Sunday, March 16, 2008

MEDIA REVOLUTION: Why The Tower Must Fall

From a generic perspective, it’s probably fair to say that the public history of new media began five years ago this month with the invasion of Iraq. Technorati was tracking fewer than half a million blogs in March 2003, but 24/7 coverage of the war meant cable news needed things to talk about, and there were the bloggers – this strange new species of pundit – always talking, talking, talking.

I became a blogger in March 2003, part of a surge in self-expression that exceeded 4 million participants on the eve of the November 2004 elections. To mainstream media in that campaign year, “new media” mostly meant blogs, and their reaction was generally dismissive. Sure, bloggers might find a niche in the chattering-classes ecosystem, the reasoning went, but they were bottom-feeders sucking up leftover information produced by the reporting professionals.

In the public mind, therefore, blogging more or less began with the war, then became significant – for better or worse – in September 2004, when bloggers played a leading role in casting doubt on a CBS News story about President George W. Bush’s service record in the Texas Air National Guard.

So why talk about the nascent blogosphere of almost four years ago?

Because at this moment of decision and tumult in mass-media news, far too many of our business leaders and newsroom decision-makers appear to be stuck there. And since most failed to explore even those outdated possibilities (part of a general tendency to reject as irrelevant anything they do not control or understand) far too many of our industry's executives continue to misread the dramatic cultural and economic changes now reshaping the markets for our products.

The consequences? Executives sink hefty budgets into e-mail marketing schemes – even as young people abandon e-mail in favor of communication via social sites. Consultants skim big fees pitching “Web 2.0” business concepts that look promising based on analysis of traffic and function, yet fail instantly because they begin with no understand of the culture of online communities.

Is it any surprise that so many of our flagship institutions are foundering? From tagging to RSS to social filtering, mainstream media has failed to keep up with the ever-leapfrogging development of new tools because its leaders remain not only ignorant of the Web, but suspicious of its very legitimacy.

For a simple example, look at the average newspaper website video section. Can you find the embed code for any of the videos they host?

I went through a list of the Top 100 newspaper websites tonight, checking every eighth one to see if it offered an embed code. Most required me to watch a commercial before letting me see the video and I’d chosen (also a mistake… to see the RIGHT way to put an ad on a video, watch’s VERACIFIER videos), but only one offered me an embed code -- and that was the San Jose Mercury News, the home paper for Silicon Valley.

Why? YouTube has been putting embed codes on its videos since 2005, and it’s not exactly advanced technology. Allowing people to place your video on their site is a great way to increase the number of plays you’ll get on a potentially popular video, and they don’t cost you a thing.

I suspect there are four reasons:

  1. Top editors have never heard of embed codes;
  2. They don’t understand how they work;
  3. They MISUNDERSTAND how they work (“You mean other people will get to take our video and we wouldn’t have any control over how they use it? What’s in it for us, other than a lawsuit?”); and
  4. They just don’t think it matters, since the only people who care about embed codes are bloggers, and bloggers a bunch of whack-job wannabees.

The next post in this series is going to talk about the necessary next steps for newspapers – not online, but in print. Before we moved on to that subject, I wanted to cast this thought out to the world:

The biggest problem faced by the newspaper industry isn’t a competition problem, or a revenue problem, or a technology problem, or even a quality problem. It’s a culture problem. The average metro newspaper is a monopolized commodity, and after decades of bottom-line corporate control, all vestiges of independent thought have been selectively bred out of its cultural DNA.

Newspaper leaders are willing to make almost any change… so long as certain things remain untouched. And those untouchable items -- double-digit profits, secretive editorial boards, black-box news judgment -- are the very first things that healthy companies will have to address.

Newspaper monopolies are not worth saving. They are The Tower, and they must fall before something new can begin to grow in its place.