Over the last few years, much has been written about some of the challenges the media industry is facing, particularly newspapers in the United States. I, myself, have covered the area pretty extensively and for a while but acting as both a reader and a writer of opinions about that industry, I have yet to see a clear definition of what is being displaced. To that extent, I’ve started thinking about what is Media with a capital M and what is changing in its nature?
Media as a Mode of Delivery
In most of the conversations about media, the discussions centers on modes of delivery. People talk about television, radio, newspapers, magazines, or the Internet as media. Under that definition, the way a piece of content is transported appears to define what that piece of content is. It’s an odd approach that seems to put more emphasis on the how than on the what, that really believes that the envelope is more important that the message it carries and this offering seems like a flawed assumption in many ways.
It would seem foolish to consider the telephone a media form so why do we treat the television or paper as components? They are channels and nothing more and the hand-wringing around delivery to those channels seems based on the flawed assumption that the mode of transport is more important than what is transported.
There is an inherent danger in that flawed assumption as previous industries which failed to recognize the business they were in found themselves displaced and ultimately delivering value into the hands of a single player that concentrated its power by offering itself as the primary toll-gate on another form of distribution. The music industry circa 2001, for example, believed that it was in the business of moving plastic goods known as CDs and let Apple take what was written on those plastic goods, the music that is ultimately the value created, and delivered it over the internet. To this day, many in the music industry still believe that CDs are how music ought to be distributed, leading to such high performance act as Danger Mouse’s decision to just release a blank CD-R when the labels wouldn’t let him release the CD otherwise.
Today, newspapers are focused on finding better ways to move paper; magazines are focused on increasing profit margins against physical goods; TV channels are still arguing over number of viewers in a single sitting and radio is partly organized around two competing models: one where people and corporations pay in a coop form to get some form of programming created and distributed and another where advertisers count numbers of earlobes they are reaching. Even on the internet, some people still believe that the passage of masses by a web site has some level of importance.
In each case, the players are focused on the distribution and not the product and yet, the distribution medium is only one end of a relationship that needs too.
In the Middle
Because if you look at the core definition of a medium, it’s something that’s in the middle.
But in the middle of what? Trying to assess this becomes a little more difficult. Obviously, a good is produced and it is consumed. Focusing on that equation may get us closer to establishing the right model for media in the future because it forces us to admit that what we know today as media is not a single thing but a variety of things:
- On one dimension, it could be listed as going from entertaining to informative
- On another, it could go from being considered as purchased or subsidized
- On a third axis, it could be treated as mass generated or professionalized
In three simple dimension, we can break down most of the known media industry.
For example, take newspapers: They strive to be middle of the road between entertaining and informative, with a bias towards the front section of the newspaper being informative and the back section being entertaining; They also range from the completely subsidized approach (free advertising sponsored newspaper) to the heavily subsidized model (most newspapers). And most tend to be more professionalized, with professional editors and reporters building most of the content.
Magazines run the gamut, but largely focus on entertainment (the delivery of information is generally left to a much narrower portion of the market knows as newsletters); they are, for the most part heavily subsidized goods and mostly professionalized.
In the TV space, the news channels tend to be moving further and further into the entertainment arena (I would group opinion as a form of entertainment); They are 90+ percent subsidized as their main goal is to serve the advertisers and only a portion of their revenue is coming directly from consumers through some of the cable system carriage fees.
In radio, NPR is balancing between entertaining and informative; the interesting thing is that it is the closest thing to a purchased good as the group tends to attempt to get its consumers to ante up for their consumption; and it mixes mostly professionalized goods with mass-generated content (call-in shows, for example). Other “news” station tend to focus on the entertainment part of the equation (talk radio is focused on keeping its audience as engaged as possible) and fully subsidized (advertising based) and mostly mass generated (talk show host merely serve as the forum administrator ensure that like minds confirm their own bias or vent to each other).
On the Internet, diverse sites can run from pure forms of entertainment (celebrity or gossip blogs, for example) to heavy information delivery (generally more niche focused publication); they are also all over the place in terms of models, ranging from the fully subsidized model to the fully purchased one; and one could argue that they tend to also run the gamut in terms of mass-generated vs. professional production.
While I have given you a short preview of each of the dimensions, I would like to focus the discussion around particulars so I will delve further into each of the three dimensions in the next few entries.