The (Flexible) Future of Media

There has been a shift in the media and publishing industry. Here on the inside, it’s being talked about to death. I’m so tired of hearing about how “Craigslist killed the classifieds.” What started as a company memo that made us all take pause a year ago (and be grateful we didn’t work in the classified department) is now something that my friends, who aren’t even in the industry, are mentioning casually over lunch.

“It’s like Craigslist and the classifieds, man. Why pay for it when you can get it online for free?”

While in-depth news stories, research and reporting will never go away completely, the methods of journalism are definitely changing. With the shift from print to web there is a deliberate push now for more easily digestable chunks (catering to shorter, on-screen attention spans) and more multi-media, user-generated or “sticky” content, which in theory paves the way for more of the almighty “pageview.” Long-standing film, art and music critics are also losing their jobs to web-based rating aggregators – the mean calculation of the masses defining the value of a work instead of an educated and respected figure within a community giving voice to the culture. In short, it’s a hot mess.

With technology becoming more ubiquitous, there are sure to be gadgets and widgets for everyone (I saw another homeless man with a cell phone the other day). But the only way an individual can develop or evolve is by “taking the role of other,” so it stands to reason that all of us being somehow connected by the “wi-fi matrix” really can’t hurt in the long run. As society fragments and compartmentalizes to keep up with our own devices, like so many moths reflected in a fractured mirror, hopefully we’ll see more people drifting toward the middle. And hopefully that means more people catching onto shit like recycling, going green, voting independent, etc. but also being actively engaged in much smaller niche markets (like St. Petersburg’s much-too-short-lived resurgence of shuffleboard or a local coffee or movie club that actually meets somewhere instead of online). Hopefully soon, within these smaller groups, we will start to see a decrease in the polarization of liberal/conservative, left/right, red/blue and the beginnings of a truly pragmatic system of people (of all colors and values) that are not only unafraid to change position, but that understand it’s what you must do to survive.

Any complaints at this point from the publishing industry are going to be the same complaints we heard when the music industry model collapsed. Labels existed solely to loan money to an artist (at a rapacious return) for recording, marketing and distribution services, something an artist at the time couldn’t do on their own. Then along came high-quality studio software and the internet, making it possible for these musicians to produce quality recordings, distribute themselves digitally and market themselves globally. If only artists could manage themselves, they’d be set, right? But people still know good music when they hear it (when FM radio isn’t cramming pre-fab down their throats) and the consumers sure as hell adapted to the new model; and marketers (like iPod) sure as hell stepped in to take advantage of it. So why are we so goddamned surprised by all this?

The solution is simple. Koestler talked of “fixed rules, flexible strategies.” What we need is “fixed content, flexible platforms.” And in marketing to this new breed of consumer, we must communicate integrally (see below), on all quadrants. And that means providing them with content that is relevant to their lifestyle (or at least one of their niche groups) through an interface of their choosing. And once you establish a trusted relationship with someone, you can change the format all you want. The New York Times could announce tomorrow their transition to a “smoke rings only” format and you can bet your life that (for a month, anyway) a good number of people would stand on their rooftops squinting at and trying to decipher those rings. Because their lives are defined by the content. The content is what gives them meaning. And meaning never needs an upgrade.

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4 responses to “The (Flexible) Future of Media

  1. The problem in your equation is the fixed content. It is content that is suffering in the marketplace, not technology. The increasingly smaller and smaller amount of original, important and/or entertaining news content (and I admittedly am focused here only on news content and not entertainment per se) is simply being repackaged and repackaged and repackaged until it has none of its original value. The actual value of content, then, is lowered. And the price paid to those who mine, create or otherwise come up with that content is likewise deeply devalued, running most creative people out of the business.

  2. Wayne, “fixed” is not a qualitative assessment here. Fixed simply means that in this model (which will be fleshed out more here soon), you can place any content in the middle and it will be delivered the same as any other. Although “good” content will be defined differently across the board and stories (videos, even) will have to be diluted (er, distilled?) down to at least 160 characters at some point so we can text, tease or tweet them, but delivered nonetheless and hopefully this will push people to the actual “valued” content. Consider the forthcoming model a really awesome hookah, with seven tubes that deliver differently to all the senses, but it remains up to a certain agriculture and economy to provide you with quality product and it remains up to you to seek out and then buy good shit to smoke.

  3. On the craigslist subject,

    Could smaller, less expensive classified ads (complete w/ craigslist link) sold in greater volume be a way to embrace the online world of free?

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