On Point: The Media's Trillion-Dollar Question

by Austin Bay
September 16, 2008

The terms "new" and "old" media tend to distort rational discussion aboutthe change in the way people access information.

Since this is a newspaper column, the odds are good you are reading it onpaper, or on a newspaper's Website -- or perhaps on one of the Internet's "newsand opinion" sites.

Here's why I think new and old distort or artificially divide debate intoopposing media camps. There is good, informative journalism produced withintegrity, and there is something far less -- the dreck of spin, gossip andpropaganda. There is quality entertainment, be it high, low or middlin' brow,and then there is utter schlock.

New and old media both provide the good, the dreck, the quality and theschlock.

New technology does create new opportunities for sharing information andexploring ideas. The printing press and paper certainly advanced science andarguably democratic politics. First the telegraph, then radio, then televisioncollapsed the "silence of distance," making near-instantaneous "news" possible.

Print and electronic media created new space for new voices and newideas. The printing press became an "alternative medium" to the town crier -- aman likely in the pay of the local baron. Printing Bibles spread the Gospel, andwith Bibles in homes believers learned to read. The priests -- the theologicalelites -- lost control of the text and lost control of the text'sinterpretation.

The digital "new" media expand this arc. Cheap digital technologies andthe Internet permit individual distribution and highly individualizedparticipation based on individual connectivity. Individual distribution and"lateral connectivity" have altered the media business model. Both evade if notquite escape the control of current corporate hierarchies, though smart "old"media organizations are rapidly adapting.

For example, every morning fewer newspapers plop on driveways -- youngerpeople go to the Web and choose their news. YouTube videos shot by 19-year-oldsget more viewers than many cable TV programs -- and their production quality isimproving.

Individual digital connectivity has tapped what I call the "distributedgenius" of human beings, in a way print rarely did (a letter to the editor won'tappear for days) and electronic media -- such as radio with talk shows takingphone calls -- only began to explore.

In the early 1990s, I used "distributed genius" to describe an email"listserve" group I joined that included a number of military reservists, aretired Marine, a military historian and at least two men on active duty. Themembers lived around the globe. Ask for advice on a military issue and -- presto-- feedback from an articulate pro who had been there and done it.

Some old media organizations and a few new ones fear "distributedgenius." Four years ago, September 2004, distributed genius brought down DanRather and gave CBS a black eye.

Three attorneys (Powerlineblog.com), a mathematically gifted guitarplayer (littlegreenfootballs.com) and an Atlanta attorney with expertise inscript fonts (posting at freerepublic.com under the name "Buckhead") exposedRather's "Air National Guard documents" story on "Sixty Minutes" as fakes.Credit Time Magazine for at least detecting the seismic significance -- Timedeclared Powerline "blog of the year."

What comes next? For a decade, everyone has been searching for a newmedia model, and the model matters, for it takes informed citizens to make ademocracy work. Informed citizens require facts, and that means good reporting-- informative journalism with integrity.

"Convergence Media" has appeared -- text, audio and video, providinginformation in a medium most convenient to the user. Moreover, the technology isavailable to talented, creative individuals operating in agile, cooperativeorganizations that have minimized or eliminated the Industrial Age overheadstrangling many companies, like high-rent offices and network contracts payingmillions to hairdos who read teleprompters.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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