Friday, January 16, 2009

Content and the Media: Be Careful What You Wish For

The decline of traditional media has unintended cultural consequences, correspondent Subuddh Parekh writes.

Correspondent Subuddh Parekh suggests that as Old Media and the culture of expertise it represented decline, we should be careful what we wish for. This dialog was launched by Trends for 2009: The Web Dismantles Old Media (December 31, 2008). At Subuddh's request, here is his email: .

"Sometimes it's good to remember, be careful what you wish for. The destruction of paying for content will have some strange consequences that may not be quite what we anticipate.
Now there is definitely some schadenfreude at seeing music producers no longer be able to get huge profits from music or the designer clothing company that doesnt actually even make the clothes it markets as its own get undercut by a new method of distribution.

But let us consider a few things:

1) We are producers first before we can be consumers. If we produce nothing we will have nothing to exchange for the things we want.

2) Just because something is 'democratizing' does not make it 'good'. A simple rather extreme example, would you rather have heart surgery from someone who had trained many years as a heart surgeon, or someone reading the collected thoughts about heart surgery on Wikipedia? What we are seeing is the death of the expert. Everyone is an expert now, and everyone's opinion counts. Doesn't that sound wonderful, so democratic? In reality what it means is a profusion of utter banality and jackass passing as cultural entertainment.

This death of the expert is not just because of technology, it is a cultural choice.

3) You get what you pay for in life. If there is no money in content, there will be no incentive for people to suffer the pain of creating great content. The quality of what is produced will be lower and lower. The analogy with the Model T isn't quite right: the assembly line made it cheaper to make cars so they could be sold cheaper. Technology makes it cheaper to distribute content but does not make it any much cheaper to produce it.

For example, it still takes years to learn how to play music well enough so that you can create a worthwhile album. It is questionable whether cheaper content will attract a wider audience: it's more likely the quality of the content will come down to adjust to the new pricing. And in order to get your content seen amidst the crowd, with no agreed upon experts, you will have to scream harder and harder and do more and more extreme things.

There was a piece on oftwominds a few weeks ago on nobody recognizing the classical violinist or his music in the subway. That is what historically cultural values were for: they suggested a standard, learned through much experience over many generations that we could live up to, that had some possibility of giving us long term life fulfillment. Without the standard, jackass is the norm. Not that we didn't enjoy jackass things before, we did but we knew it was dumb. Now we might think we are special because we enjoy jackass and insist our opinion matters.

In the cases where it does, (like cable news :)) the real life consequences are not very good. There is little point in being a writer or producer of any quality content today. If everyone is an expert that means no one has anything to learn which means whom are you writing for? Can you see where this is going?

We can chalk this down to all the social engineering of the last forty years. If you celebrate ignorance and sloth because it feels noble to do so, you can hardly complain when everything is crap and nothing works anymore.

Finally, all of this self-focus has given us levels of narcissism never before seen in human civilization. A woman in her early twenties boarded the bus in San Francisco and took a seat. She was slightly overweight, dressed in dumpy slacks and sweatshirt. She had on earphones connected to her ipod. The music was loud enough so it could be heared six seat rows away, what seemed like a 'dance' song of endless beats. At some point she removed one of earphones to answer the cell phone. She spoke loud enough to also be heard six rows away. What was her conversation? How she wanted to 'do' her co-worker. She was utterly oblivious of anyone else on the bus or that everyone could hear her. Or perhaps she was aware but didn't care.

What's next in the world of un-civility? But why bother with civility anyway? After all we are all unique individuals whose rights must be respected. We must have the freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want, right? Even this idea that we are exist as utterly unique isolated individuals is completely false. You do not exist outside of a social context.

Think about it, you are born completely helpless. You have to be raised in a family that has to teach you things for you to survive. By the time you are old enough to have any awareness of yourself, your psyche is already largely formed. Your culture (whichever culture it might be) is a part of you and will always be a part of you. What wise people of all time would have told us is that all this self absorption is in the end our own ruin. If you throw your everyday opinions out there insisting they are important you cheapen your word; when you actually have something important to say no one will take it seriously.

If you focus only on yourself and insist you are an expert you will not be able to actually learn anything and so you will never grow, and you will never be able to care about anyone else. The self absorption feels great in our teens and early twenties. It starts losing its allure very fast after that. All our cultural values were there mostly to guide us, so that we get busy in good time building a family and raising children, which, for the vast majority of us residing inside the bell curve, is the only thing that can give our life much meaning."

Thank you, Subuddh, for this wide-ranging commentary. Here are several interesting media-related links just for context:
Newspapers Move to Outsource Foreign Coverage:
Two major newspapers publishers are taking steps to outsource international coverage, as falling revenue is causing more U.S. papers to shrink their foreign and national footprint.
The recent efforts by the Daily News and Tribune reflect the financial strain U.S. newspapers are under. Faced with a sharp downturn in profits, many newspapers have retreated from writing about Washington politics and foreign affairs in favor of local coverage, which is cheaper and less susceptible to duplication on the Internet.

Sensing an opportunity, Web sites Politico and Politicker are trying to get newspapers to pay them for coverage of state and national politics. Politico has struck deals for coverage with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among others.

Magazine Ads Evaporated in 2008, Faster as Months Went On

End Times: Can America’s paper of record (New York Times) survive the death of newsprint? Can journalism?.

Commentator Richard Metzger originally sparked my awareness of the end-game of Old Media. As I've described here before, we're witnessing a multi-layered cultural and financial erosion of Old Media which can be summarized thusly:

1. the Web has revolutionized distribution, prying it out of the hands of the few corporate entities which once controlled the distribution of music, broadcast, films and print. The iron laws of economics (supply and demand) mean that a pirated DVD that costs half the price of a ticket ($10) to see a film in a theater is available the same day, if not before, the film is released.

2. younger generations will pay for content, but not $300/year for a dead-tree newspaper or $20 for a CD of 14 crappy songs and one good one. Vast amounts of free content (yes, accessing the Web costs money and the Web requires major quantities of electricity to operate) is now de rigue\\eur/expected.

3. Content providers/journalists/creatives are now scrambling to construct new revenue models to support their work/creations.

4. The enormous monopolistic profit centers of the Old Media are irrevocably eroded by the Web revolution, just as enormous banking profits have been irrevocably reduced by the popping of the financial/credit bubble. Web-based advert revenues cannot replace the old monopoly-capital revenue streams.

Richard recently wrote me about the fading newspapers in his home town. The owner's grand mansion is truly illustrative of the once-stupendous revenue streams print media created:

"I saw on themedisdying's Twitter feed yesterday that my hometown newspaper, The Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register (for indeed, when I was growing up there were TWO papers! The morning and evening, with two different staffs...) laid off 38 people. They must have ten people left.

It's the most unnecessary newspaper of all time. Unless you really follow the high school sports scene and local bake sales and church fundraisers, there is no local news there. The local news is about the 75 year old lady at the car wash retiring after 40 years. It could most CERTAINLY be handled by a hobbyist blogger and no one would miss it. All the news of the "greater world" is from AP. Thin gruel indeed.

Not one of those jobs will ever come back. Sadder to contemplate: You won't even be able to GET A JOB DELIVERING PAPERS anymore either, in areas like that or Detroit, etc.

The ultimate metaphor for what's about to happen in employment is the oldtime elevator operator.

The family who own that paper, "the Chandlers," if you will, of Wheeling, WV, live near my parents in a huge stone mansion. The kind like you see in the richest of rich areas. Like a Ralph Lauren catalog location. During the height of that town's prosperity, circa the early 70s, they probably employed 200 people from reporters, even movie reviewers, on down to the print shop guys and the delivery dock workers and drivers. It was a town of 50,000 which is now about 17,000 due to the coal and steel industries' problems. And their subscriber base is aging and dying off. It wouldn't even occur to a younger person to subscribe to it.

Thank you, Richard, for this report which so neatly summarizes the demographic, financial and technological revolutions which are removing the once-mighty props under Old Media.
Am I celebrating this erosion? I don't think so; it's more akin to the awful thrill one experiences watching the stock market plummet globally, wiping out trillions of dollars of wealth: the forces at work are so much more powerful than the humans at the controls of the sinking ship, we can only watch in astonishment.

I am a creative content producer myself, and so I too struggle with a revenue model which might actually compensate me for my time and effort. Adverts and selling one's content via the Web are pretty much the only models that are working, and many readers have encouraged me to switch over to Google Adsense to increase this site's advert revenues. I will certainly look into it, as the alternative "every reader pays a subscription" model does not appeal to me. This blog, for better or for worse, will remain free.

here: Novels and Fiction and Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis.

What's for dinner at your house? has been updated with four new recipes.

New chapter in Operation SERF: Chris Sullins' "Strategic Action Thriller" is fiction, and contains graphic combat scenes.
Operation SERF, Part 7.

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