Thirty years in “new media.” Part I A new perception

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

285-butterflyrose.jpgLet’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.

287-dinosketch.jpgSome 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.

288-stump2.jpgOne 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 and291-airplant1.jpg 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.”

A book is a book, an app is an app

One the smartest  members of  the new generation trying to find their path in an world  where the current news media is in mortal danger is Cody Brown, a 21-year-old student at New York University.

He has posted an very interesting column in TechCrunch, Dear Author Your Next Book should be an App, not an Ibook.

Brown asks:

So much has been said in the past few weeks about how the iPad will change the book industry but in almost all of the tweets, posts, and articles I’ve come across a simple questions seems to be completely dropped. Why do we have books in the first place?

And goes on

If you, as an author, see the iPad as a place to ‘publish’ your next book, you are completely missing the point. What do you think would have happened if George Orwell had the iPad? Do you think he would have written for print then copy and pasted his story into the iBookstore? If this didn’t work out well, do you think he would have complained that there aren’t any serious‑readers anymore? No. He would have looked at the medium, then blown our minds.

And concludes

I can say with a lot of confidence that the ‘books’ that come to define my generation will be impossible to print. This is great.

Later in response to comments on  TechCrunch, Cody Brown tweeted

To address a lot of initial comments. I’m suggesting a new medium, not *total displacement* of books. Just registered

Dear Cody:

An app is an app and a book is book.

I’ve published five books and written another five or so that weren’t published (and the first few weren’t publishable).

So here’s the first big question. If the next generation of books become impossible to print, how long will they last?

As many critics of  the iPad have asked, how long will the iPad last?  Will your iApp be obsolete in ten years, while the book printed on paper is still read?

I’ve spent this weekend preparing to move from Toronto to British Columbia.

I’ve been dividing my books into three piles.

Some of my research material from my books are going to libraries and archives. Some I’m donating to my sister’s church for a bazaar sale (I have so much to do I can’t be bothered with the used bookstore route).

The third pile has those books I’m keeping.  


The oldest book in my collection was published in 1874, written by American war correspondent Januarius MacGahan, covering the Russian conquest of  central Asia, Campaigning the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva.  (Khiva is an ancient city in what today is Uzbekistan.)

Let’s compare that with news on the web, which often disappears as soon as management changes a sever.

When Wikileaks  this week released the controversial video of the 2007 shooting in Baghdad. I went hunting on the web for another piece of  airborne video, the USAF pilots dropping a bomb on Canadian soldiers in Kandahar on April 18, 2002, now known as the Tarnak Farms incident.

Some years later, probably in 2006, that Kandahar video was leaked to ABC News.  I was one of the CBC news staff assigned to track down the video. (I’ll never forget the USAF spokeswoman who told  me, “Just because it’s been on television doesn’t mean it isn’t classified.”)

The video was eventually released by the USAF (I am not sure when, but probably sometime during the court martial proceedings).  The problem is that if you want to compare the pilot’s attitude over Kandahar with those of the Apache pilots over Baghdad, you can’t.  The video is gone from the web.  The links on both the CBC and CNN sites are dead.  I was unable to find it on the ABC News site (which originally broadcast the video)  and the video is not linked on the Wikipedia page on the Tarnak Farms incident.

Shortly after the Tarnak Farms incident, I produced a multimedia piece for CBC News, a combination of  stills, video and text, on three Iraqi exiles living in Toronto on their thoughts prior to the upcoming US led invasion. That too is gone from the web.


I was always a klutz with a typewriter;  one reason I fell in love with computers.  I wrote my first book, King of the Mob, on an Osborne  1 (double density), with a tiny four inch screen.   The operating system was CP/M and the word processor was Word Star. Both are long gone.

A few years later, I did  convert the manuscript from CP/M Word Star to MS Dos text. The problem is that the manuscript is stored on 5.25 inch floppy disks.  Today’s computers don’t even take the successor, the 3.5 inch floppies.  (My first PC had a “giant” 40 megabyte hard drive. Now the photographs  I take with my DSLR are all greater than 40 mg)

It’s interesting that you are quoting George Orwell.   So I’m  wondering, along with many others, if Steve Jobs is the new Big Brother, with all the controls that Apple is placing on the apps.  Apple seems to want to control not only the  programming language but likely the content as well, as outlined in this New York Times article, Rethinking a Gospel of the Web.
As reported by Mashable, that has sparked a war with Adobe and as one widely quoted blog has reported, raised concerns among multi-platform app developers.

What if Steve Jobs and the Apple staff don’t approve of that app you have spent so much time to create?

If you do all that work, do you want to have to hire an expensive lawyer to make sure that a 200 page digital rights management agreement doesn’t  screw you and leave you with just pennies from that $9.99? Will that Apple DRM  prevent you from porting that app to another system? 

Will that DRM prevent you from taking advantage of some new technology not yet thought of? (After all the big book publishing firms are already trying a rights grab from authors to convert existing material to e-books based on the word “book form” in original contracts. The only people going to profit from that are the lawyers as they argue the meaning of “book form.”)

If you do you all that work, what happens if your project is arbitrarily deleted as Amazon deleted George Orwell’s Animal farm from Kindle (George Orwell again)?  Even worse, what if somehow accidentally your project is deleted from the server (as has happened to me)?  Even if you have backup, it might take days or even weeks to get the app back on the system, if ever.

I agree with your Tweet and your new term “pdature” that some interactive app system is a new medium with a great deal of potential   

But the comments on TechCrunch are right. Is this something that an individual can do?   It’s very time consuming just to research and write book length journalism without having to program an interactive flash map of the character’s movements (Oops. Flash is a no-no for Apple).  Can you do that or will that be something taken over by a gaming company like Electronic Arts?

Will you have the time? Especially if there is no advance or only a small advance for a project like that, especially if it sells for just $9.99 while you’re trying to pay the rent and keep food on the table.

Don’t get me wrong. I want projects like that to succeed and make a lot of money for you, the creator (not just Apple or Electronic Arts).

A book is a book and an app is app.  

In 2074, people will still be able to read MacGahan’s Campaigning the Oxus two hundred years after it was published (especially since it was printed on acid free paper).  I am sure you can produce as brilliant a piece of journalism sometime in your future career. But if it’s an app, and not a book, will people be able to read it in 2074?

best wishes


(P.S. I am looking for a good home for my Osborne, since I don’t want to to take it with me across the continent. Any ideas would be welcome)