Behind the Failure of Old Media: 1
Many of you might have noticed that old media (mainstream networks, magazines, newspapers etc) has undergone a steep decline in the last decade- especially since 2005. While many reasons have been proposed for this decline, the vast majority are some version of-
“We cannot compete with free stuff.”
But is this really true? Surely, the availability of free unpolished video games has not destroyed the market for well produced video games. Nor do fewer people watch TV shows of some kind- though they watch it on devices other than traditional TV sets. Amazon does not have any problems selling books, neither does NetFlix have trouble selling access to content.
The real reasons behind the decline of traditional media stem from a set of reasons which most people running it would rather not talk about. So let me do that-
1. Quality of Accessible Content.
In the days before widespread access to the internet, publishing content for a mass audience required ownership or access to expensive machinery and distribution networks. Therefore the owners or gatekeepers of such facilities had massive leverage and influence over what and who would be published. Consequently, they appealed to the lowest common denominator (profits), vested interests (elites) and rewarded the best ass-kissers.
That is not to say that every journalist or content creator in the old system was a talentless schmoozer- but it certainly helped your career. Old media houses were therefore run by incestuous hacks with a narrow and stifling definition of what was acceptable and good for your career.
The internet (and laser printers) changed this by eliminating the cost of production and distribution of content. Neutral and effective search engines, specifically google, made content discovery easy. E-mail, instant messaging, FaceBook and Twitter etc did the same for content dissemination. Now any person who had talent or a novel point of view etc was able to command an audience which was hitherto off-limits. Moreover, they were no longer constrained by what was acceptable to their bosses and financiers. The result of this revolution along with developments such as inexpensive digital cameras and content editing/publishing software suites was that a reasonably talented person with some spare time could now compete with traditional journalists and command a sizable audience. Traditional media simply could not compete with the depth, diversity and scope of such free, easy to search (and forward) content.
People could now tailor media content to their tastes and get updates about it in near real time. Furthermore, many of these new content publishers were well versed in the fields they wrote about with much better insights into the issues involved and interacted with their audience in a way mainstream journalists could not or would not.
In my opinion- traditional media (especially print media) lost because it provided a lower quality product. Even traditional network shows and sitcoms cannot stand up against niche shows (Soprano, Dexter etc), Reality TV (Idiols, Iron Chef etc) and other non-tradtional programing (Mythbusters, Pawnstars etc)
2. Unwillingness to Change Business Models.
It is common for people in old media to say that they simply cannot make enough money operating like new media. But is it true? How does google make money? What about many of the new media outfits? How do they make money? It comes down to two factors that traditional media-types are unwilling to accept.
a. Revenue through ads, rather than people paying to buy content.
b. Flatter organizational structures.
While the first factor is somewhat of a no-brainer, it is remarkable that most traditional media either ignore it or overdo it. If they only looked at sites like google, engadget, amazon etc they could see how it is possible to advertise something without overdoing it. But accepting that something better is possible would be a major blow to their fragile egos.
The second factor is problematic to implement, as it requires people accustomed to a complex and tall hierarchy to abandon it in favor of a flatter and more efficient structure. People who have been at the top of a tall hierarchy often feel a deep sense of loss if they have fewer workers to screw over and dominate, even if the end results are much better.
Furthermore, a lot of new media has cross-site loyalties and promotion- something very alien to the traditional media model. Therefore an article on engadget might link to a source belonging to another media house and vice-versa. Promotion of sites and content not belonging to that company is also quite common and paradoxically results in better audience retention for all concerned parties. However such behavior runs contrary to traditional business models which are overwhelmingly zero-sum.
Another issue with the business model of traditional media is their urge to appeal to the lowest common denominator via bland and generic content. They pay little attention to developing their strengths and publishing novel and sometimes controversial content. Related to this issue is their unwillingness to provide censorship-free fora for public discussions on their content. They thus lack the crucial brand recognition and loyal following which make or break content providers in the internet age. In previous eras, people had to restrict themselves to read and see what was accessible with then prevalent technologies. In our era- location, time and even language are no longer barriers to content. It appears that some people would rather disappear than change.
I will write about other self-inflicted problems destroying old media in an upcoming part of this series.