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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 about the change in the way people access information.

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

Here's why I think new and old distort or artificially divide debate into opposing media camps. There is good, informative journalism produced with integrity, and there is something far less -- the dreck of spin, gossip and propaganda. 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 the schlock.

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

Print and electronic media created new space for new voices and new ideas. The printing press became an "alternative medium" to the town crier -- a man likely in the pay of the local baron. Printing Bibles spread the Gospel, and with Bibles in homes believers learned to read. The priests -- the theological elites -- lost control of the text and lost control of the text's interpretation.

The digital "new" media expand this arc. Cheap digital technologies and the Internet permit individual distribution and highly individualized participation based on individual connectivity. Individual distribution and "lateral connectivity" have altered the media business model. Both evade if not quite escape the control of current corporate hierarchies, though smart "old" media organizations are rapidly adapting.

For example, every morning fewer newspapers plop on driveways -- younger people go to the Web and choose their news. YouTube videos shot by 19-year-olds get more viewers than many cable TV programs -- and their production quality is improving.

Individual digital connectivity has tapped what I call the "distributed genius" of human beings, in a way print rarely did (a letter to the editor won't appear for days) and electronic media -- such as radio with talk shows taking phone 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, a retired Marine, a military historian and at least two men on active duty. The members 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 "distributed genius." Four years ago, September 2004, distributed genius brought down Dan Rather and gave CBS a black eye.

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

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

"Convergence Media" has appeared -- text, audio and video, providing information in a medium most convenient to the user. Moreover, the technology is available to talented, creative individuals operating in agile, cooperative organizations that have minimized or eliminated the Industrial Age overhead strangling many companies, like high-rent offices and network contracts paying millions to hairdos who read teleprompters.

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