Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Future of Media: The Beginning of the End of the End of the Beginning

Is this a photo of dawn or sunset? Without knowing what direction the camera's facing, how could you tell for sure? It's amazing how much alike the beginning and end of the day can look.

I've talked before in this space about the impact of technology on how people consume their news and entertainment, and, of course, Apple's new iPad tosses a fresh element into the mix.

In many of the conversations I hear, though, it's about, will we get our news from TV OR print, or from print OR online, or from online OR TV, or from a laptop OR an iPad ... and so on.

But the reality is, we seldom have just two courses of action in any situation. There are just too many variables.

Take, for example, you're in an alley and an armed, masked mugger appears. Your choices: Hand over your cash or be killed.

Or, you could pull out your karate ninja skills and take the guy down; or you just pass out, and the guy takes your stuff and runs away; you could throw up, skeeving the guy out, and he runs away; or the guy hears a noise, loses his nerve and runs away; or you start screaming your head off, and he shoots you (or loses his nerve and runs away).

A car could appear in the alley, causing him to either shoot you or run away; or an explosion in a nearby building could startle you both, and you both run away; or the sudden appearance of participants on a bicycle race scares him off; or he suddenly realizes you're his long-lost aunt, high-school crush or third-grade teacher, and he takes off.

Or you give him your cash, and he shoots you anyway.

No matter what you think your choices are, you never really know how it will turn out -- and that's perfectly normal.

There's no doubt we're at a crisis point in the evolution of delivery systems for news and entertainment, but the idea that we all should pile onto one option or just die is ridiculous. In the history of human communication, new methods have regularly popped up, but they never entirely displace the previous method(s).

We still have wall painting and graffiti, just as they did in the Stone Age and Ancient Rome; we still have campfire storytellers and town criers (if you count those dudes with the sandwich boards or the arrow-twirlers on corners); we still have pamplets and fliers and word-of-mouth; and we still have -- in the order they were invented -- newspapers, movies, radio, television and the Internet.

None of these things has disappeared, they've just changed their focus to whatever they do better or more economically than the other delivery systems. This isn't to say that individual outlets haven't disappeared, of course they have. That's the normal economic evolutionary process of creative destruction.

There wasn't always a Rocky Mountain News; there may not always be a New York Times. And do you remember the DuMont TV network? That's OK, hardly anybody does.

There will always be news and entertainment, and people will always need ways to get them. But if more energy is expended to preserve a delivery system for these things -- such as printing papers, mounting a nightly network news broadcast (or even maintaining a broadcast network) -- rather than focusing on the quality and appeal of the content, you may wind up saving something that nobody wants anymore.

After all, when the auto became dominant, lots of farriers and harness makers and wheelwrights lost their jobs. Would you have rather we had preserved the horse and buggy to keep them employed? I'm sure they would have been in hearty support of that if you'd asked them at the time, and who could have blamed them?

Doesn't mean they were right.

It's never pleasant to be the one smack at the pivot point of change, but someone's got to be. Fighting the future is not only pointless, but it siphons energy and creativity away from efforts to adapt to the new reality.

So what will that reality be? I guarantee you that, right now, nobody knows. We're all guessing, and in the end, at least some of us will get it right.

For example, imagine this scenario for news delivery (hardly the only possible one and likely not the best or even most probable one) ...

* Small newspapers could thrive in communities, neighborhoods and towns, with intensive local reporting and targeted local advertising, serving the needs of a specific audience in a cost-effective, efficient way.

* National news is relegated to television and online incarnations of a few national publications, such as the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, etc., which may or may not continue to print on paper (or they may only print weekend and specialty editions). Why should a local newspaper waste space on national stories, unless they're giving a local perspective on how that story affects their readers?

* International news can be gotten online from the nation of origin or on television. Why should I read about the British elections in the Boston Globe when I can read about them in the Times of London? Again, local and national publications, whether on paper or online, could offer perspectives on the effects at home of international stories or help to put them in context.

And all of the above might be gotten on a phone, an iPad, an eReader, a television, on paper, on a laptop, through a corneal implant or in whatever other way suits the needs of consumers, who will ultimately decide which sorts of information they prefer on which device(s).

I don't believe any of this is an either-or decision. It's more a both-and, or better yet, an all-of-the-above.

As Marshall McLuhan famously observed, "The medium is the message," but if the message isn't there, who cares about the medium?

Of course, we come back to that sticky issue of getting people to pay for it all. Honestly, sometimes I think if IBM or some other corporation had created and evolved the Internet, rather than the government and universities, somebody would have figured out a way to monetize it right quick, and we wouldn't be in this situation.

Information is not free ... of cost, that is. If it were, universities wouldn't need to charge tuition, teachers and journalists wouldn't need salaries (and I, for one, need my salary) and publishers would just toss books to people on the street or sneak them into their Kindles in the middle of the night, just out of the goodness of their hearts -- after they gave them the Kindles for free.

People must pay, because people must be paid. But that's an argument for another day, and one that's taking place all over the media world every day. The good news is I'm convinced the new technologies will eventually add to the media marketplace instead of destroying it.