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:
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
- disassembled many disparate publications and information sources, including sources not traditionally considered “news”, and
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- The audience is deliberately kept small (whereas media companies want large audiences)
- 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.
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:
- A money and profits crisis for owners of media capital.
- 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.