Thursday, January 13, 2005

Mainstream Media In The Internet Age

Peggy Noonan wrote an excellent article this morning for Opinion Journal. Within it, she offered an analogy about how the mainstream media has changed:

“American journalism is no longer a castle, and you are no longer the serf who cannot breach its walls. The castle doors have been forced open. Other voices have access. Bloggers for instance don't just walk in and out, they have offices in the castle walls.”

I think this analogy is excellent, but I think some of those using it don’t quite grasp the full implications of what it means. Ms. Noonan herself states:

“The MSM rose because it had a monopoly on information.”

Yet this is not true. The MSM monopoly wasn’t on information. It was on the media for distributing information. Those “castle walls” represent the cost of getting information published or broadcast. The walls are coming down because the Internet is making those costs so cheap as to be effectively free.

This is not a hair-splitting distinction. The difference is huge.

The transformative power of blogs today, and the challenge to legacy-media institutions, was only hinted at in events like Rathergate. Perhaps because it’s only a hint, many of those within those institutions are missing the true significance. Certainly CBS’ lack of serious change in wake of their internal investigation might represent this. But they’re hardly alone.

Another legacy-media institution that seems to have missed the significance is evident in a post from Vodkapundit today:

“As you've probably read in the last few days, The New York Times is leaning towards making their online operation subscription-only. It works for the Wall Street Journal, so there's probably no reason it can't work for the NYT, too. Problem is, how to get people like myself to pay for what we're used to getting for free?”

Let’s examine the online product the New York Times intends to sell, and see if we can answer that question.

On the main screen I see links to articles on various topics and some photographs to catch my attention, either to look at a particular article or an advertisement. I also see links to more specialized sections where I can find other articles grouped by topic.

Set aside your legacy media eyes for a moment, and tell me – in terms of the medium – whether you see anything being done at the New York Times that isn’t also being done here. Being even less reverent, does anyone see a functional difference between the New York Times columnist archives and a blogroll?

So does this mean the New York Times cannot succeed in charging access for its site? No. But they had better understand what they’re selling. If they think it’s “information,” or “news,” the Internet – not least the blogosphere - will chew them up and spit them out.

There is a well-known saying around the Internet: “Information wants to be free.” Not many people realize that is only a small part of a larger quote. The full thing is more interesting, and is exactly what confronts legacy media today:

“Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine---too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient.”

Success on the Internet isn’t about providing information as much as providing value. The difference between the two is often missed, but as more of the legacy media’s audience moves online, it is crucial for them to understand it.

Let’s examine the New York Times’ current value proposition, as stated on its masthead: “All the News that’s Fit to Print.” In other words, they offer such a breadth of information that you can rely on them to keep you well informed. The value here is breadth of information. That’s legacy thinking.

If I’m sitting at a web browser, I have a breadth of information available that dwarfs anything they can possibly offer. They offer me no particular value by the simple fact that they have a lot of content. Name a news topic the New York Times covers, and I’ll show you a link where I can access the same kind of information just as easily: International, National, Washington, Business, Technology, Science, Health, Sports… I could easily go on. What’s more I could have offered a dozen alternative options as easily as one.

Television is a bit more protected from this… for now. Widespread video broadcasting on the Internet is just a matter of technologically refining what is already in place.

My point here is not that legacy media are going to go away in the blink of an eye. In fact they have a tremendous opportunity at the moment, having name recognition and audience they inherit from their pre-Internet media enterprise, which could follow them online if handled properly. What's more, they can now compete for audience in a world-wide market.

But they cannot simply place their old product online attractively packaged and expect success. To the extent they fail to grasp this message, new startup media companies, with no stake in the legacy media, will emerge to replace them.

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