My changing media habits (or: there is no crisis!)

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More than three years ago–it seems like three decades–I wrote an eight-chapter Special Report in The Economist in which I tried to envision the future of the media. (It starts here, for those of you with a subscription.)

In it I argued that we (society) were in the midst of a transformation equal in significance to that started by Gutenberg’s printing press during the Renaissance. One media era was ending, another starting:

  • Old: Media companies produce content & captive, passive audience consumes it.
  • New: Everybody produces content and shares, consumes, remixes it.
  • Old: Media companies lecture the audience (one to many).
  • New: The audience has conversations among itself (many to many).

To show you how long three years can be, consider:

  • As part of my Special Report, I did our (The Economist‘s) very first podcasts–a word that many of the editors in London had not even heard yet. Today our podcasts are among the most popular on iTunes.
  • During my research for the Report, I heard the word “YouTube” for the first time (the company had just been founded). When I sent the Report to the editor, it contained one single reference to YouTube. Four (!) weeks later, when the Report was published, YouTube had already become the biggest story of that year (2006).
  • I had never heard of Facebook (not to mention Twitter). And so on.

How I use the media today

All of this sounds quaint today, so I thought I might share with you how my personal media habits have changed since my Report, and then answer some questions:

  • Does my 2006 thesis hold up?
  • Would I refine it today?
  • Is there a media “crisis”?

1) More efficiency in my work life

Back in 2006, I still subscribed to a lot of paper newspapers and magazines, as all journalists used to do, in order to “keep up” with the competition and to be informed. Those things piled up on my floor and made me feel guilty.

Today I have no paper subscription at all! I have precisely two electronic subscriptions on my Kindle, one newspaper (The New York Times) and one magazine (The Atlantic).

I use my Kindle in the morning over my latte to catch up with the global headlines, the mass market “news”. It is almost relaxing. It takes maybe 15 minutes. Later in the day, if I am driving, I will listen to NPR in the car. That represents my entire consumption of “mainstream” media through their traditional distribution channels. I do not own a TV set.

After I put down my Kindle, my work starts. This means that I open my own, personal “newspaper”, which is my RSS Reader. Here is what it looked like yesterday:

Reader.

In my RSS reader I mix “feeds” from the “head” and the “long tail”, from the LA Times to small blogs on California politics and obscure research outfits such as the Public Policy Institute of California.

The important thing to note here is that I have

  1. disassembled many disparate publications and information sources, including sources not traditionally considered “news”, and
  2. reassembled them as only I can for my own productivity. I have thus replaced “editors” and will never, ever allow them back into this part of my life.

I probably spend an hour or so reading inside my RSS reader. This is not so relaxing. I consider it work. This is my deep dive into stuff I need to know to cover my beat (ie, the Western states). I don’t worry about printing or filing anything because I tag the items, knowing that I can search for them in future. (And yes, that means that my office is now paperless.) Sometimes I hit “share” and my editor can see what I’m reading.

Then I’m done for the day, and I move on a) to do research for my stories and b) to take occasional study breaks for fun with the other media….

2) My intellectual life: Social curation

In my “private” (ie, non-Economist) existence, I now essentially live the vision that I sketched in my Special Report. Which is to say that I am simultaneously the audience for other “amateur” producers of content and an amateur producer myself. This is simply a highfalutin way of saying:

  • I blog (right here) for motivations that are not remotely commercial, and
  • I read other blogs for intellectual stimulation, and
  • I occasionally post to my Facebook news feed, and
  • I glance into the Facebook updates of people I know.

Through the blog, Facebook and the old-fashioned medium of email, I now have a spontaneous and unplanned but remarkably efficient and bespoke system of social curation for my media content.

I can easily spend an hour or two a day just following the links that you guys, ie my blog readers, provide. Virtually all of you on this blog have never met me in person but you have a keen sense of my intellectual tastes by now, and you provide links that are, for the most part, stunningly relevant. Sometimes you bring to the surface specific research papers or articles in obscure journals that I would never have discovered in the previous media era.

facebook

On Facebook, I find that the connections are of the opposite nature: Most of my “friends” I really do know in offline life, but many understand my intellectual tastes less than my blog readers. But my Facebook friends nonetheless are in my social circle, so their links tend also to be obscure, risqué, ironic, or moving–in short, more interesting and enjoyable than any content the media companies used to dish up for me in the previous era. Ten years ago, for instance, I would probably never have seen this stunning Ukrainian artist perform the Nazi invasion of Ukraine with sand:

The things to note here are:

  1. My social curators also disassemble and reassemble the sources of content. They mix Jon Stewart clips (mainstream media, commercial) with homemade music ensembles (amateur, non-commercial) into one bespoke media flow.
  2. My online and offline friends have thus become what media editors used to be, and they are far better at it than their media-conglomerate predecessors ever were. I will never allow the old editors back into my life.
  3. It goes without saying that I “time-shift” and “place-shift”, which is just a highfalutin way of saying that I “consume” this content wherever and whenever (laptop + iPhone) I happen to be.

3) My intimate media

The final layer is what Paul Saffo in my Special Report called the “personal” media. These are media produced by family members and very intimate friends for defined and tiny audiences.

Example: baby pictures and clips on my private family web site. The site is protected and only grandparents and dear friends have access. The motivation is thus the opposite of the traditional media:

  1. The audience is deliberately kept small (whereas media companies want large audiences)
  2. The intent is to share and preserve personal memories.

Because the capture and sharing of such intimate media is so much easier than it ever was, I spend much, much more of my media time immersed in them. Where do I find this time? Easy. As Clay Shirky has been saying for years: We have a surplus of time, once we get rid of the crap in our lives.

Conclusion

So, to answer my three questions:

  • Does my 2006 thesis hold up? Yes, I believe it does. We all have the equivalent of many Gutenberg printing presses in our pockets and on our laps, and we use them to tell stories to one another as never before.
  • Would I refine it today? I would pay more attention to video and audio as opposed to text in the mix.
  • Is there a media “crisis”? No!

It is that last point that may come as a surprise. I am in an unusual position in that am both a professional and an amateur writer. So I must be aware that the news industry is dying, right?

I am indeed aware that it is shrinking. But is that a problem? There are indeed two crises:

  1. A money and profits crisis for owners of media capital.
  2. An employment crisis for journalists.

But those are two constituencies that the rest of society need not care about. For society as a whole, I believe there is no crisis, once we stop being hysterical and examine our media habits.

What I have discovered in my own personal media behavior is that I am today better informed than I have ever been before. But much of the information I consume no longer comes from journalists.

Instead, much, much more of it now comes from universities and think tanks in my RSS reader and iTunes University, from scientists and thinkers and other experts at conferences such as TED, and from you, who are a self-selected and thus qualified bunch of editors.

Speaking purely as a consumer of the media and a citizen, I believe that there is no media crisis–indeed, that we are entering a second Renaissance.

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48 thoughts on “My changing media habits (or: there is no crisis!)

    • Odd, isn’t it? Meeting online seems to purify a certain kind of (intellectual) connection. You only “see” the thoughts, not the clothes, height, stubble, ….

  1. Quite true, Andreas. So is there a potential equality in disembodied words that most socieities still struggle to afford the individuals who might write those words?

  2. I couldn’t agree more. My media experience is improving daily. Obviously this will involve a change in the economy (I see journalists are losing their jobs three times faster than everyone else) but that is normal considering the magnitude of the shift. New opportunities for collaboration and access are developing everyday and it is only a matter of time before a new economy based on different skill sets emerges.

  3. Sorry to be a kill-joy on the positive aspects of our New Renaissance, but isn’t there an ‘off-side’ to technology? I mean, haven’t you noticed that 89% (if not more) of the population in any public setting is hunched over their iphone, laptop, blackberry or other electronic device – inputting or receiving endless bytes of information (originally created to help & educate us) is actually starting to isolate us from one another? It also feels like the era of social etiquette is being swiftly pushed out for a new era of a Cyborgnistic Society which is swallowing up our physicality and imprisoning us behind an LCD screen?

    Televisions did that – turned most of our population into couch potatoes!

    Although I am guilty of my addiction to our New Renaissance, I’ve recently blogged a rant about it, please feel free to drop by and peruse my latest mishap involving Texting!

    http://satansez.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/to-text-or-not-to-text-communication-overload-part-1

    Thank you for your informed update (don’t cha just wish we would have bought more APPLE stock in 2006?) & I do love your term – ‘New Renaissance’!!!

  4. Huge downside, of course.

    But, as you said, that is not unique to the “new” media. TV sets were deadly for creativity, the imagination, family and sex lives.

    The new gadgets are above all dangerous (in traffic) and barbarous.

    But: All this is a matter of some people being uncivilized, not about their media being inherently flawed. We’re all still learning the etiquette of this new world. I’m just starting, slowly, to get the hang of it.

  5. Re: the ‘crisis’

    Enjoyed the post and generally agree with it. As a student, I am learning and participating in the media revolution every day.

    Although it is a roarin’ time!, I have had the opportunity to see first hand the dumpy side of it.

    I am the son and grandson of print journalists. My father is a romatic and sees this revolution as the end of an era and, for him, a way of life. Growing up around the news room I can see exactly what he means.
    I still remember the first cell phone he was issued and the first toshiba satellite he lugged home. He is one of the last in his corps to arrive at press conferences with a legal pad. He might disown me if he found out I just started blogging.

    Now, I don’t want to give the impression that he’s incurably bitter. He decides to take on a sardonic attitude for the sake of irony because he has known the direction that his industry has been headed for a while. But, he is alarmed at how rapidly it has shrunk and how many colleagues he has seen laid off.

    I hate to admit it, but your point that the ‘crisis’ has nothing to do with 99% of the population came as a revelation to me. I can’t help that I have descended from a line of journalists and writers. I can’t help it that I am an aspiring one. Naturally, I am in crisis mode. How do you remain so calm?!

    I suppose this chapter of history is still not closed and who knows how much longer print journalism will be here on a large scale. As a history student I see a great story. I have lived it after all. When you can remember the dank smells of a capital bureau I’d say you’ve lived it!

    But, I would say that peer content editors are infinitely more stimulating and relevent. I wish I started blogging 4 years ago. Youtube and the like have made media more interactive and informative. NPR is more interactive thanks to its website. Yeah, things have changed for the better for us consumers.

    There should be something to be said about that romantic journalism that wears a fedora. Its a story about those that made the news a story. The new journalist isn’t any different though. As James Baldwin once reminded us, writers only need to write from our own experiences and then preform an examination on them. With the new tools we have and Baldwin’s simple rule, the possibilities are endless.

    • Hi Ryan,

      I really enjoyed reading your comment filled with examples to help me understand your points.

      As a former journalism instructor, I would suggest that you continue to wear your fedora (invisibly of course), for those with wonder and passion and awe, combined with You Tube and RSS feeds and iTunes Libraries, will enjoy a stimulating, satisfying and romantic life–provided they are not accessing this new information during inappropriate times such as driving or love-making.

      As far as James Baldwin’s quotation about writing what you know and then deconstructing it, I would add that you can also write well about what you don’t know, providing you do the research.

    • Dear Ryan, this was a well written comment indeed. The kind I like to see on the Hannibal Blog.😉

      I have nothing to say in disagreement. But I might add a spash of perspective:

      1) Always remember that I AM A PRINT JOURNALIST TOO! I’m emotionally close to your father. By nature, I am a cloyingly, nauseatingly nostalgic type.

      2) I counterbalance that with my left brain and history. Example: Your father and I might be said to be the equivalent of monks in 1455. yes, indeed. Monks (ie, monasteries) were the “fedora-hat-wearing” old media at the time gutenberg invented his printing press. They were hand-copying (hence “manu-script”) the books in existence. The printing press distrupted them, and their romance, and their way of life, and getting sloshed in the brewery downstairs after hours. The monks, I hardly need to point out, fought the “new media” for the subsequent century and more. But the new media did not go away. Latin (the monks’ language) declined in importance, vernacular rose. Society changed for the worse and the better. but the monks were left out of it because… they refused to see that society didn’t give a darn about them.

    • Interesting that you have to mention “I AM A PRINT JOURNALIST TOO”:)
      This itself is proof of how all-pervasive online conversations can become.
      Eventually, when all your readers are subscribers of Economist.com instead of Economist, you can proudly call yourself “online journalist only”:)

      I work in the online media industry, and there are times when I look back and think 10 yrs ago, this industry didn’t even exist!

      BTW, a few words on Facebook vs twitter: let me say that I use Facebook news feed much more frequently than blogs, and twitter the least. I find twitter very “limiting”. Facebook news feed for me has multiple options of links, videos, images and comments, while Twitter forces me to limit to 120 characters. There are some thoughts which require longer sentences + images to express. I find Facebook to be a much more evolved online tool than twitter.

  6. All revolutions are the end of an era for some of us. I think it was Douglas Adams who observed that our age determines our attitude to technology. Anything already existing when we are born is normal. Anything that is invented during the first thirty or forty years of our life is new but mostly exciting and we adapt to it. After that we start to feel a bit left behind and when we reach our sixties we are often more likely to feel threatened by new technology as we do not grasp it in the same way we might once have done. Having said this, I know plenty of pensioners who are au fait with internet, MSN, texting, ipods, etc. And a few young people who have gone all retro and refuse to listen to music unless it is on vinyl, as a revolt against the homogenisation of ‘their’ culture.

  7. Ironic that Baldwin should write something like that when most of his literature is about resistance to or an inability to cope with change. His short story ‘Sonny’s Blues’ is, by the way, one of the most compelling pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

  8. No crisis on media. I agree with that, but the paper is needed for our child. To teach them, and May we forgetting about : “how to write the word on paper”, hahaha it’s funny “how to be communicates with other people in the real world?”, hemm It’s obviusly need to direction for our child. I’ts not the end of journalism. But they role is very important. to the more volatile interest by the younger generation. to be more visible pop. to be more funny and easily accepted. science is no longer smell seriously. but to make people laugh..And i think that’s not Renaissance but Re-Laughing…. :)

  9. I am in love with our media (and global) renaissance, and the its contrast against many people coming back down to earth: That we are focusing more on the things we want, with content/food/goods from specialized niches, instead of just being marketed AT, as a part of a broad audience.

    I’m writing an amateur food blog, so a perfect example to me, is someone using an iPhone to find and capture photos at a farmers’ market, then posting images/video of your fantastic finds online or spreading the word about a great vendor on Twitter/Facebook/a blog. Small and pertinent chunklets of information are dispersing through the internet so that people can connect anywhere. In many ways the world expands, and in others, we look for it to contract.

    This easy accessibility to information astounds me on a daily basis, and I also believe that it’s possible for online friends to “get” you better than in-person friends, as that has become a part of my life too. The people in physical proximity can love you for who you are, and the people online can love what you know and are happy to share. Sometimes you are lucky when a person does both.

    I agree that we are definitely in a coming-of-age and can’t wait to see what happens next. This was a very well-written article, thank you!

    • Thanks for checking out the blog! I love when people visit and comment. And your friend’s blog is very cool.

      I just read her description of your blog, and Hannibal, which was interesting because my dad is from Tunisia, where Carthage is. If you ever have a chance to check out Tunisia, do so. The food is great!

      Merçi beaucoup and I will keep reading for sure!

  10. Thanks for reducing a concept to such few words and helping me to understand what’s going on. First off, it intimadated me a bit, but I’m really getting with it. Participation in this new connection seems to have become paramount to everything else. I just LOVE it.

  11. Wonderful article; very apropos. Instead of getting the regurgitated refined news that is PC & corporation friendly, the internet & other communication formats are finally building the web of information that will hopefully lead to a globally accessible discourse. You can count me in as another reader!

    • I watched the trailer and it looks promising!

      Re the old/new, though: I would argue that you are entirely in the “new” world: After all, how are you making me aware of your film? On my blog, with conversation “among” the audience. Just what I meant.

  12. Andreas – delightful and insightful post.
    However one question – has you New Renaissance revolution stopped short of Twitter? I had to be forced to start using it for professional reasons (promo for my book) and am surprised to find it has improved my consumption of media. Following the right people (people with good filters who read in areas I’m interested in – intellectual phriends) has increased the amount of high quality media I’m able to peruse…

    If you’ll excuse the buzzwords – your network on Twitter can be a personalized crowdsourced reading collective.

    For example apropos your thread on Dawkins – here’s a tweet about a science journalism blog that I’d likely never otherwise have discovered

    “Dawkins The Selfish Gene could equally have been called The Cooperative Gene without changing a word of the book http://bit.ly/1XDK3I

    As in real life, with real friends, the trick is choosing carefully who you devote your (ever finite) time to.

    • You, Mr Bhalla, are one of the people I had in mind when I talked about my new “social curation” network. Case in point: that link on Dawkins.

      Re Twitter, specifically, though: I’m feeling more and more tempted to try it, but I confess (as a journalist who wrote about it long before it was popular) that I never quite “got” what it could do for me. I am afraid that the time cost/benefit calculation would turn negative (= “time suck”)

      So, for now, I am still resisting getting my account. But the resistance is getting weaker….

  13. O and I must admit *guiltily raises her hand* to being completely enamored by this new era. Your article is informative and very engaging, thank you again for giving us great tips on how to utilize these new technologies!

  14. I’m an independent graphic designer who loves seeing the results of my work in ink and paper print. In 1989, I hung up my T-square and triangle, and turned to a computer. As output quality rose to meet print industry standards, I learned the software. Younger designers in my office refused to change to computers (they eventually changed professions). In 1999, I started designing websites and encouraged my clients to publish some of their projects on line. In 2009, I’m even more excited about innovations. Most folks my age have long since retired, but I still work and wait for something new to learn and try. Your point of view in your post is delightful. I think the key to surviving and thriving is being able and open to redefining everything. I still like seeing my designs in print so I use printing as a fine art medium now.

  15. No media crisis to worry about?

    Seems to me you’re just very excited about being able to create your own news aggregator. Put up a paywall on most news that traditional media are pumping out at their expense and you’ll be left with a lot of babbling from social networks and little information, biased material from think tanks and some serious but highly specialized information coming from the academic field.

    The fact that you refer to an article that is behind the Economist paywall is, in the context of your article, rather ironic.

    • Actually, I selected the link to the article in The Economist and read it without running into a paywall. I was also able to read complete current articles. I do not have a subscription.

  16. I’m so glad you wrote this post – wondering if the central thesis of your special report still holds. It’s great to see it does.

    A year or so ago, the Economist, in one of its leaders – and I wonder if it was you who wrote it, called on social-networking sites to build more open platforms and to, essentially, begin “talking to each other”. Today, as I see, it is beginning to happen. Facebook, Twitter and AIM allow users to export and import status messages – but they would do well to quickly allow more such content exchange like photos, links, friends etc.

    • Yes, that was me, Kaushik Satish. Thanks for remembering.

      But I’ve since switched beats, so the stuff on social networks you see in The Economist now is by my successor, Martin Giles.

    • Thanks, Guy.
      That’s indeed a worrying article, but its subject is mainly press freedom (in the context of pushy governments), whereas my subject was the overall “media” landscape, including non-press sources.

  17. I am doing my research on: changing media habits of media students in india and i got a vision to SEE the change before i start my topic
    really it is fantastic, curious and realistic!!

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