Time for a new narrative as the media navel-gazing rumbles on
The ongoing proliferation of stories about the media trade’s long-running troubles are just retreading old ground
Some weekend belly fluff from the media’s never-ending bout of omphaloskepsis: why paywalls don’t mean newspapers are secure; are music critics pointless? (don’t all shout at once); why twentysomethings (Generation Mooch) don’t pay for media content (here’s a sidebar to back this up vis-a-vis HBO subs); the new dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism has never tweeted in his life thus he’s irrelevant (he’s probably also never doorstepped an alleged criminal or hacked phones either, but those facts aren’t mentioned); superb piece on the shoddy journalism which allowed that “the internet is under attack!” story to make waves last week; what happened to journalists debunking misinformation?; the Dutch have saved the newspaper business with a subscriber-funded model, it really is all over, and, as a palate cleanser after all those furrowed brows, Heat magazine’s editor-in-chief on how celebrity coverage has changed.
That’s just a selection of pieces from the weekend’s media gumbo, the pieces which caught my eye and pieces which loosely tied in with the same narrative: the media is going to hell in a handcart and we don’t know what is going on. Is that Chicken Little I see before me?
Let’s hold the horses for a moment. Is there anything in the above stories which we haven’t read a million times already? Be honest. Fear not. Tell the truth. Is there anything in what I’ve linked to above which is new information in the broadest sense? Is there anything above which you haven’t read in some other form in the last five or six years? Are these not the same issues which have dominated the newspaper/media space for the last decade? Isn’t the fact that we’re still talking about the same aul’ issues proof that we’re really not getting anywhere?
Don’t get me wrong here, I like a spot of navel-gazing as well as the next media fellow. After all, my paycheck probably depends on it. This is what we do, out here on the margins, with a side of pontification and fuming on occasions. But it strikes me that the narrative is increasingly just going round in circles. We all know what those writers and commentators and reporters and pundits are saying because (a) we’ve heard it before and (b) we know they’re right. But we don’t seem to have any way, means or will to break out of that circle. We’ve become addicted to the doom and gloom.
Every single solution to the problems caused by the media’s initial flirtation with the internet (the media’s version of the South Park gnomes’ underpants business model – put content online for free, ?, profit) which has been raised above, from selective paywalls to subscriber models, have been tossd around and experimented with before, yet we keep coming back to the drawing board because those solutions haven’t brought us to where we want to go. We’re no closer to a solution now than we were in 2003. Every solution touted has been thwarted in some way or other – for instance, the Daily Mail online doesn’t have paywalls, yet turned a profit last year, trumping everything we assumed to be true. This revolution is turning out to be a right pain in the hoop, though no-one is asking if the solution is already here and we’re just afraid to admit it because it hasn’t delivered what we really want.
But that’s the way with revolutions, change and disruption: those in the heat of battle don’t always realise what’s going on. While there are several truths which will win out – people still want news, for instance – we can safely assume that this doens’t mean the same thing for all people. It doesn’t mean that an established media title which has been pushing news at the masses for decades or centuries is going to have any more luck at the game no matter what it does, than a nimble media start-up which doesn’t have legacy issues involving printing presses, union agreements and trucks getting newspapers to every corner of the land to deal with. Indeed, the latter is going to beat the former at this game at the moment for those very reasons.
However, there are certain strengths which the former has over the latter and these need to be identified and amplified. That initial news story isn’t really a selling point anymore because once your scoop has been tweeted and linked, it can be rewritten and repackaged a million times with nothing coming back to the source. It’s the in-depth analysis and the ability to provide a story with real width and depth which are the real selling points.
Providing this kind of journalism costs money. It’s much easier to supply, say, rewritten news stories or opinion pieces or cute photo-led features about 33 pets who look like Brad Pitt than spend time and money on the stories which go beyond a headline and three paragraphs. This is the biggest problem facing the trade today: the money to supply the kind of journalism which many (not all, just many) readers really want is just not there because of those damn gnomes and their internet underpants. If we only knew back when we all went www crazy what we know now….
You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. This is the reality of the situation and this is what we need to deal with. As with music, there has never been such a time of media plenty. As with music, there has never been a time when so many people want to be involved with media in some shape or form. And as with music, there has never been a time when so many people aren’t making any income from their involvement with media (or even have any hope of doing so).
Moreover, as with music, there is no hard and fast one-size-fits-all solution. We’re in an era of fragmentation and niche and the micro not the macro. Go back a few paragraphs and you’ll see that there are many solutions mooted, yet we keep hoping a new one will come along which will take us back to where we once were. That’s not going to happen. There will never be another time when one business model (read media’s paid-for circulation and advertising for music’s physical sales) suits all.
It’s time, then, to get used to what the future may bring and deal with it. Those pieces linked to above will continue to be written and the same arguments will be made and the same solutions tweaked and tempered, but the truth is that the “right” solution is never going to come along because the “right” solution does not exist. It’s going to be a case of a little bit of this, a little bit of that and a smidgin of the other. That’s the narrative for the future. The solutions are already here. It will be messy and unwieldy and uncomfortable and disruptive working them out, but it sure won’t be boring.