Will the next press be capitalist?
Whether drained by arrogant habits or strained by admirable commitment, “old” media organizations as currently configured and staffed devour cash—and increasingly fail to replace it.
Leviathans like the New York Times Company and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. confront an immediate financial crunch, and the economic prospects of their small-market brethren are bleak. Every week struggling daily papers (national, regional, and local) pink-slip employees. Television broadcasters’ budgets also shrink as their viewers migrate to YouTube. Even TV cable companies face a new CNN Syndrome—Cash Needed Now.
The New York Times Company and News Corp. have faith in paper—newspapers—and access to very deep pockets. Both behemoths appear to be pursuing a “last man standing” survival strategy, News Corp.’s ploy is financed by its owner’s corporate billions, while The Gray Lady—echoing Blanche DuBois in her denialridden decline—relies on the kindness of Mexi can billionaire Carlos Slim. Since early spring 2009 Slim’s massive transfusion of millions in risk capital has kept the New York Times printing and pontificating— and palpitating, though just barely. Red ink continues to stain the Times’s quarterly corporate report.
The “last billionaire standing” gambit bets the recession kills billionaire-less competitors, and it certainly has a capitalist angle. “Early market instability, later market lock-in” is a business management nostrum. Murdoch and Slim bet they can survive transitional market instability and lock up markets in the “next economic expansion.” In that brave new after-world advertisers will have few premium market options.
Call their reality program SURVIVOR: Old Media, Next Monopolist, a Darwinian wager backed by extraordinary wealth and capitalist calculation, but very likely strapped with a severe case of newsprint nostalgia, an ink-stained faith in the revival of Gutenberg. Both Murdoch and Slim love newspapers, and perhaps they can afford an expensive December affaire de coeur with dead trees. Novelist William “Naked Lunch” Burroughs proved talented, con nected trust fund millionaires can afford heroin habits and live for decades using quality dope. Lessprivileged addicts beg, borrow, steal, and then—naked truth—die without dignity.
National, regional, and local media organizations without billionaire loot are begging, borrowing, and fading fast. For better and worse, in the United States we are witnessing the public death of a business model that uses paid political and commercial advertising to support high-volume printing presses and expensive broadcast technologies operating on government-allocated airwaves. We are also watching the less-publicized demise of a social order thoroughly attached to that business model’s economically productive era.
These deaths—sped by the poisons of corporate stagnation and ideological bias—have a subtle but not insignificant political dimension. The connection between free political speech and a free society is fundamental. No, the First Amendment wasn’t about investigative reporting, but keeping the political system honest—the political system that protects the First Amendment—all but requires it. Factual, fair, and original investigative reporting that carefully examines the ethics, finances, claims, actions, and assumptions of vested, powerful interest groups, individuals, corporations, and government institutions is—to use the buzzword of software developers—the “killer application” of worthy journalism. Free societies need well-armed soldiers to thwart external enemies and honest, relentless, investigative reporters free of partisan collusion to vex internal tyrants. Corruption and cronyism damage democracy, but so does cynicism, and hard evidence publicly empowering voters (and occasionally prosecutors) is the best systemic cure.
Newspapers at the local, regional, and national levels, and (after the invention of the telegraph) their “paid and ubiquitous” stringers, wire services, have carried the burden of investigative reporting. The reasons are in part tradition, but the power of the written word plays a role. Investigative reporting isn’t a glamorous face job—it requires persistence and courage, not personality and coiffure. The best investigative reporting requires an enterprising spirit—in the capitalist and reporter slang meaning of “enterprising.”
But the newspapers are dying. The American Society of Newspaper Editors canceled its 2009 convention, scheduled for Chicago in April. The ASNE press release (available on the Internet) cited “the challenging times faced by its members.” It has now changed its name to the American Society of News Editors, its newspaper subscription not quite canceled….
Perhaps the next press will be socialist.
Medicare is now an entitlement. The next stimulus may feature “Media-Care”—government subsidy if not ownership. As it is, a certain type of “media character” (I cannot write “journalist”) is always searching for a monarch to serve. In the United States this “media character” usually suffers from “BBC envy.” The afflicted “media character” instantly damns anyone who suggests the Beeb news brand isn’t perfect. She won’t consider the argument that a free, “classically liberal” economy puts a premium on the truth (competitive business demands facts, good and bad) and the BBC in its early years—when it established its stiffupper rep—was a government-owned broadcast monopoly supported by a liberal economy with globe-girdling interests.
But let’s say the BBC is something of a historical exception and speculate that despite parliamentary finagling, ideological causes célèbres, and Eurosocialism “BBC exceptionalism” will remain an eternal constant. The common “government” news media model is China’s Xinhua or a “semi-official” actor like Egypt’s Al-Ahram. The monarch’s purse, whether in the form of direct government control, governmental bullying, or even hobbyist billionaire with a George Soros-like ideological incline, always has strings.
Sun Tzu aficionados and “Unrestricted Warfare” fans take note: China’s current leaders still see a state-owned “news agency” as a tool for waging information war—which is why I specified the content objective of honest operations. StrategyPage.com recently pointed out (January 27, 2009):
China is spending $7.5 billion to turn its three main (government-owned) media giants, CCTV, Xinhua and the People’s Daily, into major international news outlets. There will be more English language print and broadcast news, as well as more uncensored news. Thus the recent censoring of the new American president’s inauguration speech (to delete critical comments about communism and countries that jail critics of the government) inside China, would not occur in overseas broadcasts, in order to give the impression that China does not censor domestic content. The expanded foreign news operation would employ more foreign correspondents, providing the intelligence services with operatives in more (more than a hundred) countries. The expanded news effort would make it easier for China to counter negative news stories about the Chinese government.
Do we invoke American exceptionalism and say “It can’t happen here?”
Okay, agreed, Americans are the heirs of the Enlightenment and Tom Paine, not the Ming Dynasty and Mao. What could happen here—with a subsidized media elite paid like Beltway bureaucrats— is repetitious, unchecked, narcissistic drivel and dreck. Too much of that already, given Maureen Dowd and Anderson Cooper? When NBC and the Washington Post have the creative dynamism of the Social Security Administration and the omnipresence of the IRS, it will get worse. Honest, responsible, and responsive media operations know they address an audience, and they seek to produce content their audience—composed of people—find relevant and useful enough to devote their time to absorbing and perhaps enjoying. One way to measure the relevance, utility, and enjoyability of the content is the public’s willingness to choose to pay for the content with hard-earned personal cash.
The next press may be anarchist.
Don’t snort, not yet. Cheap digital technologies and the Internet permit individual distribution and highly individualized information sharing based on individual connectivity and “ lateral connectivity.” In terms of accessing information, people have more options, more choice in a complex marketplace that evades if not quite escapes current hierarchical media corporations. They also have the technology to challenge opinions and reports instantly and globally. Choice and challenge have sociopolitical and professional effects.
Marshall McLuhan (in his classic Understanding Media) argued that Narcissus didn’t really fall in love with his own image. Instead, McLuhan’s Narcissus thought the fascinating face he saw was another human being. A “closed system”—consisting of his own eyes and the mirror surface of the pool reflecting his face—trapped Narcissus in a loop of pleasurable feedback, which, like a narcotic, left him “numb” to alternative explanations.
Internet-based critics of “Old Media” insist “Old Media elites” are “numbed” by past institutional successes and habits, which has led to an unexamined existence at least vaguely akin to McLuhan’s handsome Greek. The “Old Media elites” operate on templates (e.g., all wars are “Vietnam”), promote “nar ratives” (e.g., “Bush lied, people died”), and bitterly resist alternative interpretations. They claim to have open minds and relish argumentation, but social, professional, geographic, and political biases afflict them and they refuse to acknowledge them.
This is, of course, an “anti-establishment” narrative— young upstarts challenging the old farts—and a “counter-template” drawn with a very broad brush. There is, however, one area where the “antiestablishment” critique aligns with “Old Media elitist” self-congratulation, privileged tout, and sense of entitlement: the elites claim special expertise when it comes to determining expertise.
Individual digital connectivity has tapped what I call the “distributed genius” of human beings, in a way print rarely did (a letter to the editor won’t appear for days) and electronic media—such as radio with talk shows taking phone calls—only began to explore. In the early 1990s I used “distributed genius” to describe an e-mail “listserve” group I joined that included a number of military reservists, a retired Marine, a military historian, and at least two men on active duty. The members were scattered (distributed) around the world. Ask for advice on a military issue and—presto— feedback from an articulate pro who had been there and done it. Feedback invariably sparked informed debate from another pro who had done it differently.
Some Old Media organizations and a few new ones fear “distributed genius” because it challenges, questions, and corrects, and enlarged egos in New York, D.C., and L.A. can’t handle a challenge from a truck driver in Grand Junction or Muleshoe. In September 2004 distributed genius brought down Dan Rather and gave CBS a lingering black eye. Three attorneys (Powerlineblog.com), a mathematically gifted guitar player (littlegreenfootballs.com), and an Atlanta attorney with expertise in script fonts (posting at freerepublic.com under the name “Buck head”) exposed Rather’s “Air National Guard documents” story on 60 Minutes as a fraud. Rather still doesn’t get it. Rather claims his story was George W. Bush getting special treatment in the Air Guard, but that was old news. The new, sensational documents were Rather’s story, and within 12 hours a half-dozen people—most of them in fly-over country—had exposed the documents as fakes. An ad hoc organization—self- organizing based on shared interests and tapping distributed genius via the Internet—quickly whipped the selfcongratulatory narcissism of the Tiffany Network. Credit Time magazine for at least detecting the seismic significance—Time declared Powerline “blog of the year” at a time when “blog” was still an expletive for many Old Media pundits and journalists.
The Obama administration’s thwarted appointment of Chas Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council offers a much less sensational example of the emerging anarchist media model, but one that is also instructive. A synergistic combination of blogs and talk radio exposed Freeman’s extraordinary conflicts of interest involving foreign businesses and extensive foreign political lobbying that called into question his fitness for such a truly sensitive intelligence position. A hack job in the State Department? Why not? But positioning a highly partisan operative like Freeman to color and shade national intelligence estimates? Think again, especially after six years of Democrat accusations that the Bush administration had let partisan neocons spin intelligence.
Freeman could count on partisan media to protect him with glowing editorials, softball interviews, and all-smiles video, but the “new media,” though filled with opinionated partisans pro-Freeman and con-Freeman, had the temerity—and the technology—to quote the man verbatim. His comments about China and Tibet were particularly inflammatory. Freeman claimed the “Israel lobby” derailed him, which is likely a case of his own comment saying more about his own mindset than he intended—and by mindset I don’t mean anti-Zionist, I mean Washington Beltway. No lobby or conspiratorial clique or entrenched interest controls the anarchists, nor does a particular geographic region, social milieu, or intellectual consensus. Freeman has analytical intelligence skills and was positioned to fight a Wash ington “insider” battle against lobbyists; he wasn’t prepared to answer a “citizen media” who thought him unfit for a senior intelligence position because he had worked as such an overt, often arrogant, and often rhetorically insensitive paid tout and by damn they had the direct quotes to prove it.
But will a “flash mob” cover the city council meeting with the persistence it takes to catch the crooks? Gadflies manning BlackBerries and liveblogging the council meeting could replace the local newspaper’s investigative reporter, and the motivated gadfly might prove to be more of a menace to the shady councilman than the city editor the slick pol used to greet at the country club. The gadfly covering the city council could link to the gadfly covering the county sheriff and they in turn link to the gadfly ticked about the road the local Wal-Mart insists on building next to his dairy farm. Suddenly this “social network” reporting is more granular than the Associated Press ever imagined. Now, if someone brought the energy, effort, and knowledge together on one “converging” website, if only to reduce what the business gurus call “shopping costs.” How thoughtful if someone tidied up the prose, cropped the photograph so we could see the surveyor as well as the cows, and asked for, you know, back-up, sourced evidence to support the assertions just in case Wal-Mart decides to sue.
The utterly anarchist press holds promise, until libel suits—and, if you’re from Chicago, hardboys hired in a local pizza joint—sap, then silence the gadflies one by one by one.
Perhaps a little-less-than-anarchist organization would leverage the energy and abilities of local and regional “social reporting networks” but hang together just enough to avoid hanging separately?
The next media is already converging—and convergence opens new possibilities for the enterprising “little guys” who know economic independence, political liberty, and free expression are mutually reinforcing experiments in the bloody, tortured, and all too frequently enslaved history of humankind.
The hardware is converging. The 2009 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show confirmed the computer monitor’s victory over the television set. This convergence threatens the business models of broadcasters and cable companies. By the end of 2009 most HDTV’s will sport USB and Ethernet connections so owners may upload and store personal photos and videos. Blu-Ray DVD players will have Ethernet connections. (If you don’t know the meaning of USB, Ethernet, and Blu-Ray—your greatgrandchildren do.)
The software has already converged. Coffee, tea, or milk? Text, audio, or video? People want what they want when they want it. Stated negatively, this is selfishness. Stated positively, individual needs and tastes differ, and people prefer choice. Stalinism provided one loaf of stale bread, sometimes. Zabar’s will sell you six or seven varieties of fresh croissants. “Convergence media” software provides information in a digital format most convenient and desirable to the user. An airline passenger may tell the tray-juggling flight attendant with the coffee and tea she’d prefer a cocktail. Sophisticated convergence media software can provide a blended cocktail of text, audio, and video (for example, video with hyper-linked footnotes referring the audience listener- viewer-reader to source documents and alternative analyses) based on need, utility, or momentary whim.
The hardware and the software are here. The business models—the ways and means of monetizing and organizing—are at hand.
Convergence models already exist. More than a decade ago, Rupert Murdoch warned media corporations that the computer and Internet made their business models unsustainable. Murdoch has assembled his own “convergence media conglomerate”—a macro-empire with audio, video, and text elements housed in “legacy technology” associated with radio, television, and magazine-newspaper formats. As the future arrived, he also bought high-traffic websites.
The software tool sets to reach the hardware are available to talented, creative individuals operating in agile, cooperative organizations that have minimized or eliminated the Industrial Age overhead strangling the sclerotic media giants. Savvy producers of “content people find relevant and useful” will deliver it in multiple-digital formats. An editor must also be a producer and a director—quite a demanding skill set, but those skills operating “digital convergence micro-empires” will spur a new era of small-town journalism where the “new little guys” have very “big guy” capabilities, if they learn to use them creatively.
The vast majority of little guys, unlike Murdoch and Carlos Slim and a handful of unusual small markets, must shoot the horse. Desperate, surrounded cavalry troopers shoot their horses to give them temporary fortresses—to survive the onslaught, then escape the trap. Shooting the horse means ditching paper. The sooner they do it the better—and bye-bye printing costs, paper costs, ink costs, truck delivery costs, and increasingly unreliable home delivery services that can’t find a subscriber’s house (even when using digital maps), much less plop a paper on the driveway.
Reliable delivery matters, but in the digital world points of sale proliferate. Running a microempire requires establishing new mutual support arrangements. The smart “micro-empire” will link with the best broadband service (converge with the infrastructure) and in ideal situations provide the “most local” user interface with the broadband service. This creates opportunities for delivering entertainment content and a news service that is elaborative while leveraging “social network” community input and feedback capability. Readers with picture- and video-capable cell phones are text, video, and audio resources. As gadfly bloggers, they are investigators. Read-view-listen provides multiple ways to advertise as well as deliver content. Mobile phones and PDAs are vehicles for delivering content. Shoot the paper horse, but maintaining a paper pony offers a bridge to digital devices. A weekly broadsheet headline summary of online stories inserted in the grocery store’s freebie ad supplement (available at the store or sent by snail mail) does more than pick up a niche market of shoppers. Put text or video download information by the headline so the shoppers—if they choose to do so—can retrieve the entire story on their phones or PDAs. That would carry a small download fee to non-subscribers, billed through the mobile phone company. An audio summary could play via the phone or PDA through a listener’s car speakers as he drives home from the store.
The “micro-empire” may also feed hourly updates to local radio and local TV—at least until the micro-empire becomes local television. As “web jitter” disappears and TV episodes become webisodes, the micro-empire is positioned to replace cable television and perhaps broadcast as well. “Cartoon webisodes” already on the Internet are 21st-century comic pages.
How would a micro-empire function in Grand Junction or Muleshoe? The micro-empire is distributed. Goodbye, impressive buildings and plush lobbies. Headquarters becomes a small brick-and-mortar office in a strip mall with an editor and a copy editor at their computers, an accountant at a computer, and a couple of ad salespeople who work phones and convergence ad design software programs. A webmaster is on call (operating out of his home). Everyone else works from home. Save the water-cooler gossip for occasional meetings in the headquarters conference room. Daily story conferences are web-based conferences with everyone capable of audio, video, and written input.
Reporters cover key local stories—doing what they have always done—and file a blog entry on the scene, then follow up with a more complete report once they have time to write it or produce it. But in this new world no report is ever quite complete. Community subscribers may add comments or link to their own blogs (with the convergence corporation the center of a community “social network” blog). Local bloggers with an interest in particular issues serve as tipsters and over time (and with track record for accuracy) the most reliable become paid stringers. Bloggers with analytical and literary skills are already columnists—the local micro-empire will tout them and link to them, to mutual advantage. To build community, have a monthly coffee klatch inviting bloggers and commenters from the local community to meet face to face, and make a video of the meeting. The show will become “must see” video locally, and the best will reach a global audience.
The micro-empire seeks links and partnerships with other small-market convergence media— forming their own “new era wire service.” Original material is always copyrighted—the smart “new little guys” will take the bet that “link to origin” will eventually lead to “pay to origin” royalties. “Pay to read” has had mixed results—but “pay for depth” via myriad hyperlinks leading to original content holds promise, especially for a lean “micro” business. A number of big guys seem to think an iTunes-like subscription service for media content (mimicking Apple’s music download service) will sure-fire save their organizations. They understand lots and lots of “small” can add up. Ping-pong balls are buoyant. Speedily stuff a zillion ping-pong balls into a punctured, listing Titanic and despite the jagged gash in the hull their wave-licked wreck could— theoretically—stay afloat… hypothetically…a while…maybe. (The online Wall Street Journal does well with paid subscribers—and that predates Murdoch’s acquisition of Dow Jones.)
Every morning (local time) the outfit e-mails a concise, link-rich morning edition to paid subscribers. The e-mail edition is an opportunity for a premium advertisement—one that can be tailored to an individual reader. (The reader decides if she wants tailored ads—some will, some won’t.) Interesting companies like youdata.com have developed routines that pay audience members for their time in watching “tailored” advertising.
Pay for convergence skills? Salary may not be a guaranteed amount but guaranteed “points.” The editor and top reporter might be paid 5 percent of monthly profits. Some months that might prove to be a swag. Other months…
This convergence micro-empire is a lean, fast, agile, risk-taking outfit. Convergence has very positive organizational effects, akin to what McLuhan meant by a “new” medium having unobserved effects (“changing the ground,” as he put it). Convergence shrinks the bureaucracy. Convergence doesn’t have time to wait for committees to reach a consensus. Editors and journalists must make decisions—but thanks to the technology, updates and corrections are easy.
A few web-based media companies already operate using business models with the nascent traits of a convergence operation—I work with three that do.
Norman Isaacs, former editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Pulitzer Prize winner, and for a decade a professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism, told me over a bourbon that there are only “two things” any newspaper or journalism business should hire: character and brains. Things? Traits. Honesty and intelligence. After further contemplation and more bourbon we decided those were the two best traits any business could hire. These traits are the core of establishing and sustaining credibility. They established credibility in an information age dependent on the horse courier and later the telegraph. They are key to information credibility and reliability in the era of the Internet and age of convergence.
Informed citizens make democracy work. Informed citizens require facts, and that means good reporting—informative journalism produced with integrity.
Will the next media be capitalist?
The next free, unfettered media will be, if by capitalist we mean enterprising, risk-taking, competitive, and economically self-reliant enough to remain free and unfettered.