What's the future of media? What are all the rumblings about struggling online media?
Pundits and gossips and entrail-readers were asking one another (and me) these questions last week. It was a nervous few days, the jitters touched off by announcements of layoffs at Salon and NBC and CBS.com and by the near death experience of the strange crime-news site APB News.com, which dismissed its staff, then brought some back unpaid in an attempt to keep publishing.
Was all of this a watershed moment for new media? The ubiquitous analysts were warning that in the wake of the NASDAQ panic, money for new sites was drying up. Maybe old-time journalism could rebound, after all? Maybe these hordes or raucous digital pests would finally get their comeuppance, or even better, go away completely. Maybe the media universe would right itself.
Dream on. If there is a central idea that conventional media have willfully failed to grasp, it's that the future of information belongs to Open Media, even when AOL/Time-Warner gets its lawyers and lobbyists lined up. The meaningful distinction isn't old-versus-new, it's open-versus-closed.
What exactly characterizes the Open Media? Open Media sites embrace interactivity; they reflect ideas, commentary and information from a wide range of sources, especially their readers. They were shaped by the distributed architecture of the Net. Their agendas and political philosophies are rarely static, but continuously evolving, a gift of interactivity. Each reader becomes a highly-wired researcher and reporter, foraging for information. Stories can be reported originally, but most often stories are posted from other sources or posted and readers are given links. Links are a universal signature of an Open Media site, a way to use Net architecture to maximum advantage. Revenue comes from advertising or other sources, because the information itself is always -- always -- free.
Open Media are ascending all across the information spectrum. Closed Media -- newspapers, evening newscasts, even pay-per-use news websites -- have been in decline for years, facing aging audiences, shrinking revenues and marginalization by ferocious (and usually free) competitors. Open vs. Closed, shared vs. proprietary - these conflicting impulses have divided Net users for years, the Linux challenge to Microsoft being one of the more dramatic examples. Now that conflict is intensifying throughout media.
There was considerable if short-sighted rejoicing in old media offices with the spate of so-called "new media" problems. Conventional media has been battered for years now by new competing technologies like the Net, abandoned by younger consumers, struggling to re-define itself. There was more than a little glee in reports that new media was bleeding as well.
"For some people, online journalism is a path to interactive enlightenment and economic liberty," gloated the New York Times. "But to the puritans of the old media world, Web journalists are apostates who have confused liberty with license and whose delusional disregard for profit can only end in self-immolation. It was hard for the puritans not to act smug last week."
What an interesting statement. When exactly did "disregard for profit" become a journalistic liability as opposed to an ethical standard? And who conferred on mainstream journalism -- as greedy, non-interactive, incestuous and elitist an institution as exists in American public life -- this high moral ground?
The reasons for the smugness extended beyond the layoffs. Media watchers also cited Slate.com's struggles to become viable (it's massively subsidized by Microsoft and promoted on MS sites from MSN.com to MSNBC, and is still struggling for audience) and they were obsessively monitoring the super-hyped launch of Inside.com, a mega-media gossip and news site from a company that actually calls itself "PowerfulMedia, Inc."
You can check out this lavishly-funded site for yourself (www.inside.com), but all you really need to know is that its readers get to vote on what Inside.com considers most critical; the daily media "Power Index," which tracks whether Sumner Redstone of Viacom is gaining on Michael Eisner or Ted Turner on any given day. Part of Inside.com is free, but that's a lure. The part with the supposed original reporting is subscriber-only. This anomaly -- charging money in an environment where the volume of information grows by the hour and the price steadily drops -- is both arrogant and astonishing.
What was most interesting about last week's New York Times sneer was its focus on the rather few Web sites familiar to journalists. With perspective-narrowing narcissism, the Times described Slate as "the online magazine with probably the highest profile in online journalism?"
Slate - interesting though it can sometimes be - is actually one of the lowest profile sites on the Internet - except for New York or Washington journalists. They tend not to notice mailing lists, messaging systems or the countless individual sites far from media consciousness. Thus when Slate or Salon hits trouble, media pundits instantly conclude that online journalism must be failing. That's a big mistake.
"So who's winning?" asked the Times, "the puritans or the apostates? It may be too soon to tell, but certainly last week's upheavals were enough to try a Web journalist's soul." This bizarre framing of the issue -- a win/lose battle between worthy traditionalists and whacked-out rebels -- is silly, but it helps explain conventional journalism's problems in coming to terms with its favorite story: itself.
Mainstream media are fascinated with themselves. No story is more interesting than the people who publish or broadcast it. The press can't stop writing about itself, launching whole new publications -- Brill's Content magazine, Inside.com, much of Slate -- to chronicle its heroes, power-brokers and adventures. The media have a bizarre and shrinking geography in the 21st Century, despite the fact that we are all in the midst of an explosive information revolution. They pay rapt attention to certain aspects of life in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. No place between gets much attention unless a terrorist blows up a building, a plane crashes,or a river floods its banks. If you gather information on the Net, of course, your experience couldn't be more different, since you're connected to new kinds of journalists located in all sorts of places - college campuses, the bowels of companies and governments (as opposed to the executive suites), private homes in "flyover" land, foreign countries, hi-tech environments. The agenda is stunningly different. And there isn't much interest in the people who run media or their daily power standings.
How did the traditional media, once a populist, working-class information medium, fall so totally, even suicidally, in love with themselves? Or waste so much money and time chronicling their own comings and goings while missing so completely the real economic and cultural boundaries emerging between old and new forms of information distribution? Sometimes it seems that the real competition isn't between purists and renegades but between Narcissistic (and thus Closed) versus Open Media.
This narcissism is harmful because it shrinks the creative universe of media workers and disconnects them from the new global conversation taking place online. Open Media operate in striking contrast, thanks in part to the distributed architecture that makes up the Net's infrastructure. Instead of handfuls of editors closeted in offices dictating agendas, successful online media tend to be highly interactive, informal, diverse, often amateurish, yet quick, newsy and, therefore, useful.
Open Media can't claim anything close to perfection. These sites are often hostile, chaotic, and unreliable. But they're open in the most literal sense -- online, anybody with a computer and a modem can be a journalist and use the open protocols of the Net. In the techworld, people bring one another news, links, URL's, and information obsessvively -- the most basic definition of a journalist and of journalism -- and in a never-ending stream.
The architecture of the Net -- designed mostly for research -- was designed to be open. The architecture of conventional media, designed mostly to sell information, has been closed for generations. This has caused the widening rift between the two cultures that plagues the so-called "traditionalists" to this day.
When journalism comes online, the first mistake most editors and producers invariably make is to replicate the closed forms they know -- as Slate did when it tried to charge customers to subscribe. One of the first Web sites run by mainstream journalists -- its editor is Michael Kinsley, former editor of The New Republic, Slate became synonymous in many traditionalist's minds with Web journalism. It was the first and only site many reporters visted regularly, then and now. And the fact that it didn't have to break even or attract large numbers of readers -- Bill Gates made it clear that Slate had years, if not forever, to succeed financially -- gave it further license to practice traditional journalistic values rather than confront the Net's raucous interactivity. Slate never really had to come to terms with the Net -- it had a gazillion dollar safety net anyway. As a result, the magazine has always had a sort of grafted-on quality to it, although it has grudgingly become more inter-active.
Open Media have thrived on very different principles -- they offer decentralized, digitally-empowered media populism. Why are the conventional media so hobbled with it comes to grasping this?
Until the l960's, journalism was a distinctly unglamorous profession, a working-class, blue-collar alternative to civil service jobs or manual labor. But as the Boomers went off to college in increasing numbers, and encountered social struggles like the anti-Vietnam and civil rights movements, journalism began attracting a different sort of practitioner. It became a more elite profession. People who go to Harvard and Yale tend to believe that what they're doing is important, at least in part because they're doing it. Being a journalist, producer or magazine editor was suddenly fashionable.
And as information became a valuable commodity and entertainment a global, multi-billion dollar industry, media executives became more visible and powerful. The media industry itself became a huge story, especially as entertainment, news, information and popular culture began overlapping. Conventional media coverage of pop culture is either tepid, or still ghetto-ized in the back sections of magazines and papers. Landmark evolutions in new media culture -- gaming and animation, for example -- aren't yet considered culture at all in the traditional press.
Journalism has paid dearly for this endemic myopia. Many of the smartest, best-educated reporters in America seemed not to notice that an information revolution was bearing down on them like a tidal wave.
Even as the net spawned thousands of new kinds of sites -- including this one, started not coincidentally far from coastal media encampments -- the traditional press continued its focus on itself. Successful new media sites seemed more likely to spring up in places like Holland, Mich., or Portland, Ore., than in New York, L.A. or Washington. Rather than embrace new technologies, much of media began sounding alarms about them, from pornography to addiction. On the Net, Open media offered sites, reporters and commentary drawn from increasingly far-flung sources on an ever-widening variety of topics.
Closed media have at best only a vague sense of this transformations.
In a medium where amateur news and information sites routinely draw hundreds of thousands of hits a day, Slate was unable to get more than a relative handful of people to pay a modest subscription fee despite the movement of tens of millions of people online, and sooned abandoned the idea of charging readers. In fact, many "old media" sites on the Web, from Slate to Washingtonpost.com, remain subsidized media, a luxury rarely afforded new or Open Media. If Microsoft hadn't been so generous and rich, Slate would have folded long ago. In any other context, in fact, it would be considered a disaster. In the surreal world of media narcissism, it's failure somehow becomes virtue, even a triumph.
Salon, also founded by conventional journalists (in this case mostly from San Francisco) was always livelier and more Net-savvy than Slate, and is a different, more complex story. From the first, Salon established itself as a digital bastion of culture and literacy, which also understood interactivity. As good as the site can be -- its technology coverage is often outstanding -- one gets the sense that it has failed to grow creatively. The magazine seems stuck, almost marginalized, long on attitude but short on new ideas. Selling criticism, cultural and political commentary and point-of-view in a medium driven by cheap and plentiful information is rough.
That doesn't mean that Salon won't survive, or even prosper, despite the recent layoffs, but that it may have to reinvent itself. In media, this often seems the hardest thing for pulications to do, online or off.
Now, as those sites seem more and more like early prospectors overrun by a Gold Rush, there is no more meaningful distinction between "old" and "new" media. Almost every major paper, magazine and TV network has a Web site, and their reporters and producers continually cross-over frome one form to the other, as do their consumers.
On the Internet, there is no workable definition of what a journalist is. That's a good thing. Anybody who sees him- or herself as a journalist becomes one, which is the way it ought to be and, in fact, used to be. The kind of press conceived by Jefferson and Paine had much more in common with the present-day Internet than with the corporatized behemoths dominating the mainstream media. The press was always meant to be open, "point-to-point" in the Net sense, individualistic and outspoken. Journalism was never meant to be an exclusive elite, and the Net has re-democratized it. Online journalism may be adolescent and chaotic, but it is freer, more diverse and participatory than its offline predecessors. And a hell of a lot more fun and interesting.
Thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of people write and gather information on Web pages, sites, Weblogs, mailing lists and messaging systems. They post stories, start topics, engage in discussions and debates. By New York Times standards, they don't count as journalists. But they are the personification of the new journalism, and of its rebirth. The fact that they are practicing journalism in the most literal sense is precisely what's causing problems for the conventional media -- online or off -- still organized around outdated and nonsensical models of information dispensing.
These amateur journalists offer information on everything: weather, quilting, sports, movies, music, politics, and, of course, technology itself -- the seminal story online. Sometimes their coverage is brilliant, sometimes dreadful, just like old-style journalism. One Slashdot editor e-mailed me a list of just a few of the sites he visits regularly for news about software. These sites are bad news for traditional media practitioners -- newsy, teeming, useful, vibrant, telling examples of the ferociously interactive, information-stuffed open media mushrooming all over the Web. [His sites: cpureview.com; rootprompt.org; kuro5shin.org; macrumors.com; macnn.com;ompages.com].
On such Open Media sites -- there are thousands devoted to diverse topics ranging from teen women (www.chickclickers.com) to sports topics to music, TV, movies, consumerism, books, politics and Star Wars. Readers spot and suggest and link to stories continuously. Information moves in several directions -- top-down, laterally, and bottom-up. Readers have access to the reporters and editorial figures on the Web site. Through story ideas and discussion forums they have a say in how the site operates. And they are truly heard -- no Open Media site would last long otherwise -- in opposition to the pretend interactivity of Closed Media ("E-mail Peter Jennings. He wants to hear from you!")
Open Source is, of course, different, a technical term that applies to the sharing of software, not to media or culture. But it has far-reaching implications that go beyond code. OS was a significant, prescient idea. Like Dorothy in the final moments of the "Wizard Of Oz," OS pulled back the curtain on the biggest story in the world - the rise of computing technology, which is making information cheaper and more available by the hour. And transforming media.
Any successful media site of the future has to begin with that understanding, since it affects news consumers so directly. People in significant numbers won't pay for access to general news sites that charge for information. Nor should they have to. They will, however, regularly visit sites that organize some of the vast amounts of information now available online. And they especially value the opportunity to contribute -- to comment on articles, posts and features, and to contribute links, ideas and pieces of their own.
The media are dramatically affected by (and quite vulernable to) the wave of openness, much of it architectural rather than political, which OS helped fan. Open Media are not only the wave of the future, but the hot information commodity of the present. Open media are the only media that can thrive in the 21st Century, that can connect with young consumers, incorporate new information technologies, draw large numbers and make money in the Digital Age. Unlike traditional media, they don't have to adapt to the Net. They literally grew out of it.
Open Media sites grasp that online, news is organic, continuous, participatory. Open Media editors can be plenty autocratic, and they make lots of decisions. But they make more of those decisions in the open, and readers are taken much more genuinely into account.
Open Media aren't uninterested in profit - quite the opposite. Their advocates, understanding how new technologies operate, have simply perceived a radically different priniple with which to make money - by sharing information rather than controlling it.
Proprietary sites on the Net have particular problems with this idea. As Slate learned early on, and as Inside.com will learn soon enough, it's difficult to charge money in an environment awash in timely information available for free. Closed media -- online or on paper or on cable or on the airwaves -- try to set agendas rather than permit agendas to be set by others. They don't trust their consumers to really participate, and aren't willing to share the power such an ethic requires. Instead they project an outdated image: a formal, rigid environment occupied by people holed up in offices, preoccupied with increasingly irrelevant formats.
Like The New York Times, they don't seem to grasp that the very definitions of media are really changing. Until last year (when she tired of the workload), a housewife in Akron created a free-coupon/quilting Web site that drew more than a half-million visitors a day.
In the 21st century, Closed Media can't compete either economically or creatively with the vibrant culture of open information sites. When a handful of editorial instincts compete head-on with tens or hundreds of thousands of editorial instincts, the rabble may just win every time.