Can traditional media survive the third media revolution?

6 May 2009

The first media revolution was characterised by newsprint, the second by radio, TV and internet. But the third media revolution, where professional media competes for attention alongside user-generated blogs, YouTube and Qik videos and Twitter, poses quite a conundrum.

According to Menno van Doorn, the author of a challenging new book Me the Media – The Rise Of The Conversation Society, mass media, thanks to Web 2.0, has become a new media mass led by individuals zapping information from Diggs to Tweets from their homes or on the street.

In this third media revolution, media houses from newspapers to TV stations are struggling to compete and stay relevant, as the reader can opt to be informed by Facebook status feeds or by following Tweets on Twitter or RSS feeds on whatever they fancy.

Across the world, amidst a major economic recession, newspapers and TV stations are being hit by declining ad revenues, with some organisations blaming this on the rise of the internet. Venerable titles such as the Rocky Mountain News have shut down, while the Boston Globe is said to be losing US$1bn a week.

Other newspapers are viewing the move to internet-only publishing as their key to survival, as it cuts out overheads such as printing costs.

But van Doorn dismisses talk of the internet contributing to newspapers’ decline and says the wider economic issues, such as the collapse of banking and property industries, are what are really taking the toll.

“You can say the same for a number of industries. Newspapers are suffering the same fate as a lot of other industries. You shouldn’t confuse the economic depression with the rise of Web 2.0.”

Me The Media, which van Doorn authored along with Jaap Bloem and Sander Duivestein and is published by VINT (Vision, Inspiration, Navigation, Trends), a Sogeti company, examines the rise of the new electronic media, from printing presses to Web 2.0.

The beautifully illustrated book examines the rise of blogging, the business impact of the third media revolution, its impact on industries like PR, newspapers and advertising, and examines key campaigns such as Barack Obama’s US Presidential grassroots campaign, which made judicious use of Twitter.

Van Doorn gives me an anecdotal account of how the conversation society works. When a recent terrorist attack was threatened at an Ikea store in his home city of Amsterdam, instead of turning on the TV, he found someone at the incident via Twitter and asked the person to broadcast what was happening on the ground live via Qik on their mobile phone.

“I found this guy in five seconds and he made a movie.”

With only the slightest bit of self-interest (yeah right), I asked van Doorn where does the future lie for journalism if user-generated content such as blogs and Qik videos will compete with news organisations that cost money to run.

“Journalism won’t be extinct. But it will have to coexist and try to differentiate itself. Journalists will have to climb down out of their ivory towers. In the past, the journalist was the one person who would get the information, present it and inform the public on what’s happening. This has become impossible because of new media like Twitter.”

Van Doorn says the traditional media business could learn something from the IT industry, which has learned to combine open source and closed source systems.

“Study what IBM, SAP and Microsoft are doing with communities outside their corporation. Look at products like SAP on Linux – SAP depended on the work of the amateur to sell new products. IBM is doing the same. Microsoft has a really successful community of people working for it that aren’t on the payroll. Microsoft is a very clever company and it is using Linux.

“The IT business has transformed its business model into hybrids, that’s the future of newspapers. If you look at online news today, its not totally the work of amateur bloggers. Journalists and news organisations are still making money because they are writing authoritative stories.

“There is so much happening in the Web 2.0 space that not everybody will be tech-savvy enough to find their way to all of the news. What successful newspapers are doing is filtering, grabbing, presenting and analysing all the information, including the information that is produced by the people on the street.

“Progressive organisations are treating the vast amount of media being produced from the street and improving on it. This is what CNN is doing with iReport. Instead of waiting for the crew to come back and edit and package up their report, there’s a platform for people to upload what’s happening. Maybe the man on the street with the camera phone could be the next hero?”

Van Doorn also points to the rise of services like Oh My Newsand Google News, where individuals are empowered to become their own editors of their own newspapers.

“The question is, what is quality content? The quality is often decided in the way you consume the information, do you want it in your hands in paper, do you want it on your phone, or as a widget on the television?”

But in terms of the media’s ability to make money from advertising, van Doorn says that the history of advertising is studded by shifts. “Once, most of it was on the streets on posters because that’s where the people were, then it was newsprint, then TV and radio, and logically, because it shifts, there’s a decrease in one or other media. Where people will be spending more and more of their lives will be the digital space.

“There is no real business case to make for a newspaper that is not in the digital space.”

Van Doorn says there’s a case for both print and online. “If you can do something online with a lower cost level and you can make an income, great. But the real question is what will people want to consume and how. Maybe they will be willing to pay more for a physical book or magazine than for an electronic version.

“You would think that with high-definition (HD) screens, internet television, satellite television, home cinema and Blu-ray players that the cinema industry would be long dead. It’s very much still alive and the industry has adapted. The content you would find in the cinema and the experience is very different than TV, and you would still look forward to the cinema experience.

“Some would say the TV experience is rubbish and the cinema is high quality. The same could happen in the newspaper space.”

Local newspapers, van Doorn suggests, could have a vibrant future by harnessing local content and using them alongside Android-based smart phones that use telemetry to know where the person is standing.

“I could be pointing my phone in the direction of a castle and it could interact with a local newspaper that could tell me its history, as well as push nearby restaurant ads and offers in my direction.”

But returning to the down-at-heel journalist, once the first port of call for news, van Doorn says the Journalist 2.0 can still be a guiding force in the future of media.

“The old-style journalist looked at the world in a different way from the Journalist 2.0. One guy thought he ruled the world, with people waiting for him to bring them the news. That day is over.

“The Journalist 2.0 can mix paper and digital and all the new media together to create new experiences from the viewpoint of the consumer of information. Not only is the new journalist guiding the people through the information, but also creating an experience package that people who buy newspapers, have modern smart phones and like to download movies can expect.

“It also means you have to come down from your ivory tower,” van Doorn deadpanned.

He ends our conversation with a question about how newspapers themselves see their future. “Every newspaper is local, so ask yourselves: how do your readers feel they want to be involved?”

Pictured: Menno van Doorn, author of  Me the Media – The Rise Of The Conversation Society