is not unlike another climate and evolutionary disaster of the early 21st century, in British Columbia and elsewhere in the west, the pine beetle’s destruction of the forests. Thanks to climate change, most winters are no longer cold enough to kill off the pine beetle the voracious insect flourishes as it eats its way through and destroys the forest, pine tree by pine tree.
The tiny 140 character tweet may be the media equivalent of the pine beetle for the giant, often consultant run, stock market directed media corporation. News breaks on Twitter, most often from tiny BNOnews or a wire service, sometimes from another big news organization and occasionally from a citizen. If the story is significant it is immediately retweeted and picked up by the wires and those 24/7 satellite and cable news organizations that still actually cover news rather than airing screams. Yet, sometimes as much as eight hours later, network and local TV will blare “Breaking News” and turn off an audience that already knows all the details of the ancient story from Twitter.
A decade or so ago, the Breaking News graphic on CNN, in the days when
CNN was a real news organization, meant “stop, look and listen . Now, Breaking News has become so much a cliche that we see actors portraying phony reporters covering “Breaking News” Boxing Day sales for furniture chains. No matter what, unimaginative TV news operations insist on continuing with the same old pitch.
Some corporations never learn. Now we see overuse of the Twitter alert for routine news stories, even when the same news organization has Twitter accounts for the routine. That overuse only diminishes the brand and all the public has to is unfollow the overused alert.
So to update the old newspaper saying, “There’s nothing as old as yesterday’s news,” to “There’s nothing as old as last hours news tweet.”
So the great apex trees, weakened by tiny enemies, crash in the raging storm. The sun comes out and with the overhead canopy gone, at least temporarily, new species and existing adaptive species reach for the sun and thrive.
So new species are filling the ecological niches freed by the decline of the apex media tree. Like small animals and plants, the hyperlocal species are the first to take advantage of the new space. Some of those species will thrive, others will be driven to extinction by a failure to truly adapt to the new conditions.
Species that once thrived in the apex canopy now have to adapt to the new environment, creating competition for existing niches (as for example, when laid off or retired photojournalists create new competition for existing wedding and commercial photographers).
Just as the rise of the flowering angiosperms created new niches and become aggressive invaders, the media environment is facing newly evolved and perhaps more adaptive species.
One aggressive invasive species is Wikileaks. Wikileaks enters that investigative niche largely abandoned by the increasingly too specialized apex media species. Like other invasive species, Wikileaks, also disrupts the ecosystem. Wikileaks is not the same kind of species Again imagine a tall and solid investigative fir tree, now old and rotten. Wikileaks, perhaps, it is too early too tell, is the media ecosystem equivalent of kudzu or purple loosestrife that fills the place emptied by that fallen tree.
Another example is where one established species takes advantage of a gap in the ecosystem, in this case Jon Stewart, who provides news on a comedy show in a way that many young people, and some of their elders, consider more credible than the main stream media. It was only Jon Stewart who raised the despicable hypocrisy of the Republican party’s filibuster on the bill providing assistance to 9/11 first responders in New York, which lead to the article in the New York Times comparing Stewart to Edward R Murrow.
Some journalists objected on Twitter and blogs to the comparison, but if the major news media had not abandoned the investigative niche, in some ways pioneered by Murrow, among others, if the networks and the major newspapers had covered the story, that comparison with Jon Stewart would not have been raised.
(At least in the entertainment environment, another new and aggressive species is Netflicks, which is perhaps a more efficient distribution system that traditional broadcast television and cable . Or multi-terabyte tablets and phones will destroy broadcast television as we know it, at least for entertainment, but that could free bandwidth and air time for more news. On the other hand, one species which flowered briefly and then disappeared was the colourization of movies. The old black and white films still play on speciality channels while the colourized ones are not often seen).
Just as the development of flowers created new species of insects and birds, the new media species increase competition
One example is the rise and now possible fall of the content farms like Demand Media. Demand Media takes advantage of search engines and the sudden availability of staff (warm bodies from the dying main stream media) in the media ecosystem to create quickly produced, cheap and superficial content. The Demand Media content appears on search due to taking advantage of Search Engine Optimization. That superficial content, however, clogs the system, and brings complaints from the public, users who are looking for substantial content, who complain to Google, which in turn rewrites its search algorithms to emphasize quality content and downgrade the content farms.
In this new ecosystem, the person in the right place in the right time with a mobile phone, still or video camera, the citizen tweeter and some bloggers, the citizen journalist joins the ecosystem.
Nothing is certain. If the tablet is a new ecosystem, some of those media species who have a symbiotic relationship, with the tablet, games and books, are thriving. The adaptability of newspapers is, at the moment, uncertain. Given the figures at the end of 2010, magazines appear to have flowered briefly and now are withering and the question is will the magazines adapt to the new tablet environment?
Why can’t many of the big media corporations adapt? Once corporations took real risks, sending ships to out to the end of the world or building transcontinental railways (often with government support). Or in the case of the media, sending reporters to fascinating places to find fascinating stories at home and abroad. Today the companies, especially media companies, perhaps have evolved to be too highly specialized, often an evolutionary dead end, few making true long term, evolutionary investments.
To use a climate analogy, the modern media corporation is like a species that is adapted to four seasonal nutrition opportunities, the quarterly earnings report. Most of corporate worker bees have one reluctant aim, to make sure the queen and the drones are well fed and get their bonuses even if the company is bankrupt.
The media climate is changing, results from four seasons are no longer reliable. Now, more adaptive, omnivorous species are entering the ecosystem, more able to adapt to the changing, volatile climatic conditions.
So whether it’s a freelance on a shoestring, a hyperlocal effort, a small tech start up, one of the last family owned newspapers, a giant private sector corporate media chain or a public broadcaster, the solution to survival is to understand that there will never be a return to the equilibrium of twentieth century media.
A technical innovation will come out of nowhere just at the moment you believe when you’re all caught up.
The trouble is that the large corporation is too often eager to simply make the newest innovation, as one online pioneer commented to me, “part of the big machine,” and thus the machine, part of the old ecosystem, stifles true innovation.
The race will start all over tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. That “new media” may become part of the system, it may last a year, it may last a decade, or may be replaced in six moths. Think evolving media.
Think evolving media
Whether you are 22-year-old entrepreneurial multimedia independent or the 70-something CEO of a giant media corporation you must work on evolutionary time line. By evolutionary I mean adaption and survival. That means you have to eat today to see tomorrow but you must also (perhaps like migratory animals) think beyond the horizon, rather than hoping the next season will bring some extra goodies.
Some hints (and it will be painful for the executive class, but then everyone else has been working with pain for the past few years, so why shouldn’t the executives?).
- Put some of your budget aside for contingencies a decade ahead and also budget for shorter term unexpected technological innovation. Keep moving the decade date ahead and refreshing the budget as the years go on.
- Prepare and budget for investing in complete utter and total failures. Prepare to understand that no one is to blame for a technology that looked good one year and flopped the next. That is the way of the world today. Don’t look for scapegoats in executive row, the IT department or your staff geeks. Move on.
- Stop following the crowd. Remember the 60s. “Do your own thing,” see what works and what doesn’t for you and your audience. Again be prepared to fail and fail again. Chances are you will actually succeed.
- Do follow the crowd once a critical mass is apparent on the horizon. In the 1990s, many news organizations hesitated to jump on the web. Those companies paid for their mistakes, some never really caught up, for others it took a decade or more, all forgetting he who hesitates is lost. Most news organizations were quick to recognize the potential of Twitter, but once again those who got on Twitter early now dominate. The tablet, no matter what form it eventually evolves, is the delivery system of the coming years. There are still far too few good, well-designed news apps out there at the moment and the audience is already gravitating to those that are available.
- Trust your own people. In 30 years in “new media” (wherever I worked) I was told time and time again by know nothing managers to attend a session with an expensive consultant only to find out that our staff usually knew more than the consultant. In 90 per cent of cases, consultants are a waste of time and money. In ecosystem terms, consultants are like epiphytes, air plants, that look good, often with pretty flowers, on a tree branch or trunk but are essentially parasites, living off the tree itself. If you want your staff to listen to the latest guru, pay for them to attend a conference where they can get the same canned speech at a much lower cost, and may find an even better idea in a small seminar or a corner booth.
- Look for adaptability, not age. Innovation goes in cycles. Your best assets are those who are/were working at a time of innovation and were early adopters at that time, whether they are now 20, 40 or 60. One large and well known news organization is notorious for an unofficial policy in their future planning meetings for excluding staff over the age of 40, believing the under 40s would have the new ideas. Unfortunately while many on the committees were part of one or another digital generation, had grown up with the web, most came on board during relative technological stability and so hadn’t faced the problems of instant adaptability and innovation. At the same time, the youngest staff, in their early 20s, and many of whom are part of a new innovation cycle, had already been laid off in last hired, first fired, short sighted cost cutting policies. So the “planners” proceeded to reinvent the wheel and make costly mistakes their ignored elders could have warned against, while not embracing the new tech that the lost 20-25 year olds were already using.
- The editorial assistant, the intern, the “cub reporter,” is your newest asset and a crucial long term investment. Last hired, first fired for younger media employees may have worked during a temporary downturn in a relatively stable environment, but in this time of rapid change it is, for any company, self-defeating standard operating procedure foolishness. The “kid” answering the phones knows more about the stories “younger audience” wants than all those consultants you hire. The recent purges of editorial assistants by many major news organizations, as a short term cost saving measure, is just one example of the corporate media’s blind evolutionary decline. Revolving unpaid internship after unpaid internship, the cruel uncertainty facing many young people, is another indicator of the long term spiral into decay. If disillusioned young people drop out while the energetic ones strike out on their own, there a fewer and fewer fresh ideas that can renew and revive your moribund main stream media.
- Compete and cooperate at the same time; just as ravens and wolves, both predators, often cooperate in the hunt and then compete for the spoils. The 19th century newspaper barons in New York who founded the Associated Press were fierce competitors and at the same time knew when to join forces to make sure all their customers would get news, something that today’s over specialized, short sighted and self centred media barons forget as they pull out of wire services and other cooperatives.
- Respect the eco-audience. The audience, which supposedly is all important to the media, is part of this ecosystem. The media largely ignore the hard fact they and the “audience” are part of one integrated landscape. Instead, the metrics obsessed media relies far too much on marketing and demographic surveys and studies from the fantasy worlds created by many economists. That current reliance, the audience narrowed again and again by the corporate bean counters, increasingly excludes more and more of the public. That deliberate exclusion is one of the roots of the current distrust of the media. That exclusion creates a feedback mechanism, the more people excluded for business reasons, the more the wider audience even in the demographics demanded by the advertisers and sought by the media, distrusts the media and drops out or goes elsewhere (for example the huge American audience for the reliable reporting in the Guardian online).
By all means watch the latest tech shows, like the BBC’s Click. But also sit back and watch one of those dinosaur shows on a science channel, and imagine yourself in one of those changing, evolving changing ecosystems and then plan your media business accordingly.
Forget “new media” think “evolving media.”