Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Reports of Their Death are Greatly Exagerated

Is the established media dead, or are they stronger than ever? This is the question we've been grappling with over the past two days here at the Digital News Affairs conference in Brussels. The conference is a yearly cross-media, cross-platform look at the technologies shaping the media industry, and I've been here covering the event for CafeBabel. As with most conferences focusing on the media these days, the conversation has tended to be dominated by the big question: what is going to happen to the 'established media' now that the Internet has completely changed the game?

Such conversations took place just about every day back in journalism school at Medill in Chicago, and the level of chatter hasn't abated. But something significant has changed since then, and that is that the vast majority of the established media has caught up to the technological advances, and where they've entered they've entered in a big way. But will this be enough to keep them relevant? Various panelists over the past two days have staked their position on either side of the debate, and I've noticed that their position tends to reflect which side of the aisle they're coming from, established or start-up.

The conference opened with a panel of a few start-ups taking a look at how the economic downturn combined with the current technological revolution has turned the traditional media business upside down. Unsurprisingly this panel, composed of representatives from Google, Rue 89 and Demotix, seemed to conclude that traditional media models were dinosaurs and would be quickly eclipsed by young start-ups. In short, the web 2.0 revolution has created an equal playing field where news can be provided by anyone, anywhere over the web. The brands of the established media would not, some panelists concluded, protect them from being eclipsed by younger, more flexible start-ups. Users don't care who's providing the news any more, they argued, they just care how quickly and creatively they get it.

Contrast that with the the afternoon panel, appropriately titled "The Established Media React." Chaired by Ben Hammersley of Wired magazine, the panel was composed of folks from Deutsche Welte, Sky News, De Standaard, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC, who all vociferously defended their position. I have to say, between the representatives of the "new media" and the representatives of the "old media," I've found the established players to be far more convincing. Peter Vandermeersch of Der Standaard, the largest daily paper in Flanders, pointed out that despite all the predictions of the death of the traditional media his paper has actually been doing increasingly well over the past several years. "Newspapers are alive and kicking," he insisted. "Are we good enough now? No. But who is best equipped to deliver content, three geeks in their garage with no brands, no funds, and no customers, or us, the established media?"

Just to show how much things have changed, the established media panel opened with this amusing video from a local San Francisco news broadcast in 1981.

Although it sounds quite funny to us now, this reporter definitely gets points for being prescient!

As each panelist spoke, their company's web site was displayed behind them. Two things particularly stood out about them: For one thing, as Livestation's Matteo Berlucchi pointed out, you couldn't tell from any of them whether they were coming from a broadcaster or a publisher, suggesting that to users the original function of the company is irrelevant. And two, they were all highly sophisticated and aesthetically impressive. As much as the established media are lambasted by the new media as being old dinosaurs that haven't caught up with modern ways of presenting information, a quick look at the main players' web sites shows that to not be the case. The New York Times, BBC, CNN, The Guardian; they all have an impressive and extensive web presence. So clearly the established media, in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, has adapted and entered the new media space in a big way.

I spoke with Ben Hammersley after the panel, and he seemed to have reached much the same conclusion. While there is still a lot of cluelessness on the part of the established media, he said, the fact is that when they did set up an Internet presence they went all in. And with the extensive resources, audience and branding that they have, no-name start-ups can't hope to compete. Essentially, according to this line of thinking, what we've been looking at over the past five years was simply a lag. The established media is made up of big companies, and big companies move slow. But though giants may move slowly, when they make a move it has a big impact. And when an institution like the BBC masterfully sets up a great web site, 5 geeks in their garage aren't going to be able to touch them.

It was interesting timing for me to be hearing this line of argument, as earlier this week I learned that the start-up news web site I was contracting for in the fall has folded. I won't name the site but it was a user-generated news site, where anybody could post stories they had either observed themselves or read. The idea was that after witnessing news events first-hand, regular citizens could take photos and rush to this particular start-up web site to report what they had seen. When it did work, such as during the Mumbai terrorist attacks, it worked well and attracted a good deal of mainstream media attention. But the honest fact was that 95 percent of the time it didn't work. Most of the user-generated content was either crazy rambling or pure cut-and-paste jobs that added no unique content to a news story that was already out there. Trust me I know, my job was to read the posts as they came in all morning! The experience of contracting for them engendered in me a pretty strong scepticism about all this talk of an egalitarian Internet and valuable user-generated content. The fact is that most user-generated amateur news content is going to be just that: amateur.

I'm now listening to the final panel of the day, a question-and-answer session for people in the media business, and Michael Rosenblum is getting the crowd all fired-up with a rant about how all news outlets should fire half their staff and give everyone remaining a laptop and tell them to do everything on their own. I'm told he does this every year, and while he does have a point that the established media could stand to get rid of a lot of their infrastructure, I fundamentally disagree with his conclusion that newsrooms should get rid of edit bays, reporters, and any kind of specialized professional and instead pay people on an individual basis to produce content on their laptops. His implication, for broadcast at least, seems to be that producing good broadcast journalism is so easy a monkey could do it. Having worked as a broadcast journalist and as a video editor I can assert that this is absolute nonsense. Producing quality broadcast journalism (and in particular editing broadcast journalism) is a specific skill that not everyone can do well, and requires specific training.

So is the established media dying a slow death? Opinion at this conference seems to be divided on the subject. But I'm finding myself far more convinced by those that think that the extensive wealth, reputation and reach of the established players cannot be underestimated.

1 comment:

Jan said...

What did you think of the google debate? I still can't figure out why the WSJ would opt out.