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Back to the future: Is media returning to the 19th century?

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In a series of articles looking at the evolution of media in a digital age, The Economist comes to the conclusion that new media — and in particular the explosion of blogs and other social media tools like Twitter and Facebook — is taking society back to where it was in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the development of newspapers and other mass media platforms. This is a phenomenon that Om described as the “democratization of distribution” in a recent post. But is this future in which everyone is (or can be) a publisher a good thing, or does it lead to the so-called “Foxification” of media?

The Economist‘s series includes an overview of the media industry and separate pieces looking at the concept of crowdsourcing — or the “people formerly known as the audience,” to use a phrase coined by journalism professor Jay Rosen — as well as the influence of Wikileaks, the alleged death of newspapers, the rise of pay walls and the idea that transparency is replacing objectivity. These are all issues that we have written about as well, including the idea that Wikileaks is a journalistic entity, and that social media makes journalism more human, whether media outlets like it or not.

A time before mass media

As The Economist notes, up until the early 19th century there was no “mass media” in the sense that we think of the term now. Newspapers had not really been invented yet, and news still travelled via word-of-mouth, or via hand-printed pamphlets written by people like political theorists Thomas Paine and John Locke. And even when newspapers as we know them started to be published and distributed, they were opinionated — and often gossip-filled — publications that catered to a tiny audience, much like blogs did when they first appeared. Says The Economist:

In many ways news is going back to its pre-industrial form, but supercharged by the internet. Camera-phones and social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter may seem entirely new, but they echo the ways in which people used to collect, share and exchange information in the past. “Social media is nothing new, it’s just more widespread now,” says Craig Newmark.

Although we think of “mass media” such as television, radio and newspapers as fixtures in our lives and in the media economy, says The Economist, “the mass-media era now looks like a relatively brief and anomalous period that is coming to an end.” As media and publishing become something anyone can do, whether on their blog or via other social tools such as Twitter or Tumblr, media companies are having to reinvent themselves to take advantage of this phenomenon — and to survive.

A new generation that has grown up with digital tools is already devising extraordinary new things to do with them, rather than simply using them to preserve the old models. Some existing media organisations will survive the transition; many will not.

Pressure to adapt

Some traditional media entities are trying to adapt to this new reality, whether by exploring tools like Tumblr the way some New York Times (s nyt) writers have, or trying to get more social with their content by implementing features like Facebook Connect — which has been a major driver for new-media success stories like The Huffington Post (s aol). Some newspapers have tried to reorient their businesses around a “digital first” approach, like The Guardian in Britain, and some smaller companies such as the Journal-Register Co. have taken bolder steps toward remaking the way they operate.

That said, however, too many companies continue to merely dip their toes in the digital waters, and seem to be relying on things like pay walls and subscription-based iPad apps to shore up their business models instead of trying something revolutionary. Ironically, even The Economist — which says media companies need to “reorient themselves towards serving readers rather than advertisers, embrace social features and collaboration… and stop trying to erect barriers around journalism” — has a metered pay wall, an approach it praises in its piece on financial solutions for new media. The magazine also still doesn’t identify most of its writers (although it has started doing so for bloggers).

The “Foxification” of media

One of the issues some critics have with the explosion of “democratized media” is brought up by The Economist in its piece on transparency as a replacement for objectivity (an idea described by David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and also promoted by new-media analysts such as Jeff Jarvis). Because there are so many sources of information now, many media outlets seem to be moving towards a more opinionated approach to the news — the so-called “Foxification” effect. The magazine argues that this is ultimately a good thing, provided media entities disclose their biases and opinions up front, so that readers can make their own decisions about whom to believe.

Whether we like it or not — and whether traditional media can figure out a way to take advantage of it or not — The Economist is right when it says we have in many ways returned to the coffeehouse era of the early 19th century, when all news was social and most of it was opinionated. And while some worry that media consumers are going to get caught in an “echo chamber” and filter out any opinions they disagree with (something author Eli Pariser argues in his book The Filter Bubble), the main benefit that we have over our counterparts in the 19th century is we have hundreds or even thousands of different sources and voices at our fingertips, if we want to make use of them.

That is an incredibly powerful force both for journalism and for society as a whole — as the events of the Arab Spring have shown, despite the skepticism of some pundits like Malcolm Gladwell — and it is one we are still only beginning to understand.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Kelly Teague and jphilipg

5 Responses to “Back to the future: Is media returning to the 19th century?”

  1. This is a complex discussion involving a moving target and many interacting variables. It’s very difficult to discuss, and this article touches on so many different things it’s point is not clear, which hits the nail on the head. :-)

    One thing IS clear, though. You used to have to buy a whole album, but now you can just buy the song you want. That’s so much better! And you used to have to buy a whole magazine or newspaper, but now you can just get the news items you’re open to.

    And now it’s from a myriad of sources… the individual things about our world we find interesting come from a collection of media TYPES (TV, print, word of mouth, radio in the car, online, social networks, etc) and from a mix of SOURCES within each type which hopefully come from a broad spectrum from 100% trusted sources (e.g. to untrusted but stimulating sources (from sites like this, to friends with limited critical thinking skills.)

    This “new mix” is the moving target, and will continue to evolve, and it’s the way it’s now done here in the 21st century. And a greater awareness of the “filter bubble” problem can only help.

    But here’s the deal… there will be no consistency, no one answer, no silver bullet, because, like human romantic relationships, there will always be as many different ways people stay informed as there are people. It’s complicated, uncontrollable, and it will become even more so.

  2. The democratization of distribution is definitely a positive. It’s not like our existing television oligopoly is producing valuable journalism (i.e. tornado rubbernecking, Weiner, Casey Anthony). I like how the New York Times has seized this as an opportunity and is producing really great products and content online. Also I think journalist turned bloggers improves the quality because editor filtering/censoring is removed and independence increases.

  3. Akashdeep

    Many people around me are concerned that, with the popularity of social media sites, the majority will only seem to focus on local news only (i.e. what happens with their friends/town/anything related to them). Although this has already happened with some, I still believe that social networking is a great benefit to dispersing and receiving news. There are, as the article mentioned, many sources to check facts or look across various papers/sites to see what you agree with or perhaps even what the real truth is. It seems as though many arguments against the internet being a viable source of information seem to ignore some great benefits that have been achieved with it over the years (that is not to say that the internet is perfect).

  4. Nicholas

    The idea of newspapers is quite old, and has been considered to have originated with the roman columns where news was placed (Desmond). In America, papers were instrumental in our history, and had a blank back page for writing notes. They were social and meant for sharing. The idea of news as a publishing business is much like the music industry, and a modern phenomenon.

    The questions concern authority, control, and connections. In recent years, particularly with respect to Iraq, news has shown itself to be tied to power more than many of us would like in a democracy. News is essentially losing, just as alternate channels are being created in North Africa to the detriment of power.

    I can’t say that this is bad. We will choose our news with the associated filters of perspective, just as we look at a map online. And, news will rise with its importance. My “world” section is Juan Cole. My “politcs” section is Talking Points Memo. I can’t say this is bad, and it drowns out the establishment perspectives of NYT, WSJ, etc.…