The death of media

I’ve written before about how intrigued I am by the Bloggingheads format, which records an actual conversation between two internet presences of some flavor. As much as I like the conversations I’ve watched, though, I have to admit that I indulge in them infrequently. Mostly I don’t have the uninterrupted hour or so it takes to do them justice. And I’m out of the habit of watching video programming, so I tend to get restless as I watch.

But every few weeks I will stay up late and watch one, especially if one of the conversationalists is Robert Wright, founder of Bloggingheads, funny and perceptive. Last night I watched his latest session, this one with BusinessWeek writer Jon Fine, in which they discussed the sudden and rapid crumbling of traditional media (books, radio, magazines, newspapers, television, records) in the face of digital alternatives. Provided that (a) you have the high-speed connection needed to watch the video, (b) you have an hour, (c) you have the patience, and especially (d) you have an interest in the business realities that once made traditional media possible but are now engineering its destruction, then I recommend it. This is clear-eyed thinking about the future of paid writing by two men who have counted on paid writing for their livings.

The conversation was most helpful in understanding the role that advertising plays in the death of media. Except for books and records, media has operated with a business model that Neil Postman once explained this way: advertisers are the customers, media companies are the merchants, and you are the product. Readers and viewers did not directly pay for the efforts of writers, even in newspaper and magazine prices. It was advertising revenue that paid the bills, and media merchants found that various sorts of writing were effective in gathering together eyeballs to read or watch the ads.

Given the physical limitations of media, advertisers were forced to address a wide audience in order to reach the smaller group that might actually be interested in their ads, an expensive but presumably worthwhile expense. But with the advent of the internet (and especially with Google-based advertising) it is now possible to reach more or less exactly those people who are potential customers, and at much less expense. The result is that the total advertising dollars being spent will soon be drastically lower (maybe one-fifth of what was previously spent), and those few dollars that remain will not be spent on general interest material such as national news, investigative reporting, think pieces, and such.

It’s hard for folks who have a vested interest in being paid for their to achieve a historical perspective (though Wright and Fine do a very good job), but it’s true that the idea of earning a living from one’s writing is relatively new. I’ve read that Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was the first to do so, and until the middle of the 20th century words were a tenuous sort of property, reserved to the copyright holder for a short while before being released freely into the public domain. Only recently has legal sentiment swung sharply in the other direction, with writers and other creative sorts asserting close to total control over their creations.

And it’s ironic that at just the time this shift occurred, technology also shifted in such a way to make it nearly impossible to enforce such control. While making a larger point, paid content creator Bob Wright freely admits that his wife became a fan of paid content creator Regina Spektor while listening to mp3 recordings she hadn’t paid for. One of our favorite musicians, Tim O’Brien, has an almost unrestricted policy for taping his live shows; when asked about it, he said he figured it was going to happen with or without his permission, so he might as well get in front of the parade and experience whatever benefit there was to being a “good guy” in the opinion of folks who tape and share shows. And it seems like the days of fussing about bloggers who excerpt the writings of others are more or less over; whether or not there is benefit to gain from letting them do it, there seems to be no practical way to stop them.

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