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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Rebecca, The Economist + The Sartorialist

The Sartorialist, not The Economist

+ Sartorialist, - Economist

I keep thinking about a young lady named Rebecca.

Rebecca was being interviewed in a short video at the beginning of a presentation at an event last week at Stanford University. The folks at the Knight Fellowship had teamed up with the Stanford Design School to explore cutting-edge future scenarios of journalism, and were staging a competition among three teams. Each team was to come up with one potential “next big thing” in media, to make a prototype, and then to present it to a panel of three judges. I was one of those judges.

So Rebecca appeared in that video at the start of the third presentation. She was, I think, an MBA student at Stanford, obviously super-bright and media-savvy, busy, ambitious, and all the rest of it. They asked her what her home page was. It was The Economist. So far so good.

She said a few more of the things that my colleagues and I tend to hear when people first discover that we work for The Economist. You know: global, intelligent, cosmopolitan, and things along those lines. Then Rebecca visibly got bored with her own bullshit.

So how much of The Economist do you actually read? her interviewer asked her.

Hardly anything, it turns out. And now Rebecca held forth: To be honest, she really only has The Economist as her home page because, well, that’s what one does in her circles. But she feels no connection to it at all. To her, the tone is that of some robot-like genteel alien preaching to her about what she should know for the next cocktail party. (As a good sport, I made sure that I was laughing and applauding loudest in the hall, for the record. Which was hard, because the hall suddenly seemed full of Rebeccas.)

Alright, continued the interviewer in the video, in that case, where does Rebecca go (if not, apparently, to her own home page)? She named a few sites. But the one she seems to “depend on” most, currently, is The Sartorialist.

And isn’t there a perfect symmetry to that? Officially The Economist, but really The Sartorialist. A site run by one man who

  • loves his subject–fashion in the world’s cosmopolitan cities
  • takes artful and intimate pictures
  • cares not a hoot about whether anybody agrees with his taste, and
  • is rewarded by a growing and steady following (largely from the same demographic as The Economist‘s) for precisely that authenticity.

On The Sartorialist site, Rebecca feels at home and intimate. On our site, she feels like a guest in some snobby show room, feeling (metaphorically) that she has to hold her pee until she finds a place where she is more comfortable asking for the bathroom.

So that’s what I’m thinking about. Here we are at The Economist–having powwows about the future, basking in our no-bylines eccentricities–while the Rebeccas out there politely keep us as their homepage, then bugger off to some other place that “gets” it. We would be foolish, and soulless, not to pay attention to Rebecca.

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More on micropayements in journalism

The two Freakonomics gods of economics, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, have now joined in the debate about whether or not micropayments are the future of newspapers, a debate I first pointed to last week.

Unfortunately, so far they have only sampled views from the people I’ve already linked to. I hope that means they are getting ready for their own economic analysis of the issue. A lot rides on it.

Personally, I still think that the Kindle and its ilk point to the future. Technically, it is not a micropayments platform yet (micro = thousands, not hundreds, of a dollar at a time). But it begins the process of news publications charging modest amounts for a new reading experience, and that is what this is about.

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The conservative Kindle

Just a quick follow-up to Tuesday’s post about this incredible week in matters of the printed word: The article I ended up doing for The Economist focused mostly on the Kindle and its possible effects both on books and on newspapers. My editor Tom wrote a Leader (ie, an Editorial) to go with it (as usual, there is overlap).

As you can see, I see the paper-printed word being cut by a pair of scissors with two blades: one blade is the “conservative” new medium of the Kindle and its ilk (the phrase comes from John Makinson of Penguin); the other blade is the more “radical” edge of mobile-phone apps for reading.

Like Makinson, I consider the Kindle “conservative” because it wants to preserve and improve long-form reading for people like me. Which it does, as I can attest now that I have played with the Kindle 1. So the Kindle as such cannot be something that Penguin’s imprint Riverhead (my publisher) or I as an aspiring author should fear.

I consider the apps (such as Stanza) “radical” because they are more likely to lead to new reading habits among the young, habits that may lead them away from deep immersion in long-form literature. (That is not a criticism, just a hunch.)

I have no doubt, furthermore, that traditional newspapers readers (again, like me) will subscribe through the Kindle and drop their paper subscriptions. One line that got cut from my piece (which must adhere, ironically enough, to the line-count and layout of the paper version), is this: No more soggy newspapers piling up in the rain while the subscriber is out of town on business.

I mean, what of that alleged “sensual” experience that some people claim to get from paper? The print that rubs off from the New York Times? Or the ads of ladies in lingerie next to the table of contents? I am in favor of lingerie. But is this the appropriate place for it? The Kindle saves me from all that nonsense, and gives me a much more focused reading experience, no matter where I am traveling.

Some interesting overmatter that did not make it into the piece:

The Kindle 2 “reads to you”, as Bezos proudly says. He’s not talking about audiobooks but about software that vocalizes the text when you’re, say, driving. As Penguin’s Makinson pointed out, this raises some interesting questions for authors. Is software-powered audio an audio book? Who has rights to it?

Will future Kindles make books “linkable”? The link economy is where Jeff Jarvis thinks the future lies.

And one last frivolous thought: How strange for Bezos to name the thing Kindle, which leads to an immediate association of books and fire–ie, book-burning.

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Do not go gentle: The “dying” newspaper

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The death metaphor for newspapers: It is everywhere. For example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Even The Economist and The Hannibal Blog have used it.

I suspect this is because journalists (and bloggers are journal-ists too) love crisp, primal metaphors, which usually leads to sex or death, if not taxes.

That said, the metaphor is, of course, utter and silly nonsense. In this post I want to suggest why.

Indulge me with a “brief history of the media”, which comes with an R-rating for subjectivity, exaggeration and incompleteness. My point is only to lead up to a new and better metaphor for what is happening to the news industry.

1) Trojan War (ca. 1200 BCE) to ca 750 BCE

The mainstream media of post-Mycenaean and pre-Archaic Greece live* through their heydey of oral story-telling about the great war. Audiences are captive, attendance is good.

An upstart working in a new medium, Homer, disrupts the industry with great success by writing the stories down. After initial concern about the death of oral story-telling, new and smaller audiences form in every Greek polis whenever Homer’s Iliad is read out loud in the Forum, cheering at the precise point in his  long list of Achaean ships when the local hero is named. A consensus emerges that oral story-telling has changed context but is alive and well, benefiting from the written word.

2) High Renaissance: Gutenberg to Aldus Manutius

The mainstream media of monastic Europe, monks, are living through their heyday, transcribing Aristotle by hand (= manuscript) until lunch and getting sloshed in the brewery downstairs thereafter. Readership is elite, limited and assured. Barriers to entry are high.

An upstart working in a new medium, Gutenberg, disrupts the industry with a new patent. An investment bubble leads to other start-ups such as Aldus Manutius who starts printing not Bibles but paperbacks for the masses. The European clergy warns of the death of the media, with dire consequences for civilization. Within a century, gazettes and books are everywhere, literacy is up, vernacular languages flourish, and a consensus emerges even among monks that their calligraphy, though it has a new context, is as sought-after as ever, as well as entirely sufficient to subsidize the goings-on downstairs.

3) Mid-nineteenth century

The radio industry is in its heyday. Recent predictions that radio would cause the death of newspapers and live orchestra performances have turned out to be wrong, with all media flourishing happily. During “prime-time” (a neologism), entire families gather around a large box in the living room to listen to FDR’s fireside chats.

But a new medium challenges the industry. Called “television“, it abhors the mainstream-media tycoons, to whom it is “half Greek, half Latin: no good can come of it.” The death of radio is announced and widely mourned.

Within a decade, it turns out that radio is more popular than ever, though in a new context. It has moved out of the living room and prime time and into the car during commute times. A new heyday is proclaimed.

Lesson

Any history of the media suggests that

  • no medium ever dies when a new medium arrives because
  • the old media instead change context–social, spatial, temporal–and live on happily ever after

What metaphor might capture this idea?

  • From geology: sedimentation
  • From Eastern philosophy: reincarnation

Who knows. But death it ain’t!

So the challenge is much less primal and more subtle than our headlines make it seem: to figure out what the new contexts for our old media will be, in order to prepare them for a new heyday.

*Pedant alert: Media is a plural word, medium is the singular.

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Breaking news: broken news

And an update on yesterday’s post: Yes, this really is quite a “week in the drama of the printed word” (and I write this on Wednesday!). Several heavyweights of the blogosophere have now weighed in on the debate over micropayments and the future of newspapers.

If this interests you, you can stay abreast of it by reading just a few blog posts:

  • Clay Shirky (arguing against micro-payments, previously featured here)
  • Nick Carr (predicting a horrifying bout of blood-letting and creative destruction as the “over-supply” in the news industry corrects itself)
  • Matthew Gertner (rebutting Clay, and starting with a blood-curdling 😉 anecdote about how and why he has just dropped his subscription to …. The Economist!)

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One week in the drama of the printed word

Just a quick alert to those of you who may not follow these matters as obsessively as I do: This is a cacophonous week even by the standards of the echo chamber that houses the pundits who hold forth about “the future of the newspaper” and such matters.

For once, I cannot really weigh in until The Economist‘s next issue is out (on Thursday night), because I am writing on one aspect of this. But I wanted at least to point you to various angles at whose intersection you may independently find … a thought:

  1. Amazon yesterday announced its Kindle 2 (ie, its electronic reading device for books*). I have been trying the Kindle 1 and am on the list to get the Kindle 2. I cannot say more for now.
  2. Google is making available over one million out-of-copyright books for reading on your mobile phone, thus joining many others apps, such as Stanza, that let you do that already.
  3. In case it’s not obvious*, the Kindle lets you receive (wirelessly–yucky word) and read not only books but also newspapers and magazines. In fact, I am about to unsubscribe from my last remaining print newspaper, the New York Times, in order to read only the Kindle, iPhone and web versions.
  4. Into this maelstrom, Walter Isaacson (whose biography of Einstein is in the bibliography of my forthcoming book) has written a cover story in Time Magazine in which he argues that “micro-payments” will save the journalism industry. (Here he is kidding around with Jon Stewart about it.)
  5. Other stalwarts of the industry, such as Michael Kinsley, are already busy dismantling every part of Isaacson’s argument.
  6. To summarize, for those hibernating in an igloo without WiFi: We were confused at the beginning of the week, we are confused in the middle of it, and we will be confused at the end of it.

As I said, I will today try to make sense of at least one part of this mess, and you can read the result in The Economist on Thursday night. It’s one of those rare occurrences when my private interests as a writer and aspiring author overlap with my day job of covering my beat. Yesterday, for instance, I was interviewing the boss of Penguin, John Makinson, about the topic–we began by kidding around, because Penguin, of course, owns Riverhead, where an editor is right now looking at my manuscript.

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